Assistant DA to retire after 40 years of prosecuting local criminals

Dan Hilford is retiring after a 40-year career with the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office.
Dan Hilford is retiring after a 40-year career with the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

The scene on Cuesta Ridge was ghastly: The decomposed bodies of two Cal Poly students lie in a thicket of trees, each stripped to their socks and shoes and each with a .22-caliber bullet wound to the back of the head.

While Assistant District Attorney Dan Hilford has been to hundreds of autopsies and crime scenes over his 40-year career, that one, from 1984, stands out.

“It’s hard to conceptualize something like that if you’ve never seen it,” Hilford said. “Most people don’t see those things in their lives.”

Eventually, 26-year-old Kenneth Curry would be arrested for the murders of Viola Ada, 21, and Steven Braun, 23. And a year later, Hilford would detail that crime scene during Curry’s trial, telling jurors, “Let us not forget about the victims in this case. ... Those kids never stood a chance.”

Hilford, who retires at the end of the month, said one of his biggest roles as a prosecutor is being an advocate for victims like Ada and Braun.

“As a prosecutor, you’re speaking for the victim who can’t speak,” he said.

Having arrived at the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office in 1973, Hilford’s institutional memory could fill a computer hard drive. And while most of his tenure there has been as a manager, he prosecuted several high-profile cases in the late 1970s, including that of Richard Lee Farmer, convicted of killing a man with a hatchet; David Foster and Linda Smith, who tortured and murdered Smith’s baby; and Howell Petrey Harris, who murdered Cal Poly’s head librarian, Norman Alexander.

But the Curry case, which he prosecuted in 1985, was one of the most shocking due to its random nature.

“Those two wonderful kids were pretty much shot down in the prime of their lives,” Hilford said.

Curry was convicted of murder but spared the death penalty. A motive was never determined.

“As a prosecutor, you’re trying to figure out why,” he said. “Sometimes you just don’t have that.”

Recently, a row of boxes lined a wall outside his office and a few more were packed inside — after Hilford had emptied six recycling bins.

“I’ve got 40 years worth of stuff,” he said.

Some of the things in his office will be passed on to his successor. Other items include trinkets, such as a Homer Simpson bobble head and a copy of Front Page Detective Magazine, featuring a photo of Hilford during the Curry trial.

Growing up in Los Angeles, Hilford thought more about surfing than law. At UCLA, where he studied political science, he was on the school’s first surf team. After graduating from Loyola University’s law school in Los Angeles, he knew he wanted to stay on the coast.

Following a brief stint at the state attorney general’s office in Los Angeles, he moved to San Luis Obispo.

“Back then, DA’s offices were looked at more as stepping stones,” he said. “People would stay for a couple of years, learn their way around the courthouse, learn how to try cases and then leave.”

But after a few years, it was apparent that Hilford didn’t want to leave.

“This just got in my blood,” he said. “This became incredibly interesting to me.”

As assistant district attorney, he supervises and assists 16 deputies. He’s on call 24/7 for homicides and still goes to crimes scenes and autopsies.

“He does so much for our office in so many different ways,” said Jerret Gran, chief deputy district attorney.

Even after nearly four decades, Hilford’s contributions haven’t diminished, Gran said.

“Sometimes you see people burn out. No sign of that at all with Dan,” Gran said.

Even after four decades worth of crime scenes, Hilford said he remains positive.

“You can’t go through life being skeptical of everything, thinking people are bad,” he said. “I try to go through life thinking most people are good.”

Hilford has always had distractions, whether it be running — something he did more of before four knee surgeries — painting or playing piano. But around the office, he’s best known for surfing — something he’ll do more once he’s retired.

“It just clears your head and takes you to a different place,” said Hilford, who has surfed in places such as Fiji, the Maldives, Costa Rica and France.

Although Hilford said he still enjoys his work and co-workers, when he considered retirement, he recalled his own father, a grocer who died of cancer when Hilford was 14.

“He was 63 years old when he passed away,” said Hilford, who recently turned 65. “That’s one of the factors you think about.”