Opinion Columns & Blogs

Lawyer’s rib may have saved 2 lives

As noted in a column last week, I would like to have chatted with former state District 2 Appellate Judge Donald N. Gates before he died, such was the scope of his interesting life.

Now, with some additional details of his life revealed, I’d REALLY liked to have talked with the Atascadero resident and asked him what was going through his mind when he shot longtime San Luis Obispo lawyer Lloyd Somogyi.

It was a Sunday, Nov. 7, 1954, about 8:30 p.m. when Gates, then a 30-year-old assistant district attorney, paid a visit to Somogyi, who was renting a room from Judge Paul Jackson. (An aside: Jackson was blind and had a seeing-eye dog that must have hated him because the dog would lead Jackson into traffic, for which the dog would then take a thwack on the back from Jackson’s cane.)

As detailed in lengthy front-page stories in the then-Telegram-Tribune, Somogyi let Gates into Jackson’s home, and the two men went up to Somogyi’s room to talk. (They were adversaries in several court cases, with Somogyi actually representing Gates’ wife in a messy divorce.)

After stubbing out a cigarette, Gates, who was extremely intoxicated, pulled a .32-caliber revolver from his coat pocket and told Somogyi: “I’m going to kill you tonight. There are two bullets in this gun — one for you and one for me.”

For the next half hour, Gates reportedly taunted Somogyi, saying things like, “Why don’t you make a lunge for me so I can let you have it?”

And telling the then-36-year-old Somogyi to “Keep talking like you’re talking to a jury.”

By 9 p.m. Somogyi lunged at Gates, brushing the younger man’s body, and Gates fired.

The bullet caught Somogyi in the chest, deflecting off a rib, which probably saved his life. Somogyi then ran through the house and out the front door shouting just two words: “He’s crazy.”

Gates then calmly walked two blocks to the police station, where he gave himself up.

Now, here’s an oddity that you won’t find in today’s police work: Police Chief William Burns decided to take Gates to the psychiatric ward at General Hospital — and didn’t handcuff him.

When they got to the hospital, Gates had second thoughts and lunged — hitting and kicking — at Burns and an investigator with the DA’s Office.

Chief Burns “succeeded only in snapping a handcuff on one arm before he was knocked down by the raging adversary.”

Gates then disappeared for 45 minutes, but returned to the psychiatric ward, where a terrified attendant wouldn’t admit him until the police returned. It had all the earmarks of Barney Fife writ large.

Gates’ boss, District Attorney Herbert C. Grundell, said of his young protégé: “There just had to be some mental slippage. Gates is a brilliant boy who had great promise.”

And then there was this curious, unattributed, observation of Gates: He had “a great sense of social justice … overly conscientious about his job … and this is no business to be in if a person is overly conscientious.” Huh?

According to Judge Harry Woolpert, “As I got the story, Donald Gates volunteered to enter Atascadero State Hospital for some period of time.

Given his voluntary, not court-ordered, admission, the criminal charges were dropped. Upon completion of his voluntary commitment and his release, he retained his law license, sobered up and went on to a distinguished career.”

The lawyer who maneuvered Gates’ commitment and subsequent dropping of charges was George Finucane, father of The Tribune’s editorial page editor, Stephanie Finucane.

Gates faced up to his alcohol addiction and became an active member of Alcoholics Anonymous.

He went on to serve the 2nd District Court of Appeal first as a staff attorney and then as chief research attorney in the early 1960s, was subsequently appointed to the appellate court in 1982 and served in that capacity for the next 13 years. He must have been a brilliant legal scholar to have redeemed himself and served at the appellate level.

As Woolpert noted, “I believe I was the one who informed Lloyd Somogyi of Donald Gates’ appointment. … He seemed surprised, but allowed that many people were capable of redemption and he felt Donald Gates was one of them. I felt that was most gracious coming from the victim of a murderous assault!”

As Paul Harvey was wont to say following one of his radio essays: And now you know the rest of the story.

Bill Morem can be reached at bmorem@thetribunenews.com or 781-7852.