Former California Attorney General John Van de Kamp, a public-defender-turned-politician who became Los Angeles County's top prosecutor by defeating the man who sent Charles Manson to prison, has died after a brief illness. He was 81.
Philip Recht, his senior law partner and longtime friend, confirmed Wednesday that Van de Kamp died Tuesday at his home in Pasadena.
"He had just a storied and I think pretty unique career in law and law enforcement," recalled Recht, the partner in charge of Mayer Brown's Los Angeles office where Van de Kamp worked the last five years. "I don't know anybody who's been the leader first on the defense side and then the prosecution side."
Van de Kamp was California's attorney general from 1983 until 1991 and successfully pushed to pass the nation's first restrictions on assault weapons after a gunman killed five children at a Stockton school in 1989.
He ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1990, losing in the Democratic primary to then-San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein. She was defeated by Republican U.S. Sen. Pete Wilson in the general election.
Van de Kamp had the distinction of serving as the first Los Angeles-based federal public defender from 1971-1975 and then as Los Angeles County's top prosecutor from 1975-1982 during his long legal and political career. He also was the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles from 1966-67.
He won the district attorney's race in 1976 against Charles Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi.
California's current chief law enforcement officer, Xavier Becerra, was among those who recalled Van de Kamp as a mentor.
"John Van de Kamp lived for the values of justice and opportunity that define the state of California," Becerra said in a statement. "I will forever be grateful for the confidence he showed in me from my earliest days of public service under his leadership at the California Department of Justice."
In a statement mourning his death, L.A. County DA Jackie Lacey said that Van de Kamp was an ethical and kind-hearted public servant. Lacey frequently sought his advice and looked up to him during her transition into office, she said.
“He cared deeply about the office of the District Attorney’s Office,” Lacey said. “We, as an office, are indebted to him for his innovative and straight-forward leadership and his enduring sense of fairness."
Van de Kamp, a Stanford Law School graduate, also served as president of the State Bar of California from 2004-2005 and more recently was the independent reform monitor for the city of Vernon as part of reform efforts there. He was a past president of both the California Historical Society and the Planning and Conservation League, reflecting what Recht called an extraordinary range of interests.
As attorney general, he defended a voter-approved initiative designed to limit insurance rate increases while building a track record as a consumer advocate. He ran for governor in part by promising to drain the political "swamp" at the state Capitol.
A long-time death penalty opponent, Van de Kamp backed unsuccessful ballot initiatives in 2012 and 2016 that would have ended capital punishment in the state.
He also challenged a November ballot initiative approved by voters. Proposition 66 is on hold while the California Supreme Court considers his lawsuit challenging the measure that would speed up appeals for criminals sentenced to death.
“John never backed away from taking strong, principled stands on tough issues,” L.A. City Attorney Mike Feuer said in a statement. “He was supremely effective at everything he did – always with a quiet confidence and devotion to public service that inspired generations of lawyers.”
As DA, he worked to increase the number of women deputy DAs in the office, according to the history book "For the People — Inside the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office 1850-2000." He also established units focused on decreasing gang violence, sexual assault, domestic violence, child abuse and officer-involved shootings.