© 2022 WKSU
Public Radio News for Northeast Ohio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

U.S. Attorney Dettelbach Says his Office has Made Words on Paper Real for Ohioans

Outgoing U.S. Attorney Steven Dettelbach says civil rights has been one of his office's strengths.

Steve Dettelbach is in his final week as U.S. Attorney for Northern Ohio. And though he plans to remain in Cleveland, it will be in private practice – a step removed from the cases of corruption, hate crimes and police reform that have absorbed him for the last seven years. WKSU’s M.L. Schultze talked with him about where he thinks his office has made its biggest mark.

Before he was nominated by President Obama in 2009 and confirmed unanimously by the Senate to be the U.S. Attorney, Steve Dettelbach spent more than a decade in the Justice Department, prosecuting – among others -- corrupt officials: CongressmanJames Traficant, Cleveland political fixer Nate Gray, Ohio Bureau of Workers Comp contractor Tom Noe. And he took over the office as it was handling the biggest corruption case of all with more than 60 public officials, employees and contractors in Cuyahoga County eventually convicted.

Credit C-SPAN
Rep. James Traficant denied until his death in 2014 he had done anything wrong.

  Dettelbach keeps it in perspective.

“The truth of the matter is that there are a great deal of people who are public servants who are really great honest people. But there’s this stubborn small group that float around to different places that can’t get it through their heads that if you do bribery you’re going to go to jail.”

Making concepts reality
Still, he’s proudest of a different branch of the office, a civil-rights division that’s been one of the most active in the country for the last decade.

The cases include violations of federal laws ensuring access for people with disabilitiesfair housingvoting rightshuman trafficking and hate crimes.

“I’m really proud of the fact that in this U.S. Attorneys office in this district, we are trying to make the civil rights that are written done in books and on important pieces of paper into reality for the people of Ohio.”

A photo of voters at a polling place
Credit wksu
Voters in Cuyahoga and Lorain counties can choose English- or Spanish-language ballots.

Push for equality
And, Dettelbach acknowledges, it’s a personal passion.

“To me, it’s about being an American. Equality is sort of who we are. … Whether I was taught that by my parents or my teachers or in my synagogue, we were always taught that you’ve got to treat people equally.

“If you don’t treat people equal, then they don’t buy into being part of the greatest country in the history of the world. So to me asking a lawyer why he cares about civil rights is like asking water why it’s wet.”

Amish hate crimes
Among the most unusual civil rights cases handled by his office is the hate crimes prosecution of Sam Mullet and his followers in an Amish sect in eastern Ohio accused of repeatedly breaking into the homes of its critics and terrorizing five families.

“When you’ve got a group of people who are peaceful Amish people who get attacked night-after-night by a violent group of sort-of religious thugs, you can’t make this stuff up. … They were brutally assaulted and religiously assaulted, what I remember the most about it was these people who were victims in this cases didn’t want anything more than just to be left alone, and do their religion in their own way.

Sam Mullet mug shot
Credit U.S. District Court
U.S. District Court
Sam Mullet was accused of leading a cult-like sect that terrorized other Amish.

  “And that’s why they were in this country. It’s the only country in this world that was founded on this idea of religious pluralism and religious freedom.”

An appeals court overturned the hate-crimes convictions, saying the judge’s instructions were faulty. Obstruction of justice charges stood. But Dettelbach insists the case was the right one.

“These were brutal home invasions where people were held down, hacked and left bloodied and bruised. And more than that, their dignity and religious freedom was taken from them.”

An Islamic target
Another hate-crimes case was the torching of the Toledo Islamic Center in 2012 by an Indiana man, Randy Linn.

“Unfortunately, we have had a series of hate crimes in this district that has not discriminated and really almost every group has gotten a turn.”

“He drove across state lines and torched the mosque for no other reason than just a sort of hatred for people he didn’t even know.”

Linn pleaded guilty and last year sent a letter to the mosque asking for forgiveness.

A bridge bombing averted
Dettelbach says for his office, and all other U.S. attorneys offices now and in the future, “national security is always going to be an issue.”

And one headline case during his tenure was the attempted bombing of the Route 82 bridge over the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. The explosive provided by an FBI informant was fake, but Dettelbach says the intent of the five men convicted in the case was not.

Mug shots
Credit FBI
Five men were convicted of plotting to blow up the Ohio Route 82 bridge over the Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

“This group of self-proclaimed anarchists just sort of twisted the notion of what was a protest movement into their own kind of ideology that somehow made it OK for them to bomb a bridge.”

“There’s families, mothers, children going over there. … And one night these guys place what they think is plastic explosive at the bottom of the bridge, and they go to Applebees gloating the whole time about how they’re going to do this great terrorism act. And they punch in the code to blow the bridge up.

“Thank God again that the FBI and the local police and the joint terrorism task force was on them.”

Issues to come

"To me, asking a lawyer why he cares about civil rights is like asking water why it's wet."

But it’s a different kind of national security issue that Dettelbach says “keeps me up at night” – cyber security.

“I think that ….we are really behind where we need to be in protecting our intellectual property.”

“I think another thing we need to focus on is to really double down on trying to stop this gun violence. We’ve brought over a thousand cases against felons who were running around with guns. These are the worst-of-the-worst, and we’ve gotten really significant sentences on those people. But we need to do more to prevent crime to begin with.”


Dettelbach on recidivism and re-entry  

Dettelbach on second chances

"We can't afford as a community to be so unforgiving."
 “A huge predictor of lowering crime is somebody having a good job. … It’s 80 percent recidivism when someone doesn’t have a good job and 20 percent when they do. "So having employers open to the idea of hiring and retaining people who have made a mistake and want a second chance I think is so important. And I hope employers out there will keep an open mind for those people. Because everybody makes mistakes, and a second chance or even a third chance, it’s part of who we are as Americans. And we can’t afford as a community to be so unforgiving.” Attitudes are changing, he says, in part because of leadership at the everyday level. “I think somebody takes the first step and hires somebody who’s made a mistake and is trying to turn their life around and they have a good experience it and then hires another one and somebody else sees it. It’s a stubborn problem but something we can really change.” And, Dettelbach says, there’s a practical incentive. “You hire somebody who is coming back into the community, they’re going to have more monitoring than any other employee you ever had. They’re going to have a parole officer or probation officer. They’re going to have a court looking over them making sure they don’t mess up. So there’s all the reason in the right circumstances to give these people a second shot.”

Dettelbach on preventing violent crime

"Little kids don't grow up saying they want to lead a life of crime and end up on a slab at the age 25."
More than prosecution

“We need to focus not just on enforcement, but on prevention. We need to focus on enforcement, don’t get me wrong. I’m a prosecutor; my day job is we put people in jail. And that’s OK. A lot of them are violent. They belong in jail. “But we need to make sure that we are doing things like the STANCE program here in this office where we are meeting … with cops together with social works together with the sheriff together with the FBI together, with doctors and people who work in the emergency room to try to intervene in these situations and help kids before they go off the rails. “And I say that not as some ‘hug-a-thug’ person; I’m a career prosecutor. … And I’m telling everybody -- just like the chiefs of police I sit with -- that  we need to also double down on prevention.” He says the solution isn’t complicated – just hard and expensive. “The best prevention program is a really good school. The best prevention program is a family structure and a support structure that helps kids realize to realize their potential. …  Little kids don’t grow up saying they want to lead a life of crime and end up on a slab at the age 25. They want to do the same things; they want to be doctors and lawyers.” “And the problem is those things are really expensive and hard to make happen. So it’s not that complicated as to what you’ve got to do to push back on violent crime in a substantive way. But making that happen is way, way harder than me sitting here and talking about it." 

That’s outgoing U.S. Attorney for Northern Ohio, Steven Dettelbach. This afternoon, during Here and Now and All Things Considered, we’ll talk about the effort that is likely to be the biggest legacy of his tenure: The reform of the Cleveland Police Department.   


M.L. Schultze is a freelance journalist. She spent 25 years at The Repository in Canton where she was managing editor for nearly a decade, then served as WKSU's news director and digital editor until her retirement.