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Retiring SLO County assistant DA faced ‘pure evil,’ learned empathy over long career

It was a heinous and brutal crime that took from the San Luis Obispo community a local figure known for her kindness and generosity.

Sharon Ostman, a 59-year-old longtime homeless woman, was found beaten, strangled and sexually assaulted in San Luis Obispo Creek near Mission Plaza in July 2005.

For three years, her murder went unsolved. But when a break led authorities to Freddie Joe Lewis, the case — like others considered SLO County’s worst of the worst — landed on the desk of Lee Cunningham.

Then a San Luis Obispo County Deputy District Attorney heading the office’s felony team, Cunningham charged Lewis for Ostman’s murder in 2009. He pleaded no contest to second-degree murder just as the trial was set to begin, and he’s currently serving 15 years to life at Chuckawalla Valley State Prison in Blythe.

This month, after a 46-year career that spans the California Men’s Colony, San Luis Obispo Police Department, his own private law practice and the DA’s Office, Cunningham will retire as Assistant District Attorney. His last day in the office was Friday.

His name is synonymous with the SLO County DA’s Office, having served as its second-in-command and public information officer since 2014 under District Attorney Dan Dow.

His son, Jordan Cunningham, represents San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties in the California State Assembly, and also previously worked in the SLO DA’s Office. Like his father, Jordan Cunningham has sat on both sides of the attorneys table, serving as a SLO County prosecutor before going into private practice, working in part as a criminal defense attorney.

The elder Cunningham now leaves behind a department better prepared to combat digital crimes and human trafficking, and support and advocate for victims of crime, Dow said.

From farm to SLO

Interestingly, one of SLO County’s most influential public officials was raised nowhere near the Central Coast in a town without any crime. Raised on his family’s farm in rural North Dakota, Cunningham said the nearest sheriff’s deputy was 40 miles away.

He graduated with a bachelor’s in social science from Minot State University in Minot, North Dakota in 1970. While there, he met his wife, Debbie, to whom he’s now been married for 46 years.

His brother, who worked as a correctional deputy at California Men’s Colony at the time, encouraged him to apply there for a job, which he did in 1971.

The experience was a “real eye-opener” for him. Being in charge of guarding a quad floor containing about 100 inmates and armed with only a whistle taught him to use his wits, he said.

“You had to learn how to deal with things other than by force, if you could. I learned to treat people, even felons, with respect,” Cunningham said.

The position also gave Cunningham his first brush with “pure evil.” Notorious serial killer Lawrence Bittaker — who after being released from CMC would join former fellow inmate Roy Norris in raping, torturing and killing at least five women — was housed on his floor.

Bittaker and Norris, the so-called “Toolbox killers,” terrorized Los Angeles County for a period of about five months before their capture in 1979. Bittaker is currently on Death Row in San Quentin.

“I believe there are few people in this world, and fortunately I think there are very few, but there are some who are pure evil,” Cunningham said. “That guy gave me the shivers.”

He spent 16 months at the job — or as he calls it, “a lower term with no credits” — before being hired as a patrol officer with the San Luis Obispo Police Department.

It was an interesting time in the history of the department, with political and social strife of the era creeping into once-sleepy SLO.

“We had a couple of old timers that had been there since the 50s,” Cunningham said. “The chief was Ervin Rodgers, who was a local boy, and I was scared to death of him.”

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Before he earned a law degree and joined the DA’s Office, Assistant District Attorney Lee Cunningham was a CMC correctional officer and a police officer in San Luis Obispo. Cunningham is retiring after a 46-year career in law enforcement. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Cunningham recalled in the early 1970s following the famed kidnapping of media heiress Patty Hearst by the Symbionese Liberation Army that local police received a report that well-armed members of the group were holed up inside a house on Foothill Boulevard.

The group was already known to be responsible for a bloody bank robbery in San Francisco, and local police were on edge as a standoff ensued outside the house.

“I had a .38 revolver and a shotgun, and I spent the night crouched behind my car thinking, ‘I really hope they’re not in there because they got a lot better weapons than I do,’ ” Cunningham said.

The report turned out to be a false alarm.

‘You can’t afford to make mistakes’

While a police officer, Cunningham studied law during his off time at the since-closed Central Coast School of Law, earning his law degree in 1978 and passing the bar in 1979.

He went into private practice as a civil attorney, with an office above an Atascadero bar called The Rogue’s Den. He formed a partnership with attorney Sylvia Stewart and in 1980 and started working as a defense attorney trying cases for the Public Defender’s Office.

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Then-Deputy District Attorney Lee Cunningham addresses the jury in the 2012 second-degree murder trial of Kaylee Ann Weisenberg, who struck and killed CHP Officer Brett Oswald while driving intoxicated. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

“Like a lot of people in police work, I was a pretty black-and-white person. I think (working as a public defender) softened my edges,” Cunningham said. “But it wasn’t for me — I assumed most of my clients were lying to me.”

When he joined the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office in 1985, the office was about half its current size. Now-retired Judge Teresa Estrada-Mullaney was the office’s only female deputy prosecutor.

During his time as a deputy, Cunningham tried nearly every type of case and served as the office’s felony team leader.

The next year, Cunningham secured a murder conviction for Atascadero resident Kelsey Morasci, whose jealousy Cunningham argued, drove her to kill Paso Robles High School grad Everett Quaid. Morasci was sentenced to 15 years to life and is currently incarcerated at Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla.

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Former Atascadero resident Kelsey Morasci, 37, during her 2010 trial for the stabbing murder of Paso Robles High School grad Everett Quaid. Joe Johnson jjohnson@thetribunenews.com

In perhaps his most well-known case, Cunningham prosecuted Kaylee Ann Weisenberg, who in 2010 crashed her car into CHP Officer Brett Oswald, who was waiting for a tow truck on the side of a Paso Robles road. Oswald was killed and Weisenberg, who was high on methamphetamine at the time, was charged with second-degree murder. Weisenberg is also serving her time at Central California Women’s Facility.

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Kaylee Weisenberg reacts while listening in 2012 as members of Brett Oswald’s family address the court before her sentencing. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

In 2013, he assisted in the conviction of Brandon Henslee of Cambria, who stabbed half-brother Tyler Hanks in the head 20 times with a screwdriver and tried to hide his body. Henslee received 27 years to life in prison and is currently at Salinas Valley State Prison.

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Former Cambria resident Brandon Henslee, left, looks at attorney Fred Foss, during his trial for the murder of half brother Tyler Hanks in 2013. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

In 2015, Cunningham was prosecutor in the murder trial of Paso Robles resident John Danner, who shot his mother’s boyfriend, Billy Don Law, 13 times with a handgun and later claimed it was self defense. Danner was sentenced to 40 years to life in prison and is currently in Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City.

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John Danner, center, listens in 2015 as jurors find him guilty of second-degree murder in the shooting death of Paso Robles resident Billy Don Law. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

“(Murder cases) require a lot because there are a lot of traumatized people involved,” Cunningham said. “Not only do you have to do a good job as an attorney, but you have to call upon your empathy. And you can’t afford to make mistakes.”

‘An obvious and solid pick’

When former deputy prosecutor Dow was elected District Attorney in 2014, he selected Cunningham for Assistant DA, giving the seasoned prosecutor oversight of the office’s management.

“While there were many exceptionally qualified people, Lee was an obvious and solid pick,” Dow said. “He really helped the office come together (after the election). Having him at my side was very unifying.”

Dow credits Cunningham with creation of the Central Coast Cyber Forensic Lab, a joint project between the DA’s Office, Cal Poly and the California National Guard, among his other accomplishments in the role. The digital forensics facility brings new technology to prosecutors’ fingertips to fight cyber crime and provide educational opportunities for students.

Cunningham was also instrumental in the formation of the county’s Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force. He served as chair of the group, which is composed of members from a long list of local, state and federal law enforcement agencies as well as community organizations, churches and nonprofit groups.

“(Creation of the task force) was a big issue for me, and I needed to hand it to someone who could really take it and run with it,” Dow said. “We’ve really highlighted the (human trafficking) issue in our community and our law enforcement is a lot more proactive, I think, because of those efforts.”

“I have truly loved this (management) position. I got to wear a lot of hats,” Cunningham said. “ And to help Dan in setting the direction the office takes is a very rewarding but also a humbling experience.”

Making a difference

The effects of his work are felt beyond the local courthouse walls. As a member of the California District Attorney’s Association, Cunningham helped draft law in the group’s legislative committee for 20 years.

As part of that group, Cunningham helped write Cole’s Law, adopted in 2005, which allows child victims of sexual abuse testify in court via closed-circuit television if prosecutors can prove confronting the abuser would further traumatize the victim.

Cunningham has a deep sense of empathy for victims and their trauma. In 1994, tragedy struck the Cunningham family and forever changed his understanding of what crime victims go through, he said.

His son, Jared, was killed when the vehicle he was riding in as passenger made an illegal turn into oncoming traffic. Jared was 13. The driver was 16.

And through his legislative committee duties, Cunningham had a hand in the “Brady-Jared Teen Safety Act of 1997,” which furthered safety protocols and tightened restrictions on teenagers with a driver’s permit or provisional driver’s license.

“My wife and I attended a number of hearings in these courtrooms, and I’ve spent my professional life in those courtrooms. Yet in that role, it’s a very foreign place,” Cunningham said. “Very uncomfortable. Very keen sense of lack of control. And frustration. All the things that victims experience. It gave me tremendous empathy for crime victims.”

“To have a hand in making a change that will benefit people. That’s one of the more rewarding experiences you can have in life,” Cunningham said.

The prosecutor rests

Looking forward, Cunningham said his immediate plans are to teach an administration of justice course at Cuesta College, possibly renew his pilot’s license and take a trip to Italy. He said he’s looking forward to working on both his son’s and Dow’s re-election campaigns in 2018.

Dow said the county conducted a statewide search for Cunningham’s replacement and is expected to make an announcement this week.

Correction: The original article misstated circumstances of Jared Cunningham’s death. The vehicle he was riding in made an illegal turn into oncoming traffic.

Matt Fountain: 805-781-7909, @MattFountain1

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