Commentary

Gaspo: DA’s No. 2 wants to be No. 1

January 28, 2014 

Roger Echols wants to be the next Durham County district attorney. So when we sat down a few evenings ago at Mad Hatter, the first thing I wanted to ask was: “Are you ‘mad,’ man? Why the heck would you want to that job?”

The top prosecutor’s position for the last few years, at least before like-a-rock Leon Stanback took over, was not exactly comfortable or career-enhancing. But Echols is running for it, along with Mitch Garrell and Brian Aus.

We don’t know Roger Echols, really – he’s only been in the D.A.’s office for a couple of years. He’s low-key but intently involved in every major decision. On newsmaking cases like Jesus Huerta. Faith Hedgepeth. Michael Peterson.

I thought it was time to have a chat with Roger Echols, a native son of greater Hillsborough, graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill before going to law school, then prosecutor in nearby, smaller counties for about a dozen years.

The answers below have been edited for clarity and length. Echols said he was cool with that.

Maybe that’s because he brought someone with him at the Mad Hatter, a guest I wasn’t expecting. His older sister, Laura. I saw immediately that I wouldn’t be able to slip any fast ones by her.

And it turns out there was another surprise waiting.

TG: “Who in your family influenced you most?

RE: “It was our mother. The single biggest influence in my life on the way I think. Because of the way she raised us and the way she lived, we couldn’t help but admire her. She was my biggest idol. Still is.”

TG: “How would you describe her?

RE: “No-nonsense but gentle. Selfless. Spiritual. We were raised in the church. And, she was forgiving.”

Clara Louise Echols, who went by Louise, died unexpectedly at age 65 in May of 2007, right in the middle of a most serious struggle her son was having.

RE: “I had cancer.”

TG: “Cancer.”

RE: “My mom would try to spend all day with me at Duke Hospital. And whenever I could leave for a while, my sister more or less ordered me to stay her house.”

Laura Echols (LE): “He was too weak during the treatment. He couldn’t do things for himself.”

Roger Echols, now 40 years old, learned he had about a 40 percent chance of beating the diagnosis. It was acute lymphoblastic lymphoma. Stage 4, with a mass behind his heart and lungs. The disease was fast-growing, too.

LE: “I did all the research. I knew everything a lay person could know.”

RE: “She’s the brains in the family.”

TG: “And how are you now? You look strong as a bull in the Bull City.”

RE: “I just recently found out I could stop going to the hospital for checkups. I’ve been in remission for several years.”

TG: “That’s good news. So, how did cancer affect you? Does it play into your decision to run for DA?

RE: “It plays into all my decisions. I am so much calmer now. I don’t stress about much of anything really, day to day. I appreciate what is near and dear to all the people around me.”

TG: “Are you ready for this job?”

RE: “If I weren’t, I wouldn’t run. It’s a huge responsibility.”

TG: “What do you think about this, Laura?”

LE: “He is a thoughtful man and makes good decisions. He’s strong.”

TG: “You’ve been a prosecutor for about 15 years, Roger. How do you handle the pain, suffering, tears, anger and terrible stories you hear about every day?”

RE: “I suppose you become somewhat numb…but at the same time if you are not sensitive to people’s pain, you can’t do your job very well.”

TG: “You have a strong faith, you’ve said.”

RE: “I do. I want to be on the right side. Do the good work.”

TG “Let’s talk specific cases now. Do you think you have a pretty good idea who murdered Faith Hedgepeth?”

(Long pause) RE: “Well, I can’t comment on that.”

TG: “It’s a yes or no question, isn’t it?”

RE: “Well, my yes or no would constitute a comment.”

TG: “I suppose. Do you have a sense whether Officer Samuel Duncan, the key officer in the Jesus Huerta death case, should ever be a police officer here again?

RE: “I have thoughts, but my public comment is probably not helpful for police administration to make its decision.”

TG: “I’d like it, though.”

Silence.

TG: “OK, last try. Have you or anyone in your office discussed a plea deal with Michael Peterson or his attorneys?”

RE: “We have not. To the extent we look at that possibility, it will be done with significant input from the victim’s family. I’m not saying anything is impossible.”

TG: “OK. People may not know that former District Attorney Tracey Cline hired you. What do you think of her?

RE: “I deeply appreciate Tracey hiring me. As for the end of her tenure – and I really do not know all the details – it was most unfortunate for the county of Durham, for the DA’s Office, and for her.”

Brother, sister and I walk out of Mad Hatter after about an hour.

TG: “What are your three favorite restaurants in Durham County?

Echols glances at his sister.

LE: “Nantucket Grill. And he likes Parizade.”

TG: “One more. Roger?”

RE: “The Chicken Hut.”

Told you he was low-key.

Tom Gasparoli can be reached at tgaspo@gmail.com or 919-219-0042.

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