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SAN JOSE — After more than 39 years in the legal profession, a career that has included dozens of trials, grand jury investigations and a failed bid for district attorney, Santa Clara County Special Assistant DA William Larsen is retiring at the end of the year. Since arriving in Santa Clara County more than two decades ago, Larsen has become a statewide expert on criminal law and grand jury procedure, and has written on the topics. He has been the DA’s grand jury liaison since 1991 and once threatened a couple of dissidents with jail time for violating their grand jury oaths in 1998. Larsen “is going to be hard to replace,” said Tom Rindfleisch, the foreman of this year’s civil grand jury. “He knows the grand jury law, inside and out. � Bill is one of those people who is a walking encyclopedia on this stuff.” As head of the DA’s government integrity unit, Larsen made a name for himself by prosecuting rogue public officials, notably former Mountain View Mayor Mario Ambra, who was convicted in 2002 for corruption and bullying city employees. While his friends in the DA’s office describe him as “straight-laced” and a “fine lawyer,” folks in San Mateo County, where he ran and lost against James Fox for DA in 1982, call Larsen a “zealot” who believed he was on a “divine” mission to transcend the legal community. “He sort of believed in his mission, and it was sort of a divine mission,” said John McInerney, who spent a few years in the San Mateo DA’s office with Larsen before moving into defense work. McInerney, who has since retired, said Larsen always tried to rise above the label that “all trial lawyers are frauds.” Larsen himself declined to comment for this story, explaining that he’s had his “fair share of publicity” over the last four decades. “I prefer to just fade away,” said Larsen, who turns 65 next week. Before landing in Santa Clara, Larsen spent more than 16 years as a prosecutor in San Mateo, where he climbed the ladder to chief criminal DA. The 1982 DA race in San Mateo was an “ugly” fight, according to those who remember it. Larsen had the blessing of Keith Sorenson, the county’s long revered DA, who was retiring. Everyone thought a Sorenson endorsement meant the “kiss of death” for any opponents, said McInerney, which is why it was so surprising when Fox won. During the election campaign, Larsen was criticized for interceding on behalf of Joe Montalbano, a son of one of Larsen’s key fundraisers who was accused in a shooting. San Mateo Chief DA Stephen Wagstaffe said the race was contentious, and that to this day Larsen and Fox barely say “hello” to each other when their paths cross. “Bill was a lightning rod,” Wagstaffe said, explaining that it was Larsen who took the hits whenever the defense bar was perturbed with the DA’s office. “Bill’s a person who speaks his mind, and that sometimes bothered people,” Wagstaffe said, adding that Larsen “didn’t worry about what other people thought.” While he may have been defeated in San Mateo, Wagstaffe said, Larsen “rose like the phoenix” when he arrived in Santa Clara. Kenneth Robinson, a San Jose criminal defense lawyer who went toe-to-toe with Larsen in the Ambra trial, said it was the little things that impressed him when he first met Larsen. The prosecutor — with his ever present bow tie — was soft-spoken and didn’t pretend he was someone he wasn’t, Robinson said. During the Ambra trial, according to Robinson, Larsen told jurors that while he wasn’t flamboyant or quick-witted, he did know the law and jurors could always expect to hear the truth from him. Robinson struck up a casual friendship with Larsen during the preliminary hearings in the Ambra case and the two have played golf together ever since. “Bill practices law like he plays golf,” Robinson said. “He analyzes the situation thoroughly before he reaches a decision, and he plays by the rules when implementing his decision.” Santa Clara DA George Kennedy described Larsen as thorough, patient and not afraid to go to trial. Kennedy is grooming newly appointed assistant DA David Tomkins to take over grand jury duties when Larsen retires at the end of December. Larsen also has a passion for forensic science and is largely credited with helping to get the Santa Clara County crime lab certified and construction of its new multimillion-dollar building started. “He’s supported me in any way possible,” said Benny Del Re, the county’s crime lab chief, who has known Larsen, a one-time police officer during his college years at Fresno State University, for 16 years. “He doesn’t need any pats on the back or speeches” to know he’s made a difference. Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Jack Komar has known Larsen since their days at Hastings College of the Law in the early ’60s. While they didn’t have a lot of free time to hang out on a social level, Komar said he could tell even then how dedicated Larsen was to the job. “Bill is about as straight an arrow as any human being can be,” Komar said in a phone interview earlier this week. “He’s a fine lawyer. He is bright. He’s got a good sense of reality.”

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