Deputy District Attorney Collier Vale seemed to be in a fine mood as he left his Salinas, Calif., office one Thursday this fall. He had enjoyed a festive lunch with his fellow prosecutors, celebrating a colleague’s victory at trial. His boss had told Vale that he could leave work at noon Friday to get an early start on a three-day camping trip to Yosemite with his girlfriend, court reporter Melinda Young. That afternoon Vale had phoned Melinda, reading her a list of items he was packing, right down to the number and color of his socks. Vale was a meticulous man.
He spent the evening organizing his backpack and carefully loading his car. Then Vale settled his 6′ frame onto the couch in front of the TV. He drank some brandy and drank some more until he had consumed about eight ounces. Then Collier Vale took a 9-mm handgun out of a drawer, closed the drawer, stuck the barrel in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
The 39-year-old county prosecutor’s suicide was the final, fatal repercussion of a moment’s confusion at the D.A.’s office more than a year earlier. In July 1989, Vale had asked a police officer to get him Sonjii Johnson on the phone. Sonjii, a 23-year-old kindergarten aide, had informed authorities that her friends Anthony Jacobs and Bradley Hardison had bragged about killing two rival thugs in a drug-turf battle. (Jacobs was convicted of manslaughter, but Hardison was never charged in the case.) Vale wanted to renew his offer to give her police protection or move her to a more secure location. But the policeman inadvertently dialed the number of Songia Johnson, 20. Both Johnsons pronounced their names “Sonya.” They lived in the drug-infested community of Seaside and knew one another slightly. Vale spoke on the phone to the wrong Johnson only briefly before realizing the error and hanging up, but the conversation went on long enough for Songia to figure out that her namesake was an informer. Songia spread the word, and three weeks later, as Sonjii returned from doing her laundry, an assailant burst from the bushes and shot her dead.
Police believe the wrong number was inconsequential, since Sonjii herself had told several people about her cooperation with prosecutors. Vale’s boss, District Attorney Michael Bartram, said that Vale “acted properly all the way through the case.” But “the fatal phone call,” as the press called it, shadowed Vale the rest of his days. Recalls Vale’s friend Assistant D.A. Jon Yudin: “The newspapers painted him as doing wrong. He felt that he was wrongly accused, and it ate at him.”
Despite his protestations to the contrary, Vale took Johnson’s death personally: He tacked a police photo of her bloody body on his office wall. When a colleague complained, Vale explained that it spurred him to greater efforts as he questioned witness after witness in pursuit of her killer. “Every time I’m tempted to give up, and I have to dig down a little more, I look at it,” he said. “She’s dead, and she deserves justice.”
Melinda Young would later recall that Vale was “miserably unhappy” about the incident. When candidate Dean Flippo. successfully campaigning to succeed Bartram last June, repeatedly cited the phone call as an example of incompetence in the D.A.’s office. Vale could hardly stand it. “It pisses me off so much that sometimes I just want to shoot myself,” he told friend and colleague Russ Dubree.
The pressures were building on a man who was more fragile than he appeared. Vale was so insecure that for his first three years in the D.A.’s office he had refused to take a vacation for fear he would be replaced while he was gone. Now he thought his career was ruined and his dream of becoming a judge destroyed. “His career was the most important thing in the world to him,” says Young. “It was his life.” Vale had once told his father, a Los Angeles retired janitor, “I don’t understand why I’m not happy. I’ve got my own home, my car is paid for, I have a good job, all these friends, and I’m not happy.”
If he was not happy when things were going well, Vale must have been in torment when they went bad. On Sept. 24 A Current Affair televised a segment on Vale’s call and Johnson’s death. In mid-October, Vale was scheduled to give a deposition about the call in a negligence action brought by Sonjii Johnson’s parents. And later that month, he would be a witness for the prosecution at the trial of Bradley Hardison for Sonjii’s killing. Though Hardison, 25, pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in October, Vale did not live to see that. He thought he was going to have to testify about the phone call again. On Oct. 4 he found a way not to.
“At one given moment in time, the depression was unbearable,” speculates DuBree, “and that’s what took his life.”
Vale, who had been a prosecutor for 10 years, himself had pronounced a sort of anticipatory epitaph at the conclusion of a particularly wrenching trial years ago. “Being a prosecutor really makes you appreciate life,” he said. “It shows you how cruel some people are, how tragic some people’s lives are.”
—James S. Kunen, Dianna Waggoner in Monterey