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Gung-ho Santa Rosa Marine now go-to lawyer

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There was a point when Izaak Schwaiger switched from being a gung-ho Marine to jarhead juris doctor.

It happened a little more than 10 years ago in a dusty tent in the Iraqi desert, where a half-dozen U.S. military officers and advisers surrounded a tall, hooded man with zip-tied hands, suspected of being an enemy insurgent.

Schwaiger, then a Marine translator, watched the man shake in fear. He saw him wet himself as another Marine kicked the back of his knee, forcing him to the ground.

Before the interrogation started, Schwaiger felt an urge to comfort the man, who he was convinced was no militant and merely a car mechanic from neighboring Iran.

But he didn’t say anything, in part because he knew the man was headed to Abu Ghraib prison, where his future was uncertain.

“The whole God, country and corps thing pretty much came unwound for me,” Schwaiger said.

It was then that Schwaiger, a gun-loving Wyoming native who spent his career up to that point chasing suspected terrorists in some of the nation’s most urgent security missions, decided to pursue a career as a lawyer.

Witnessing the chaos and brutality of war, as well as the abuse of power by governments, the lanky staff sergeant turned his intellectual arsenal toward holding people accountable to the law and protecting those who were victimized by it.

He has since been making a name for himself.

After a stint as a Sonoma County prosecutor, Schwaiger found like-minded attorneys at the upstart Santa Rosa firm of Adams Fietz and has had success in headline-grabbing cases.

One involved a Forestville man who was shot 20 times by police Tasers while being booked into jail. Another was a Santa Rosa man who was accused of assaulting officers during a protest over the police shooting of 13-year-old Andy Lopez.

Schwaiger, 39, has carved a niche as a go-to lawyer on police brutality cases while putting in pro bono hours helping veterans who run afoul of the law.

“I wanted to be a prosecutor to hold people accountable and to protect those who couldn’t protect themselves,” Schwaiger said. “I found out along the way, sometimes the true victims aren’t oppressed by criminals but by the truly powerful. That is, the DA’s office and the police agencies.”

Some dismiss his refrain as so much libertarian bombast, but others say he has made a good showing so far. Rumor has it he was asked to leave the prosecutor’s office after making disparaging remarks in a plea bargain, but he won’t talk about it.

Not surprisingly, Schwaiger campaigned against his ex-boss, Jill Ravitch, in her recent re-election campaign. He supported former prosecutor Victoria Shanahan, who has since joined the Adams Fietz firm.

“He seems to have found his niche,” said longtime Santa Rosa defense attorney Chris Andrian. “He’s a pleasant guy and handles himself well in court.”

Jon Melrod, a Sebastopol attorney and activist, said Schwaiger has a unique perspective about police militarization given his background as a soldier.

“Izaak’s determined to make the system work because he’s seen all sides of it,” Melrod said.

Schwaiger didn’t seem destined for a legal career. He grew up in Dayton, Wyo., a small town in the shadow of the Big Horn Mountains, where he was more interested in hunting and fishing than getting good grades in high school.

The self-described rebel enlisted in the Marines in 1996 and was singled-out as a candidate for military intelligence. After receiving training in geolocation and other surveillance techniques Schwaiger said were probably illegal, he shipped off to the Mediterranean where war was heating up in the Balkans.

From a ship off the coast, he and a team identified targets for aerial bombardment.

A mission to destroy a Serbian radio transmitter mounted on atop a church that was surrounded by homes, brought his first realization that he had killed people.

“I remember going to bed that night thinking, shit, I was part of that,” Schwaiger said.

The stakes got higher in his next assignment, working with the National Security Administration at an air base in England.

The bombings of American embassies in southeastern Africa brought Islamic terrorist leader Osama bin Laden under sharp scrutiny. Schwaiger was part of a large, multinational unit of intelligence workers who tried to track bin Laden and other suspected terrorists, mostly through cell phone calls,.

But the al-Qaeda leader believed responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks was elusive.

Schwaiger was nearing the end of his enlistment, with plans to leave the service and open an antique bookstore in New York with his wife, when planes slammed into World Trade Center towers.

He immediately reenlisted was sent to language school to learn Farsi, the dominant language in Iran.

“I distinctly remember feeling I had a duty to stay in the job. That I was in a position to do something,” Schwaiger said. “I was naïve perhaps.”

He shipped again, this time for Iraq with the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit, arriving in the summer of 2004 in the city of Najaf, a Shia holy ground about 100 miles south of Baghdad.

Fighting broke out immediately with the Islamist Mahdi Army, and Schwaiger found himself holed up for the next month in an Iraqi agricultural ministry building, taking mortar and rocket strikes and watching friends die.

He came close to getting shot himself when he was forced to stand on the roof of the six-story building to get cell phone reception to relay an urgent message.

He remembers the sickening sound of bullets whizzing by as he waited for the connection.

“All around me I heard these snaps,” Schwaiger said. “And every one of them is missing me. When they came on the line at first I couldn’t speak.”

He dismisses any notion he did anything brave, saying it was “nothing that everyone else wasn’t doing over there.”

“You get over being shot at after a while,” he said.

A cease fire was declared the next month, and Schwaiger resumed intelligence duties, geolocating “high-value” targets, translating for people who spoke Farsi and conducting house searches.

“They were seldom successful and just pissed people off,” he said of the so-called “cordon and knock” raids.

He felt his own attitude toward the war shift as civilian casualties seemed to mount. In one last grisly experience, he picked up a prisoner from Iraqi allies who was suspected of making bombs.

The man was bound, with a hood over his head, and unconscious. A closer look revealed he had been tortured with an electric drill and was beaten with a club.

“You can’t make the world a bright place by eliminating one kind of darkness with another kind of darkness,” he said.

Fellow Marine Ray Curry, who served alongside Schwaiger in Najaf, said his outspoken buddy wasn’t afraid to share his criticisms with higher-ups. He frequently raised concerns about missions that he thought would endanger Americans or civilians and wasn’t afraid to take unpopular positions in a culture that prized convention and conformity.

“A lot of times Izaak spoke to individuals outside his pay grade in very candid ways, ” said Curry, who moved to Reno since getting out and has been active in Iraq Veterans Against the War. “He stood for what was right. He was a good Marine.”

Schwaiger returned to Wyoming after leaving the Marines in 2006 and enrolled in law school. He worked as both a prosecutor and defense attorney before coming west to the Bay Area, ultimately settling with his family in Windsor.

He has since channeled his fighting spirit into his legal work, where he admits he gets carried away. More than one judge has threatened him with contempt, he said, but “I’ve never been led away in handcuffs.”

“It’s nice to have someone you know who can fight for you,” he said. “In one way or another for the last 20 years I have been fighting for a cause.

“That cause has changed, but my desire to help people who are oppressed or overwhelmed, that doesn’t really change.”

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ppayne.

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