Stephen Wallace is Bethel’s new District Attorney, the town’s third DA in less than three years. The court has been operating without one for several months, since former DA J. Michael "Mike" Gray retired.
Wallace started work in Bethel on July 10 and said that he’s familiar with the court’s fast pace and high caseload. He has, after all, worked here before.
As a young attorney in the 1990s, Stephen Wallace landed a job at the Bethel District Attorney’s Office. As an Assistant DA he handled hundreds of cases and was one of only two lawyers working there at the time.
“I only had a year under my belt when I came to work here,” said Wallace, “so it was a challenge for me.
“And it was tempering for me - tempering as in the hardening of steel. I was learning about my job as a trial attorney in a place that was very busy where very serious things were happening, and trying to deal with them appropriately.”
In the years since his stint in Bethel, Wallace has worked all over the state. Most recently, he served as District Attorney in Kodiak where, many years ago, he was the boss of J. Michael Gray, Bethel’s most recent DA. And now, 25 years later, Wallace is back in Bethel and running his old office.
He still describes the job as a challenge. The Bethel DA’s Office is one of the busiest in the state. It’s small, understaffed, and Wallace says that over 2,000 cases were referred to them last year.
“There are very serious cases that involve crimes against the person,” he added, referring to violent crimes in the region. “And the crimes that occur, or are referred, out here seems to be, as a percentage of the caseload, greater than in some offices I’ve worked in.”
Prosecuting cases in the YK Delta can get particularly complicated. The DA’s Office tries crimes throughout the Delta’s 56 villages, some of which have their own courthouses and law enforcement agencies that the DA needs to coordinate with. In more remote communities, some people may never see the inside of a courtroom, but might appear in court numerous times by phone.
According to Assistant Attorney General Rob Henderson, Wallace’s approach to these challenges will be informed by his varied work history. Henderson worked with Wallace when they were both young attorneys in Anchorage, and has known him for years. Wallace worked as a police officer in Barrow prior to practicing law, and Henderson views that background as an asset.
“The way I think it impacts the way he handles his cases is his ability to relate to police officers,” said Henderson. “He’s been on the streets, he’s handled cases, and so he knows what that’s like.”
Henderson added that he’s confident in Wallace’s ability to train and mentor the young attorneys on his staff.
We asked Wallace if there was anything he hoped to address as Bethel’s new DA - the crimes he planned to focus on, the internal challenges he hoped to address. He wouldn’t go into any details, but he did say that he was happy to be back.
“There are a lot of great things going on out here on the Delta,” said Wallace. “There’s a lot of beauty, culture, and there’s a lot of interesting good people in our community out here. And it’s why I look forward to this opportunity to serve.”
This article is part of a KYUK series that profiles new leadership in the Delta's criminal justice system. Click here to read our previous profiles of Police Chief Burke Waldron and Superior Court Judge Nathaniel Peters.