The U.S. Department of Justice generated plenty of strange stories during the George W. Bush years. But one of the strangest involved John David "Roy" Atchison, an assistant U.S. attorney in Pensacola, Florida, who committed suicide after being caught in a pedophilia sting in Detroit.
Atchison's sad story has many connections to Birmingham and Alabama. And it raises this question: How did a guy with a shaky work record and a history of run-ins with the law get hired by the world's supposedly foremost crime-fighting organization? Did Atchison attain his lofty position because he had connections to powerful figures in the Alabama legal world?
Investigative journalist Margie Burns examines these questions, and much more, in a series of posts about the Atchison case at her blog, margieburns.com.
Burns begins with the actions that turned Atchison into a national figure in fall 2007:
This is not the story of a man who engaged in pedophilia for years or decades before being caught. It is the story of a man whipsawed by the strain of living up to a high-achieving family rooted in Birmingham, Ala., whose high-functioning connections assisted him for years in developing a career for which he turned out not to be suited. On Sept. 16, 2007, Assistant U.S. Attorney John David Roy Atchison, serving as a federal prosecutor in the Northern District of Florida, was arrested on credible charges of basically pedophilia. Atchison committed suicide in federal prison Oct. 5.
A dead pedophile might not sound like a tragedy. But Atchison was thought to be participating in a pedophile ring, and his death removed a useful informant from law enforcement resources. The question of how he was enabled to kill himself rather than being preserved for justice is one of the loose ends left hanging in his case.
Burns shows that Atchison's colleagues in the Northern District of Florida apparently were clueless about his suspicious behavior in the workplace:
When Atchison was arrested, his personal laptops—two, one being used by his wife—were confiscated, along with his workplace desktop and removable flash drives. Setting aside the criminal acts under investigation, this is multiple computer drives to keep an eye on, just with a view to general security and privacy, and carrying laptops to and from the office is potentially a security breach. . . .
The obvious question here is whether AUSAs are allowed to have personal ‘business on the side,’ conducted from the office. Officially federal policy prohibits moonlighting while on the job, for any federal employee and particularly for federal prosecutors.
Perhaps Atchison thought he good get away with questionable behavior because of his family connections. It appears, based on Burns' reporting, that such connections helped him move up in the legal world, even though he was adrift during his 20s and early 30s. He bounced from job to job and moved 18 times in one 14-year period. That doesn't sound like the attributes of a high achiever. But Atchison had one advantage: connections to the powerful Birmingham law firm of Starnes and Atchison. In fact, he worked at the firm as a law clerk for several years in the late 1970s and early '80s:
At that time, he was enrolled at Samford University’s Cumberland School of Law in Birmingham, Ala., returning to the place where his family had roots. During the same year--the exact dates are inconsistently given--he also worked as a clerk at the Birmingham law firm of Starnes and Atchison, co-founded by a cousin, W. Michael Atchison. Well-regarded local attorney Mike Atchison moved to another firm in 2010, and Starnes and Atchison changed its name; see later post. Repeated attempts to contact Michael Atchison have been unsuccessful.
Michael Atchison now works at Burr Forman, one of Birmingham's large downtown firms, and he apparently is not anxious to discuss his late cousin. Is that because members of the Birmingham legal community once helped Roy Atchison get out of some jams? The answer appears to be yes. Through the Freedom of Information Act, Burns has studied FBI documents related to the Atchison case, and she writes:
The tacit question in these records remains how Atchison got government jobs in the first place. Part of the development is clear—law school to a government agency to a more desirable federal job, then the lateral move from one federal jurisdiction to another. Questions about who provided references, who co-signed notes, etc., are not answered. Beyond that, attorney Maurice R. Mitts of Mitts Milavec replies matter-of-factly, “It’s not that hard” to get a job in the Justice Department. If you “have a good work ethic and keep your grades up,” Mitts says, “it’s really not that hard.”
It's especially not that hard when you seemingly have members of the Alabama legal community helping to cover up your legal problems. Atchison, it turns out, had an arrest for reckless driving and drug possession. That's the kind of thing that might put a halt to a federal law-enforcement career for many people. But it did not stop Roy Atchison:
On May 1, 1982, just a few weeks shy of getting the J.D., Roy Atchison was picked up by Birmingham police. Obviously any brush with the law is a potential concern in a background check, but the brief account transmitted by the FBI is innocuous enough:
“Arrest check at Tuscaloosa, Alabama, revealed a violation for improper license plates and running a stop sign. Both charges were dismissed. Arrest check at Birmingham, revealed an arrest for reckless driving and violation of Alabama Uniform Controlled Substances Act. The charge of reckless driving was [amended] to running a red light. Applicant failed to appear on this charge and a writ was issued for his arrest. Applicant later appeared and paid a fine. The violation of Alabama Uniform Controlled Substances Act was dismissed by the Assistant District Attorney.”
Atchison essentially blew off the incident on his application for an assistant U.S. attorney position. But Burns reveals how he was able to get off lightly for a crime that might have been a serious matter for someone who was not well connected:
An Assistant District Attorney charged Atchison in the matter—he subsequently failed to appear in court, earning a contempt citation on top of the reckless driving and narcotics possession charges, and a writ was issued for his (re-)arrest. However, a second ADA, Don Russell, dropped charges and dismissed the case: “Subject had no prior arrests, or any evidence that he was selling narcotics.” (Atchison’s two previous traffic citations—one for running a stop sign, another for expired tags—in Tuscaloosa, had also been dismissed.) Generally speaking, possession of more than one bag of controlled substances might be taken as evidence of selling, but it might be noted that ADA Russell got his J.D. at Cumberland Law School, a year after his fellow alum, the highly-regarded Mike Atchison. It might also be noted that Roy Atchison was not only a soon-to-be law graduate and affiliated with an established law firm in town, but was not guilty of driving while black.
This story hits close to home for your humble blogger. I have seen firsthand how powerful law firms such as Starnes and Atchison (now Starnes Davis and Florie) use their influence to help pervert our justice system and cheat regular citizens. In fact, Margie Burns referenced my experiences with the Starnes firm in her reporting:
A check into the records by Birmingham law blogger Roger Shuler also does not turn up any mention of legal assistance for Atchison. Shuler notes, “I’m quite familiar with Starnes and Atchison. They are a major defense firm here, particularly in defending medical malpractice and legal malpractice cases. In fact, I filed a legal malpractice case one time against a local lawyer, and Starnes and Atchison represented him. The firm, I believe, has defended the University of Alabama in a number of matters. Also, one of their primary partners, Stancil Starnes, became the head of ProAssurance, a Bham-based company that provides malpractice insurance for doctors . . . My impression is that anyone with ties to Starnes and Atchison indeed is well connected” in Birmingham.
Did the Starnes firm and other individuals in the Birmingham legal community help advance the career of a man who turned out to be a pedophile? Were taxpayers, through their support of Alabama's court system, forced to help fund this whole charade? Margie Burns paints a compelling picture that indicates the answer is yes. And her reporting is ongoing.