Gung-ho Santa Rosa Marine now go-to lawyer
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.