James Brazelton, the man who ran the Stanislaus County district attorney's office for nine years and led the prosecution team that convicted double-murderer Scott Peterson, died Monday afternoon at Memorial Medical Center in Modesto. He was 66.
His death came as a shock to his former second-in-command, Assistant District Attorney Carol Shipley, who rushed to the intensive care unit in the late afternoon to find that he had died.
Shipley said she saw Brazelton at a Lions Club meeting a week ago and believed he was in good health and high spirits. He had been in the hospital for a few days, but she said she did not know what caused his death.
"He was a tough prosecutor. He was one of the best in the courtroom. And he had a heart of gold when it came to friends and family," she said.
Brazelton resigned in July 2005, saying he had been offered a lucrative position with a San Clemente firm that operates a bad-check collection program.
About two weeks ago, he was spotted in the courthouse handling a civil case. He said he had parted ways with American Corrective Counseling Services Inc. but wanted to stay busy. He quipped that he needed to make money because his wife liked to spend it, a lighthearted comment he frequently shared.
He kept his hand in local politics after he stepped down, supporting chief deputy prosecutor Birgit Fladager, who won the district attorney's seat in a June 2006 election.
He also kept in touch with friends such as Ron Grantski, the longtime companion of Sharon Rocha, Laci Peterson's mother. The first time they met, Grantski and his family were deluged by the media hordes that followed the search for Laci and the trial of her husband, Scott.
Grantski recalled hoping that this cocky son of a gun, Brazelton, knew what he was doing. By the time Peterson was sent to death row for killing his wife and unborn son, he was convinced that Brazelton was a straight shooter who made sure his staff got the job done.
"I could ask him anything, and he never sugar-coated it," Grantski said.
Brazelton died shortly after 4 p.m., leaving behind a wife, Patricia, as well as three sons and a stepson. Shipley said family members may release a statement today. An announcement about funeral arrangements will follow.
News of his death spread quickly in political circles.
"He was an amazing advocate," said Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Ricardo Córdova, a former public defender who used to spar with Brazelton. "He was really passionate in what he believed."
"He had his ups and downs in politics, but he took advice," said former Supervisor Paul Caruso.
A civil grand jury chastised Brazelton twice, accusing him of inappropriate behavior in the prosecutor's office because he allegedly simulated the drawing and firing of a gun while making derogatory comments about two Bee reporters. Brazelton steadfastly denied those claims.
Questions about Brazelton's health swirled in 1999, when his skin tone fluctuated between ashen gray and yellow. Brazelton said he was overmedicated by a physician. His complexion cleared.
By the time he retired, Brazelton had tried 35 murder cases and sent five men to death row. He was best known for prosecuting a cultlike group that committed the 1991 Salida massacre that left four dead. He sent three defendants to death row and the other two to prison for life.
Defense attorney Ernie Spokes said he and Brazelton were known as Frick and Frack when they were deputies in the district attorney's office. They grew more distant when Brazelton became the boss and Spokes moved to the private sector, but memories of the old days, and a mutual admiration, remained.
"He was a hell of a prosecutor, there's no question about that," Spokes said. "When he girded up, it was like Caesar going to war. He was undefeatable."
Bee staff writer Tim Moran contributed to this report.
Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2338.