Courts & Crime

Extreme underdog with troubled past challenges Sacramento DA

"Underdog" barely begins to describe the candidacy of Julius M. Engel, who has laid down the first challenge in 16 years to incumbent Sacramento County District Attorney Jan Scully.

Not only is he opposing a four-term incumbent in the June 8 primary, Engel has the added difficulty of having to explain his own résumé, which is disfigured by unfortunate twists and turns.

In 1985, Engel's application to become a Stockton police officer was rejected because of what a department-hired psychologist described as his "mental unsuitability."

In 1994, he was fired as a staff counsel by what is now the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

In 2006, the law firm he worked for was disbanded and four of its principals were federally indicted on charges of filing false tax returns and skimming profits. Three of them pleaded guilty, and the other's case is pending. In 1991, Engel worked for another firm that went under as a result of a federal bill-padding indictment.

Despite the bumps on his career path, Engel insists he has come through it all unblemished. He said he's now running for DA because "it's time for a change." He said he has more real-life experience than Scully and a touch for the way people think that she lacks.

"We want one of us," Engel said. "We want a person who understands us in there, and I am that person."

Engel, 53, is a Canadian from Montreal who moved to the United States as a teenager and served in the Army and Air Force. He got his law degree from McGeorge School of Law while working as a prison guard and correctional counselor. He worked briefly in the Yolo County District Attorney's Office, prosecuting misdemeanors. He also worked briefly as a labor lawyer for what is now the California Statewide Law Enforcement Association.

He has handled bankruptcies and other civil matters and some criminal cases for assorted private firms. He has run his own practice for two years out of a small, spare office on Auburn Boulevard. He has run for judge three times and lost on each occasion.

He worked as a reserve police officer in Roseville from 1985 to 1994 and made a good impression on one of his partners.

"He rode with me quite a bit," said Stan Lumsden, who is now a Roseville police captain. "He had a great sense of humor, a super-sharp guy. He seemed like he had a load of common sense. He was extremely driven, even in those days."

Sacramento criminal defense lawyer Mark Reichel, who is now opposing Engel on a civil case, called the challenger "quite a character" and "a compassionate guy" with "a lot of passion for the law."

"He'd be good at anything he does," Reichel said.

Right now, Engel's big project is taking on Scully. He said he's challenging her because nobody else will.

"I think we need a breath of fresh air," Engel said. "I've waited – I thought someone else would run, but where are they? No one is running but me."

Scully, he said, "has been a government lawyer her whole life. She's never been a criminal defense attorney, never been a civil attorney." Under Scully, Engel contended the DA's Office has been marked by "entrenchments" and "cronyism."

The incumbent maintained that under her direction, the District Attorney's Office "is constantly changing to meet the needs of the community."

"We are changing," Scully said. "We're very productive. We partner. We don't just take cases to court. We work to prevent crime. We work to educate the community so they can be better partners to help make our community safer."

Among other things, Engel blasted Scully for not prosecuting police officers for misconduct. He cited one specific sheriff's deputy, William Kevin Sowles, who was fired in 2004 for slapping a jail inmate. Scully's office did file a case against Sowles, but it was later dismissed.

Sowles also happens to be the officer who arrested Engel's wife, Mary, in 2003 on a child endangerment count. The deputy responded to the Engel residence on a complaint from Child Protective Services about an unsafe home, according to a July 29, 2004, DA's response letter to Engel.

His wife pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor, and the case was dismissed after she completed three years' probation and 45 days on the sheriff's work project. Engel also was charged with a misdemeanor, but the case against him was dismissed and expunged.

Engel called Sowles "a cop with a bad temper who made all this happen." He called the affair "a non-crime." His wife, however, "got scared and pled," Engel said.

As for his record, Engle said he picked up the "mental unsuitability" tag with the Stockton police psychologist because he's not afraid to file grievances against employers who wrong him.

"You're supposed to roll over and be quiet?" he said. "Then they embarrass you by saying it's psychological."

Engel said he got fired from his corrections lawyer job because his bosses were angry that he ran for Sacramento County district attorney in 1994 without telling them first. (His boss at the time declined to comment for this story.) That experience, Engel said, has prompted him to continue to seek public office.

"This is a right, folks," he said.

Engel said he had nothing to do with corruption at the two law firms he worked for, "and nobody ever said I did."

Married with three college-age children, Engel said he came to Sacramento nearly 30 years ago to get his start in life and that it's mainly all worked out pretty well for him.

"I love public service," he said. "I love this county. My kids were born and raised here, and I think I have so much I can offer."

Read the full story at the Sacramento Bee.