Drugs, Divorce And A Demanding Campaign: The Undoing Of Susan Hawk

By Gromer Jeffers Jr. and Sarah Mervosh
The Dallas Morning News.

On her inauguration day, Susan Hawk walked into the courthouse wearing a wool coat that her mother gave her for Christmas and a pair of half-size too-big Louboutins she’d found on sale. She carried a copy of the speech she was about to deliver, which included a handwritten reminder to speak slowly. As she received congratulatory hugs on making history as Dallas County’s first female district attorney, the room was full of optimism and Hawk seemed ready to get to work.

“I’m built for this job,” she said before taking office.

That was Jan. 1 — barely eight months ago.

Hawk, a Republican, now faces a personal crisis that threatens to derail the goals she set for the office — and possibly her career. She’s in the middle of a nearly two-month leave from work as she says she battles severe depression, the latest incident in a tumultuous tenure marked by controversial firings, allegations of erratic behavior and her acknowledgment that she once sought help to stop taking prescription drugs.

The sudden cascade of personal difficulties has perplexed colleagues and constituents alike, leaving many wondering how the Hawk they remember — the friend, respected former judge and great hope of the local Republican party — got to this point.

While Hawk’s troubles came to light publicly after she took office, those who know her say a confluence of factors has been building behind the scenes for at least two years. Since the summer of 2013, when she began seriously considering a run for district attorney, Hawk has:

– Quit her job as a state district judge to run for district attorney.
– Secretly spent time in rehab for prescription drug use.
– Led an underdog campaign to become the county’s top prosecutor.
– Took public office on the eve of getting divorced.
– Had falling-outs with friends and supporters.
– And most recently, disappeared from work without explanation until she later revealed her depression.

Through it all, those who know her say she’s changed. They cite rash decision-making, breaks with reality and bouts of paranoia that make her turn on even her closest friends. Some question whether depression alone can explain her breakdown.

“It’s sad. I honestly don’t feel like I know who she is anymore,” said one former friend who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

As Hawk remains out of town in residential treatment and the legal community speculates on her future at the courthouse, loved ones say Hawk’s decision to seek professional help could transform her life — and save her career.

“Susan is finally making her health the priority,” said her brother, Mike McWithey. “That choice will make her a better daughter, sister, friend and a better DA. This is a defining moment in her life.”

The campaign
Before becoming district attorney, Hawk, 45, spent close to two decades at the courthouse as a prosecutor and then a felony court judge. She built a reputation for being tough but compassionate. During her 10 years on the bench, she pioneered a program to keep offenders with mental health issues out of jail, but in treatment.

Then in 2013, during her third term on the bench, Hawk received word that prosecutor Stephanie Mitchell, who is black, would run for her seat. Political observers told Hawk and other white judges that they would have a hard time winning re-election in the 2014 Democratic primary against black women.

The risk of losing her seat was a blow.

Being a judge wasn’t just a job she loved; it was her identity. Even today, her office’s organizational chart lists her as “Judge Hawk.”

But the challenge to her seat also represented an opportunity. “She always wanted to be DA,” the former friend said. When Hawk was recruited to do just that, she didn’t hesitate to switch back to the Republican Party, where she started her career, and launch a bid to oust Democratic incumbent Craig Watkins.
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After less than a month on the campaign trail, however, Hawk took a break. She told The Dallas Morning News at the time that she was having back surgery. But The News later learned that Hawk secretly spent about a month in rehab during that time for misuse of pain medication prescribed for a bad back and an Adderall-like drug that she took for ADHD.

Talk of Hawk being in rehab seeped into the courthouse and political circles. But according to two Republicans who don’t want to be identified, Hawk’s campaign aides told them that the rumors about Hawk were untrue.

“We asked if there was something we need to know about the candidate,” one Republican said. “We were lied to. Obviously, there was something we needed to know.”

That person and two others once close to Hawk now complain that, during the campaign, she sometimes missed meetings, refused to engage with voters or potential supporters and feared her enemies were monitoring her.

“She often thought people were following her,” one said. “We checked the license plates of somebody she thought was following her. Turns out it was a 72-year-old woman.”

Aside from a biting retort after a debate with Watkins, when she blasted his performance by telling him to “have another cocktail,” Hawk didn’t exude the passion, wit and occasional temper that had defined her career as a judge. Her campaign performances were often docile, detached and lacking spark.

Still, with the support of a cross-section of voters disenchanted with Watkins, Hawk beat him in November to become the first Republican to win a contested countywide race since 2004.

It should have been a crowning moment.

But by then, Hawk had gone through some sort of transformation, said Danny Clancy, a former state district judge who lost to Watkins in 2010.

“The paranoia really started to set in, and folks were scared,” he said. “I knew her as a good prosecutor, but somewhere along the way we began to distance ourselves from each other. She changed.”

Alone at the top
As Hawk prepared for the biggest and most prestigious job of her life, she was privately dealing with distractions at home.

Her marriage to Dr. John Geiser, a Dallas anesthesiologist, had begun to crumble, and on the morning of Jan. 1, she set out for her inauguration from her parents’ house.

Four days later, Geiser, her third husband, filed for divorce.

Records show Hawk signed over the deed to their Old East Dallas home this summer. The couple had been married since 2012.

Reached by phone last month, Geiser said, “It’s probably best for me not to say anything. I wish her well. I hope she’s safe and fine, but I don’t communicate with her anymore.”

Meanwhile, Hawk had begun growing apart from colleagues and friends, including some who have known her since she started her career as a prosecutor 20 years ago. Some of those friendships dissolved after they say Hawk began acting differently.

“She’s had a falling out with a couple of her closest girlfriends,” said someone who knows Hawk well. “I assume isolating herself has been detrimental to her mental health and just made a bad situation worse.”

Clancy and Dallas lawyer Toby Shook, two prominent Hawk campaign supporters, said they haven’t had a substantial conversation with her since election night.

“She won’t answer the phone,” Clancy said. “She’s in her own world.”

Hawk is also on the outs with her initial choice for her top assistant, Bill Wirskye. The two came up together at the courthouse and had been professional friends for years until Hawk fired him earlier this year. Hawk said Wirskye was insubordinate; Wirskye said that the district attorney’s office deserves a leader who is “stable and competent.”

“A lot of very wonderfully influential people in this community who know and love her have lost her for now,” said Bob Hinton, a family friend who said he was among those who tried to hold an intervention with Hawk earlier this year. “They’ll get her back, but emotionally, she has had issues that have changed her and have kept her from being the rational person that we know she has been.”

As Hinton and others say Hawk has become mistrustful of others, her inner circle has evaporated to just a few friends and family. It includes Mari Woodlief, her political consultant; Messina Madson, her new top assistant; and her parents, who live on the edge of Highland Park and occasionally attend functions with Hawk.

Woodlief said Hawk, now in a position of power, has had to learn tough lessons about whom she can truly trust. “Everybody has their motives here,” Woodlief said. “Every person piling on wants that job or wants something from her.”

Problems at work
Loved ones and former colleagues describe Hawk as a perfectionist who cares deeply about her job and values her privacy and can make draconian decisions when she perceives either as threatened. At the same time, they say, she goes out of her way to help others but worries about what people think of her.

Hinton, the family friend, said Hawk brought his wife a “nice potted plant” in June when they had to euthanize their 18-year-old dog. And in emails earlier this year, Hawk offered sympathy to one employee who had a death in the family and encouraged another struggling with health problems to take a three-day weekend.

Meanwhile, sudden firings caused some employees to begin fearing for their jobs. Since taking office, Hawk has fired or forced the resignation of at least six key employees under controversial circumstances. Former employees describe a similar pattern in which Hawk let them go with little explanation while her top assistant was away from the office.

Tommy Hutson, the former technology director who had been with the office 21 years, said Hawk went through two cellphones and a new computer within a two-week period, saying they were bugged or broken. When she terminated him in January, he said she offered only an obscure explanation, including that he sent her pictures of a mysterious black Tahoe, before she told him to “get out.”

Jeff Savage, an investigator who had been there 26 years, said he expressed concern to a colleague about what he perceived as a questionable firing by Hawk in June. Hours later, Hawk told them they needed to go their “separate ways.” He was 10 months from retirement.

“That’s absolutely not the way I thought I was going to go out,” Savage said.

Heath Harris, Watkins’ former top assistant who plans to run for district attorney in 2018, questioned whether Hawk will consider rehiring the employees she fired now that she’s seeking treatment for mental health issues.

“Did they lose their careers because of their performance or because she was unstable at the time?” he said. “How can we bend over backwards to give the district attorney the opportunity to serve … and then these people not be granted the same opportunity?”

Madson, who is running the office in Hawk’s absence, did not respond to a request for comment about personnel matters.

The future
Hawk has already been off work since at least Aug. 3. If she sticks to the timetable she laid out when she announced her leave, she won’t return until the end of this month.

She’s staying at an in-state residential facility for depression treatment while she’s away, said Woodlief, her political adviser. Woodlief has denied that Hawk is seeking treatment for prescription drug use.

Several people close to Hawk point to the combination of stressors over the past two years — the prescription drug issue, the campaign, the divorce, the job change, the public scrutiny — to explain why they believe she became overwhelmed. Her brother, McWithey, said Hawk had dealt with mental health issues previously but had always been able “to pull herself out of it” — until now.

Experts say major life changes and addiction issues can make depression more difficult to treat. While depression is typically characterized by symptoms such as despondency, weight change and sleep problems, paranoia can be a manifestation in at least one form of the illness.

Hawk hasn’t detailed the specifics of her diagnosis.

Harris and others question whether depression is the only issue Hawk is dealing with. They cite a lack of transparency about her rehab stay and the true nature of her break from work last month. Hawk’s representatives initially said she was taking a “summer break” and “time off” until The News raised questions about her whereabouts and Hawk announced on Aug. 25 that she was suffering from a “serious episode of depression.”

“Given all the lies that have been told, there are people who question what she’s actually being treated for,” Harris said.

Still, Hawk retains a support base at the courthouse and in the community. Hinton and community leader Betty Culbreath were among those who applauded Hawk for revealing her depression diagnosis and seeking treatment. “It’s time to stand behind her as she works through her illness and show some respect for the years that she’s dedicated to making the lives of others better,” Culbreath said.

Though it’s not how her advisers planned it, Hawk’s revelation that she suffers from mental illness may offer her a chance to reset her life and political career.

More than 20 years ago, a young lawmaker from Houston was overwhelmed with bipolar disorder that kept him from his work. But when Garnet Coleman decided to speak about his issues publicly, “it was a relief.”

“I was so much better with people knowing. If freed me from feeling guilty or ashamed about missing work. I didn’t have to come up with excuses,” said Coleman, a Democrat who easily won re-election and is still a member of the Texas House.

He said he would encourage Hawk to be upfront with the public and possibly conduct extensive media interviews to share her story.

However Hawk stages her return, it won’t be easy. She will face high-stress demands and more public scrutiny than ever. Hawk’s loved ones say she’s committed to restructuring her life to prevent a similar episode from happening again.

“We all have struggles in life, and we all make mistakes. But what matters is how we recover and what we do to get things right,” McWithey said. “From here forward, this is her story to tell in not only her words, but in her actions and in the work she does as DA when she returns.”

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