It was 1981. After growing up comfortably in the East Bay and then graduating from Hastings Law School, 26-year-old Stephen Taylor started working at the California Attorney General’s Office in Sacramento. He’d only been there a few months when he heard about a job opening in the San Joaquin County District Attorney’s office in Stockton.
Taylor had never been to Stockton, but having already passed the bar exam, he was anxious to start practicing law. He interviewed and was given the job within weeks. Little did he know he was walking into a veritable madhouse.
“For most of the people, (the office) was their sex life, it was where they got their food ... it’s where they had all their friends, where they met people, it was everything,” he said. “An extremely wild place.”
Now, 30 years later, Taylor still works in the county district attorney’s office. A crusader for small businesses, Taylor, 55, handles big financial cases that usually deal with embezzlement or fraud.
His office desk looks like a law student’s dorm room — legal briefs, law books and various papers spread out all over.
“I know where everything is,” he says.
The district attorney’s office has changed a lot since those crazy ’80s — after years of growth, there have been plenty of layoffs in recent times. There’s still a good relationship among attorneys, Taylor said, although it’s not at all like the uninhibited party days of years past.
“It was just one big fraternity,” Taylor recalls. “At various points in time people were being glued or locked into their offices by other attorneys; you had the love triangles. And the parties were absolutely wild, like frat parties. People being carried home and that kind of stuff.”
Aside from general hijinks and partying, there were also many inter-office love affairs, Taylor said, some of which resulted in marriage. Occasionally, tempers flared and squabbling broke out — once, two male attorneys even came to blows in a library, knocking over a bookcase in the process.
“And they were best friends,” Taylor said.
Taylor is not a small fellow — at 6-foot-4 and of stocky build, he can be quite an intimidating presence in a courtroom. Most of his pictures from his early years show him with large, round glasses that cover nearly half of his face, taking some of the edge off of the intimidation factor. (The glasses are gone now.) But then he talks, and his deep baritone carries swiftly through a room. No matter how dull a court proceeding may be, everyone takes notice when Taylor speaks.
Then there’s Taylor’s demeanor: He’s certainly not shy, and isn’t afraid to speak his mind. And the reason for his outspokenness?
“Try being the only black kid in an all Irish and Italian-American Catholic school in the ’60s,” he said.
Taylor seems to relish his oratory bravado. One of his trademark strategies in trial, he said, is to practically ridicule the defendant and have the jury laughing at them.
“You get them laughing at the defendant because their excuses are just laughable,” he said.
Taylor also recounts the case of a black man who accused a white cop of misconduct against him. The racism angle was going to be played up, Taylor said — until the black deputy district attorney walked in.
“They were so upset when I walked in,” Taylor recalls with a smile.
Needless to say, the accuser didn’t win.
An academic pedigree, and a financial interest
Taylor’s family moved to Oakland from the St. Louis area in 1949, and his father was one of the first black doctors to settle in the area. From a young age, Taylor developed an appreciation for money. It started with a soda machine he was able to buy, via credit, at just 12 years old. He put it in his father’s medical office, and said he filled half of it with grape soda.
“If you know anything about black folks, we were selling out every other day,” Taylor said. “I just plugged it in, and the money came rolling in, as long as we had lots of purple soda.”
Taylor pulled in $200 a month from that vending machine; a nice chunk of change for a kid in the 1960s. It was so much money, in fact, that Taylor’s parents cut off his allowance.
Growing up, Taylor and his three brothers were essentially given two choices for careers: medical school or law school. The high expectations were a result of Taylor’s family history — besides his surgeon father, Taylor’s grandfather had been a chemistry professor.
“It was just that simple: Law or medicine, choose one, we’d like you to go to medicine,” Taylor said. “So I chose law. I’m non-compliant.”
Two of his brothers chose the same path, also getting law degrees. The remaining brother became a surgeon like their father.
Taylor’s need to keep an eye on his soda machine led him to start working in the back office of his father’s medical practice, he said. Eventually he started taking care of the office’s financial records, and his interest in money inspired him to get an economics and business degree, with a heavy focus in accounting.
Even once he went to law school, it was the commercial law classes that drew Taylor’s interest. Upon graduation, Taylor figured he’d end up being a bank lawyer. But he didn’t get a firm offer in the banking industry, so he went to work with the attorney general’s office.
That job wasn’t permanent, though, and parking and rent were costing him about $500 a month, plus he was paying for his own health care. When the full-time job in San Joaquin County’s district attorney’s office became available, it seemed like an enticing possibility.
Joining the prosecution
When Taylor interviewed with the district attorney’s office, he did something few people might have the gall to pull off: He argued with an interviewer. An assistant district attorney, the late Alvan Norris, was one of the three people who interviewed Taylor. The pair got into an argument during the interview in which the 26-year-old Taylor told his prospective superior that he was completely wrong.
“I left the interview thinking, ‘That was a waste of time; these people are morons,’” Taylor said. “I found out later the whole game was to see what you were like when you were pushed or confronted. ... That’s how they interviewed people: They yell at them, the ones that yell back they hire. I yelled back.”
When hired, Taylor was the youngest person in the office, and only the second black attorney. But perhaps most importantly, he was also the only attorney with a business background.
“They gave me the consumer fraud section within six months of arrival,” he said. “Nobody wanted it.”
Aside from fraud, Taylor also spent 12 years working on violent sexual predator cases. These days, he sticks mostly with big financial cases, especially involving embezzlement.
“I’m still doing the business cases that nobody wants,” he joked. “I can tear apart a set of books better than anybody else working here.”
And he’s having fun doing it. Steve Hoslett is a forensic CPA who has been working cases with Taylor for a few years. He said it’s obvious how much Taylor enjoys embezzlement and fraud cases.
“He’s got a passion for prosecuting,” Hoslett said. “He’s got a lot of experience in the fraud arena; he’s literally dealt with dozens and dozens of cases over the years.”
Taylor also never misses an opportunity to publicize a case. He sends frequent press releases out when alleged embezzlers go to trial or get arrested, which Hoslett said is meant to help prevent embezzlement.
“He likes to put every case he can out in the public ... so that business owners take notice and check their books,” he said.
And even though he handles a lot of numbers and financial statements, Taylor said his job is never dull.
“Every week, something comes through the door you’ve never seen before,” he said. “There’s just endless entertainment.”
Contact reporter Fernando Gallo at firstname.lastname@example.org.