Don Heller, Squeaky Fromme prosecutor, prominent Sacramento defense attorney, dies at 79

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Donald H. Heller, a giant in Sacramento’s legal community who helped prosecute would-be presidential assassin Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme before becoming one of the region’s most prominent defense attorneys, died Wednesday after a long illness. He was 79.

Heller gained prominence as a prosecutor for his work with then-U.S. Attorney Dwayne Keyes in the prosecution of Fromme, a Charles Manson follower who was arrested after attempting to shoot President Gerald R. Ford in Sacramento’s Capitol Park on Sept. 5, 1975.

President Gerald Ford is shielded by the Secret Service after an assassination attempt by Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme on Sept. 15, 1975. President Ford had spoken at a “Host Breakfast,” and was walking to California’s state Capitol in Sacramento.
President Gerald Ford is shielded by the Secret Service after an assassination attempt by Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme on Sept. 15, 1975. President Ford had spoken at a “Host Breakfast,” and was walking to California’s state Capitol in Sacramento.

His influence in California legal circles stemmed in part from his involvement with the death penalty, first as the lawyer who wrote an initiative that allowed California to resume capital punishment, then as an ardent foe of the death penalty who fought to have it overturned.

“It’s a great loss to the community and to the legal profession,” Sacramento defense attorney Malcolm Segal said. “Don was an excellent defense attorney from the day he left the U.S. Attorney’s Office over 40 years ago. It’s a sad day for all of us.”

Attorney Donald Heller stands at the entrance to the Robert T. Matsui U.S. Courthouse in downtown Sacramento, where he fought for many clients as a defense attorney.
Attorney Donald Heller stands at the entrance to the Robert T. Matsui U.S. Courthouse in downtown Sacramento, where he fought for many clients as a defense attorney.

Chief U.S. District Judge Kimberly J. Mueller recalled learning from Heller even as a judge.

“Don was well-established as a leading light in the federal bar when I became an attorney,” she wrote in an email to The Sacramento Bee. “By the time I started judging, he was one of the seasoned veterans who helped school me up.

“I will always remember one hearing during which I protested that mercy was way above my pay grade. Don looked straight at me with a smile, eyes dancing, and said, ‘Oh no it’s not, your honor!’ I still resist the notion that a judge dispenses mercy, but Don’s words have stayed with me, informing over time my greater understanding of a judge’s discretion and how to exercise it, hopefully well.”

Heller continued to be involved in major cases in recent years, representing William “Rick” Singer, the architect of the “Operation Varsity Blues” college admissions bribery scheme, and was known as a lawyer so tenacious that he earned the nickname “Mad Dog” as a sign of affection from friends.

‘Good criminal lawyer’ from the start

Senior U.S. District Judge William B. Shubb recalled meeting Heller when Shubb was the chief assistant in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in 1973 and Keyes hired Heller to handle land condemnation cases.

“His resume did not appear to reflect an interest or experience in land condemnation cases, so we talked to him and he said he was interested in getting out of criminal law,” Shubb said, so Keyes hired him.

Shubb recalled going to sit in the back of the courtroom to watch Heller handle his first case “and he did not appear to be a land condemnation lawyer.”

“He had all the markings of a good criminal lawyer, which we knew he was, so we put him in the criminal division,” Shubb said.

Once there, Heller ended up being tapped to assist Keyes with the Fromme prosecution, something that sparked a professional rivalry with Bruce Babcock Jr., another, more experienced prosecutor who thought he should have had the case, Shubb said.

Later, the two became close friends, and when Babcock became ill “Don just visited him every day when Bruce was ill with cancer,” Shubb said.

“Don took me over to Bruce’s house to essentially say goodbye to him,” Shubb said. “That’s the kind of a friend and man Don Heller was.”

‘Mad Dog’ was opinionated, sought out

But Heller never shied from telling people what he thought.

Once, when he was prosecuting a case, Heller made a public statement that “there ought to be a death penalty for this crime, and if there was he would like to personally pull the switch,” Shubb said, prompting Shubb to have a light switch mounted on a plaque and presented to Heller with a metal tag that read, “The Switch.”

Another time, Heller was defending lobbyist Clay Jackson against an attempted bribery charge. Jackson was a former $2 million-a-year lobbyist and the insurance industry’s premier advocate in the California Legislature.

The high-profile case pitted him against Alan Robbins, the government’s star witness and once a powerful state senator who chaired the Senate Insurance Committee. Robbins had been ensnared in the Capitol corruption investigation in the early 1990s, pleaded guilty, and agreed to cooperate with the prosecution.

Denny Walsh, The Bee’s longtime federal courts reporter, once asked Heller for his opinion on Robbins’ role in the probe.

“As long as the sewers are running Alan Robbins will never lack for transportation,” Heller replied.

Heller was a respected member of the Anthony M. Kennedy Inn of Court, which promotes ethics in the law, and Shubb said Heller was sought out by younger members for advice.

“Don was one of the lawyers that they looked to to give ethical advice,” Shubb said. “So some people may say, ‘He’s Mad Dog, he’s gone too far,’ but no, he was one of those lawyers that they’d look to, a good senior lawyer to advise them.”

Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Donald Heller portrait taken on August 19, 2013, in Sacramento. Heller helped to prosecute Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme after her attempt on President Gerald Ford’s life in 1975.
Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Donald Heller portrait taken on August 19, 2013, in Sacramento. Heller helped to prosecute Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme after her attempt on President Gerald Ford’s life in 1975.

U.S. District Judge Dale Drozd said Heller was single-minded when it came to his job.

“Don had one goal in mind, and that was what was best for his client,” Drozd said.

He recalled when the two were defense lawyers going to trial with co-defendants.

“I remember saying, ‘Hey, Don, is your client going to testify, and if so what’s his version of what happened?’ Drozd said. “And Don gave me that version of his sly grin and said, ‘Well, we’re going to start trial and then we’ll find out.”

Heller’s son Joshua said his father died at home, surrounded by family, and that even toward the end his father was trying to help his clients.

“Basically, the day before he died he was making sure they had legal counsel to move forward on their cases,” Heller said.

Heller is survived by his wife of 46-years, Lesley, sons Michael and Joshua, daughter Alexandra, daughter-in-law Dolly, and grandchildren Jacob, Samuel and Leonard.

A public memorial service is planned for 3 p.m. Friday at Mosaic Law Congregation, 2300 Sierra Blvd.

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