When Frank Pierson was Stanislaus County's top prosecutor more than a half-century ago, he captured the public's imagination by sending Esther May Helwinkel of Turlock to prison for life, for using arsenic to poison a husband she met through a lonely hearts club.
His successor, Alexander Wolfe, made waves in 1961, when he prosecuted the managers of Modesto's Covell Theater on obscenity charges, for showing minors an early nudie film called "Not Tonight, Henry," in which a husband imagined amorous pairings with Cleopatra and some of history's other famous paramours.
Next came Donald Stahl, who presided over the district attorney's office for 23 years and grabbed national headlines in 1978, when he sent Lawrence Singleton to prison for raping a teenage hitchhiker, chopping off her arms and leaving her for dead in a ditch near Patterson.
The men -- who represent different eras in the never-ending cycle of crime and punishment -- will be honored Monday at a reception at the district attorney's new office space at 12th and I streets in downtown Modesto.
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District Attorney Birgit Fladager planned to hold the reception once the renovation of her third-floor lobby is complete, but sped up the timetable after her former boss, James C. Brazelton, died unexpectedly in September.
"We thought it would be nice to have them come over," Fla-dager said. "They can see how big we are and how much we've grown since they were DA."
A portion of the lobby will eventually become a conference room. Photos of Brazelton (1996 to 2005), Stahl (1973 to 1996), Wolfe (1961 to 1973) and Pierson (1955 to 1961) will go up now, along with a plaque that lists district attorneys stretching back into the 1800s.
Shakespeare never tried this
As prosecutors, they held a special place among public servants, because they had to play by the rules to get the bad guys, and sometimes found themselves confronted with situations that even Shakespeare could not have imagined.
Pierson, 84, Wolfe, 77 and Stahl, 73, said they are pleased to be remembered.
They are also eager to get a peek at a training room designed to host multimedia presentations, something unheard of in their day, and an imaging system that preserves documents they would have filed away in evidence boxes.
Modesto didn't have a gang problem or enough illegal drugs to fuel an underground economy when Pierson was the district attorney, though he watched the volume of crime grow during the 31 years he served as a judge.
Pierson recalled having three deputies at his beck and call and handling three or four murder cases a year. Today, 65 alleged murderers await trial and 50 lawyers who answer to Fladager file more than 5,800 felony and 2,000 misdemeanor cases each year.
"Some people are unable to control their emotions," said Pierson, who sent a father to the gas chamber for convincing his son to kill his wife. "Whether it's for greed or jealousy or what-ever."
Wolfe's obscenity trial ended with a hung jury, with eight people voting for a conviction, three voting for acquittal and one undecided.
But the district attorney felt that he made his point. Back then, a street sign said Modesto had 44,000 friendly people. Wolfe had support from enough of them to get re-elected, but the movie he took issue with would seem tame by today's standards.
"The standards were a lot different than what they are now," Wolfe said. He can still be seen around the courthouse from time to time, handling the defense of an occasional case.
The office had a dozen prosecutors when Wolfe passed the baton to Stahl, but that number mushroomed to more than 40 by the time Stahl retired.
In that time, war protests and a "let it all hang out" philosophy of the late 1960s and early 1970s gave way to a tough-on-crime outlook, and DNA evidence became the norm.
Stahl's biggest case prompted reforms to California's sentencing laws, because the public was outraged when Singleton was paroled after eight years in prison. Later, Singleton was sent to death row in Florida, for the murder of a prostitute. He died of cancer in 2002, at 74.
"It was flabbergasting," Stahl said, noting that Singleton's release would be unlikely under today's standards. "The public, they were mesmerized by it. They couldn't believe it happened."
Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2338.