The Downfall

On a cold clear day in Jan­u­ary 1987, Wen­dell Blake was pick­ing up trash in Siev­er Manufacturing’s Los Ange­les plant park­ing lot at 9:30 a.m. when he heard the grat­ing sound of met­al scrap­ing against met­al and looked up to see a tall man he rec­og­nized from com­pa­ny town-hall meet­ings, walk­ing between cars four rows away, lean­ing toward the car on his right with his arm down at his side. The scrap­ing sound stopped when the man came to the rear of the car. He walked on through the lot to a gray Mer­cedes, climbed in, and drove away.

Although Blake hadn’t actu­al­ly seen the man’s hand come in con­tact with the car, he was cer­tain he had keyed it. A clos­er look at the car con­firmed his con­clu­sion. A deep scar ran along its side from head­light to taillight.

It took Blake an hour to muster the courage to report what he’d seen to security.

The fol­low­ing week, Siev­er fired James Lock­hart, its Chief Oper­at­ing Offi­cer, for van­dal­iz­ing an employee’s car. Lock­hart denied scratch­ing the car and sued Siev­er. My law firm rep­re­sent­ed the com­pa­ny, and I was assigned to defend the case.

Lockhart’s per­son­nel file glowed in the dark. He received uni­form­ly excel­lent per­for­mance reviews through­out his 36 years with the com­pa­ny, climb­ing the cor­po­rate lad­der steadi­ly to become its sec­ond high­est-rank­ing exec­u­tive with a half-mil­lion-dol­lar annu­al salary.

1984 Chevro­let Caprice

Joyce Aguilar owned the scratched car, a blue 1984 Chevro­let Caprice. It was unmarked when she parked it in the lot the morn­ing Lock­hart walked by. Five employ­ees had report­ed van­dal­ism of their cars in Siever’s lot since the fall of 1986, all scratched in the same man­ner as Aguilar’s Caprice. All the employ­ees, includ­ing Aguilar, worked in low-lev­el jobs. None of them had ever dealt direct­ly with Lockhart.

Lockhart’s work cal­en­dar con­firmed he left the build­ing the day in ques­tion at 9:30 a.m. to attend an off-site meet­ing and he was present at the plant when the oth­er five cars were keyed.

Blake had worked for Siev­er for six years as a Cus­to­di­an in the Main­te­nance Depart­ment. His per­son­nel file was unre­mark­able: aver­age rat­ings, no com­men­da­tions, no dis­ci­pline. He had nev­er inter­act­ed with Lockhart.

I could find no motive for Lock­hart to van­dal­ize Aguilar’s car or for Blake to lie about him.

Ward Dun­ham, the CEO, made the deci­sion to dis­charge Lock­hart. “Blake was afraid he’d be fired for going against Jim,” he told me. “I admired him for com­ing for­ward, and I believed him. When I met with Jim, his angry denials didn’t ring true. Under­neath his defen­sive­ness, I sensed some sort of prob­lem. I tried to get him to open up, but that only made him angri­er. If he’d admit­ted the van­dal­ism, we might have been able to work some­thing out, but he wouldn’t give an inch. I felt I had no choice but to let him go.”

I ques­tioned Blake in Siever’s con­fer­ence room. A short stocky African Amer­i­can man, push­ing forty, dressed in grease-smudged kha­ki work clothes, he answered my ques­tions in a halt­ing voice for an hour. I couldn’t shake his story.

His answer to my last ques­tion was telling. “Why did you come for­ward, Mr. Blake?” I asked. “Why didn’t you lay low to stay out of trouble?”

He gave me a tired look. “The next car he scratched would be my fault much as him.”

I believed Blake.

I took Lockhart’s depo­si­tion. Six­ty-two years old, six-feet-four with a mane of gray hair, dressed in a blue suit, white shirt, and yel­low tie, he was a por­trait of integri­ty. He said he’d worked long and hard to build a suc­cess­ful career at Siev­er. “The idea that I’d throw it all away to van­dal­ize someone’s auto­mo­bile is ludicrous.”

I believed Lockhart.

Some­thing had to give. Either Blake was mis­tak­en or Lock­hart was men­tal­ly ill. It wor­ried me that Blake hadn’t actu­al­ly seen Lockhart’s hand press­ing a key against the car. I had Blake take me to the park­ing lot and walk me through the inci­dent. The facts and cir­cum­stances seemed con­clu­sive. Based on what Blake saw and heard, Lock­hart keyed the car.

I hired a pri­vate inves­ti­ga­tor to comb through Lockhart’s back­ground. The first from his fam­i­ly to go to col­lege, he joined Siev­er as an entry-lev­el man­ag­er and excelled in every job he held as he rose to the top. He’d been hap­pi­ly mar­ried for 34 years and was active in church, com­mu­ni­ty, and char­i­ta­ble orga­ni­za­tions. If he was men­tal­ly ill, he hid it well.

Since I couldn’t con­vince myself Lock­hart was lying even though Siev­er was pay­ing me, I fig­ured unbi­ased jurors might give him the ben­e­fit of the doubt. To avoid that risk, I decid­ed to try to take the case away from the jury.

The law of wrong­ful dis­charge was evolv­ing in Cal­i­for­nia. Some courts implied a com­pa­ny could fire an employ­ee only for “just cause,” an objec­tive stan­dard. Oth­ers held that a dis­charge deci­sion was law­ful if it was made in good faith. Under that stan­dard, Lockhart’s ter­mi­na­tion might be law­ful if Siev­er sin­cere­ly believed he keyed Aguilar’s car, whether or not he real­ly did it.

Cit­ing that case law, I filed a motion ask­ing the judge to enter a judg­ment in Siever’s favor as a mat­ter of law with­out a jury tri­al because there was no evi­dence Siev­er fired Lock­hart for any rea­son oth­er than its good faith belief he van­dal­ized Aguilar’s car.

As I wrote the brief in sup­port of the motion, I couldn’t answer the ques­tion that had nagged me since I took the case: Why would a pow­er­ful exec­u­tive risk his career and good name to scratch the car of an employ­ee he didn’t know?

At the hear­ing, while the judge grilled me about the lim­its of the good faith stan­dard, I noticed him star­ing at Lock­hart, sit­ting in the gallery. My nag­ging ques­tion trou­bles the judge, too, I thought. Con­vinced through­out oral argu­ment that I was going down in flames, I was shocked when the judge grant­ed my motion.

Lockhart’s lawyer was shocked, too. His Notice of Appeal hit my desk with light­ning speed.

Cal­i­for­nia Appel­late Court, Three Judge Panel

While the appeal was pend­ing, the pri­vate inves­ti­ga­tor found an obscure mis­de­meanor con­vic­tion against Lock­hart. In July, 1986, a Nordstrom’s store clerk caught him try­ing to shoplift a shirt and pair of slacks tucked under his jacket.

The sim­i­lar­i­ty to the car van­dal­ism was strik­ing, a pet­ty crime Lock­hart had no rea­son to com­mit. That clinched it for me. As Ward Dun­ham had sensed, some sort of emo­tion­al prob­lem lurked beneath Lockhart’s image of right­eous probity.

It was too late to add the con­vic­tion to the record on appeal, so I put it in my pock­et. If we were reversed and the case went to tri­al, I hoped to pull a Per­ry Mason and hit Lock­hart with it on the wit­ness stand.

I didn’t get the chance. The appel­late court three-judge-pan­el ruled in Siever’s favor and Lock­hart didn’t appeal the deci­sion to the Cal­i­for­nia Supreme Court. His years of ser­vice and age qual­i­fied him for a sub­stan­tial pen­sion despite his dis­charge, so he aban­doned the case, took his retire­ment ben­e­fit, and moved to north­ern California’s wine country.

The case was closed. I’d secured the desired result, and Siev­er was pleased with my work. All was right with the world.

Then came the sur­prise that haunts me still. Over a six-week peri­od in the spring of 1991, three months after Lock­hart left Los Ange­les, some­one van­dal­ized four cars in Siever’s park­ing lot. All were keyed in the same man­ner as the 1986–87 inci­dents with a deep scar run­ning from head­light to tail­light. One of the four cars scratched was Joyce Aguilar’s Chevy Caprice.

I’m cer­tain Jim van­dal­ized the first set of cars,” Ward Dun­ham told me. “As far as I’m con­cerned, that shoplift­ing con­vic­tion removes all doubt. This new wave has to be the work of a copycat.”

I wasn’t so sure. Two things wor­ried me: our case against Lock­hart turned on a sin­gle eye wit­ness; and the odds against dif­fer­ent unre­lat­ed van­dals ran­dom­ly tar­get­ing Aguilar’s Chevy Caprice four years apart seemed astro­nom­i­cal. “It might be a good idea,” I told Dun­ham, “to watch Wen­dell Blake and Joyce Aguilar for a while.”

Siev­er put Aguilar and Blake under covert sur­veil­lance at work. They did noth­ing sus­pi­cious. Time passed. No new inci­dents occurred. Siev­er dropped its inves­ti­ga­tion, and the 1991 van­dal was nev­er identified.

Winona Ryder and Attor­ney Mark Geragos

Thir­ty-five years after I first opened the case file, I still wor­ry that I helped destroy an inno­cent man’s career. Search­ing for reas­sur­ance as I wrote this, I found a sur­pris­ing num­ber of con­vic­tions of high­ly suc­cess­ful peo­ple for com­mit­ting sense­less small crimes. Most noto­ri­ous­ly, the actress, Winona Ryder, shoplift­ed clothes and jew­el­ry from Saks Fifth Avenue. Most of these peo­ple suf­fered from depres­sion and repressed anger. Maybe Lock­hart was such a per­son. If so, he betrayed no hint of it when I took his depo­si­tion in 1987, and in pho­tos of his eighty-eighth birth­day par­ty post­ed on an old Face­book page, he still looked like a paragon of virtue, con­tent and at peace with himself.

Who com­mit­ted these crimes? Lock­hart and a copy­cat? Blake? Aguilar? Or some­one else? Mad­den­ing­ly, I’ll nev­er know for sure. Lock­hart died peace­ful­ly at home in 2016 at the age of 91, tak­ing the truth with him to his grave.

 

Post Script: To pro­tect the priv­i­lege, I changed a few of the less impor­tant facts and the names of Lock­hart, the com­pa­ny, and its employees.