After years of high-profile cases, federal prosecutor takes Sacramento judgeship

Twenty-one years ago, a federal firearms agent named Greg Barnett walked into the Sacramento office of federal prosecutor Steve Lapham and plunked a fat file down on the desk.

“This is a serial bomber,” Barnett declared. “We don’t know who he is. He’s been around a long time, but we haven’t heard from him since 1987. He’s only killed one person, and that was here, so we have the only hook left. The statute has run on everything else. Look at it and tell me what you think.”

Barnett, now retired, recently recalled that he “kind of felt bad laying it on (Lapham). The trail had gone cold.

“An agent in Chicago told me about someone he talked to who had a convoluted theory that the bomber was a young adult in the Chicago area addicted to Dungeons and Dragons. So I figured I would have Steve take a look. He was the go-to guy for me and a lot of others” in what was then the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, now the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The investigation was then dormant. Three months later, however, the Unabomber struck twice in rapid succession, injuring a computer science professor at Yale University and a University of California geneticist with devices mailed from Sacramento.

A task force was revived with Lapham on the team in a strategic location in Sacramento.

Theodore John “Ted” Kaczynski killed two more people: Thomas Mosser, a New Jersey advertising executive, and Gilbert Murray, president of the California Forestry Association in Sacramento. Hugh Scrutton, a computer store owner, had been killed in 1985 in Sacramento.

Agents arrested Kaczynski April 3, 1996, at a cabin outside Lincoln, Mont. In Sacramento in 1998, he pleaded guilty to all charges encompassing 16 homemade bombs mailed or placed between 1978 and 1995. He is serving life without parole at a federal supermax prison near Florence, Colo.

Lapham was one of three prosecutors in the case, just one of the high-profile assignments he had in his 291/2 years in the U.S. Attorney's Office, Eastern District of California, where since 2010 he served as chief of the Special Prosecution Unit.

Now, he is leaving his 11th floor office in the federal courthouse for a new job, that of Sacramento Superior Court judge. Gov. Jerry Brown named the self-described liberal to the bench earlier this month.

“It’s hard to sum up a career like Steve’s,” said U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner. “There are not very many people who can handle any type of case we prosecute, but he pretty much did. Nothing fazes him. Under the most stressful circumstances, he is as cool as a cucumber.”

In an interview before leaving the job he cherished for so long, Lapham, 61, recalled his role in the bloody history of the Unabomber. One of his responsibilities was to dissect the 40,000 pages of Kaczynski writings found in the cabin.

Lapham debunked the commonly held notion THAT Kaczynski was a brilliant but deranged idealist whose bombs were aimed at people he saw as perpetuating the industrial and technological revolutions corrupting society and despoiling the environment.

“He first decided he wanted to become a killer,” Lapham said. “Then, he carefully selected his targets. He was not initially moved by a desire to avenge the lost quality of our lives. He simply wanted to kill.”

A reputation of integrity and fairness

Robert Steven Lapham was born and grew up in San Bernardino, the youngest of four children. He earned an undergraduate degree in history at UCLA and a law degree at the University of California Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco.

His ambition was to be a federal prosecutor, and he applied at the U.S. attorney’s office in San Francisco where he was told, “ ‘You’ve got good credentials, kid. Come back when you have some trials under your belt,’ ” Lapham recalled.

After 31/2 years in a private firm in San Francisco’s Financial District, he circulated résumés to the U.S. attorneys in all four federal judicial districts in California. Sacramento had an opening.

He forged a reputation for fairness.

Assistant Federal Defender Timothy Zindel said the criminal defense bar respects Lapham for his integrity and pragmatism. “There are stories of Steve woodshedding government witnesses – including cops – he suspected of lying on the stand. I have called him late at night to ask hard questions and have never doubted his candor.”

“First and foremost, he is a very decent man,” said Clyde Blackmon, a respected defense lawyer who is media shy, like Lapham. “Secondly, he’s a good lawyer. He’s never been anything but fair and straight up with me.

“I’ve tried cases against him. He doesn’t cut corners, but he doesn’t give away the store either. He’s a reasonable guy who knows how to evaluate a case, and he has empathy for some of the people caught up in the criminal justice system. That’s pretty unusual in a prosecutor, and that will stand him in good stead as a judge.”

Barnett, the firearms agent, agreed. “It was never about winning or losing with Steve,” he said. “He was never on a crusade. It was: ‘What is the just thing here?’ He epitomized the ‘justice’ in Department of Justice.”

The worst thing any of his former opponents will say is that Lapham’s appearance – he is always immaculately groomed and well-dressed – probably gave him an unfair advantage with female jurors.

George Romero, a Gold River neighbor and fellow cyclist, described Lapham in a telephone interview as “one of the most honest, smartest, caring persons I’ve ever known.”

Lapham “will stop and help in situations where anybody else would just ride on by. You know, somebody is hurt, a dog without a collar, somebody with a flat,” Romero said, adding, “he is a great fund of knowledge, especially about history.”

During the Lapham interview, he was asked about a picture on his office wall – not the one of Jackie Robinson stealing home (“I bleed Dodger blue,” he said.) but the one of an imposing figure in a military uniform.

He explained that it was Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, the highly decorated Union officer and professor at Bowdoin College. Lapham then grabbed a yellow legal pad and began drawing the battlefield at Gettysburg, where Chamberlain’s 20th Maine fought off repeated attacks by the 15th Alabama and eventually captured the Confederates.

“He was the right man in a critical place, in a critical battle, in a critical war, in a critical time in our history,” he said. “Few can match that.”

When told of Lapham’s lesson on Gettysburg, Wagner related another story: Lapham had sketched the Battle of Chancellorsville on a conference room whiteboard – with indelible ink. The board had to be discarded.

Prominent cases and proudest accomplishment

Lapham had a well-earned national reputation as one of the U.S. Department of Justice’s most skilled prosecutors of cases involving arson, explosives and weapons of mass destruction.

“He has an intellectual way of approaching these cases that most people don’t have,” Barnett said. “He thinks outside the box. I know it made my career a lot better.

“You could come to him with a set of facts, and he could read them in a number of different ways, some you hadn’t even thought of. It created a rewarding experience for (ATF) agents. Young agents, especially, could learn so much from him.”

The so-called “UNABOM” investigation cranked up again just as Lapham was preparing for the trial of Constantine “Koko” Pappadopoulos, a prominent Sacramento developer, builder and property investor, who, with his wife, Katherine, was found guilty in June 1993 of plotting the arson of their Arden Oaks mansion for the insurance money. Before sentencing, Constantine fled to his Greek homeland, abandoning Katherine and their two teenage sons.

On the second day after Constantine absconded, Lapham recalled, he was summoned out of a meeting about the new fugitive. It was Pappadopoulos calling. He wanted to let Lapham know he was in Greece, so Lapham wouldn't “waste a lot of time and effort looking for him.” Lapham thanked him for that, but pointed out his wife of 25 years may face a harsher sentence because he jumped bail.

“That’s her problem,” Lapham quoted Constantine as replying.

Other Lapham cases:

• Mark C. Anderson, who was sentenced in 2012 to 27 years in prison for torching a Mare Island warehouse in 2005 containing hundreds of millions of dollars in fine wine, the most costly single disaster in the history of the American wine industry.

• Alexander Piggee, who was sentenced to 15 years in 2011 for setting a blaze the year before that devoured much of Westfield Galleria at Roseville.

• Eric McDavid, who was sentenced in 2008 to 19 years and seven months for conspiring with two others in the name of the Earth Liberation Front to blow up a U.S. Forest Service genetics lab in Placerville and the Nimbus Dam and neighboring fish hatchery in Rancho Cordova.

• Tanh Huu Lam, who was sentenced in 1999 to life without the possibility of parole for instigating the 1997 firebombing of a Carmichael home where a 9-year-old girl burned to death.

• White supremacist brothers Benjamin Matthew Williams and James Tyler Williams, who were sentenced in 2001 to 30 years and 21 years and three months, respectively, for torching three Sacramento synagogues and an abortion clinic in 1999. Benjamin Matthew Williams committed suicide in jail.

• Kevin Ray Patterson and Charles Dennis Kiles, who were sentenced in 2002 to 24 years and 22 years, respectively, for their big talk about blowing up a huge propane storage facility at Grant Line Road and Highway 99 in hopes of bringing down the U.S. government.

The list goes on, but Lapham cites another achievement. “At the end of the day,” he said, “my proudest accomplishment is raising a daughter who believes in treating all human beings fairly.”

Of the work he is leaving, Lapham said, “I think I will miss it, but it seems like the right thing to do. This is a high-pressure job.”

“I look forward to lowering the frenetics, a phone that’s not ringing all the time, not going from one meeting to the next and concentrating on one case at a time.”