Altered course: Chief of warrants takes time out for retirement

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By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

Earlier this year as he contemplated retirement, John Slevin may well have heard the echoes of an age-old saying.

"The bad news is that time flies. The good news is that you're the pilot."

Last month, nearly 39 years after he joined the Oakland County Prosecutor's Office, Slevin took control of one of life's most precious commodities, saying farewell to a legal career during which he worked under the leadership of four prosecutors L. Brooks Patterson for 10 years, Dick Thompson for eight, David Gorcyca for 12, and Jessica Cooper now in her ninth year.

"I have been fortunate to have had great bosses throughout my career here," Slevin said. "Each has had his or her own leadership style, but they have all treated me well and have been a pleasure to work with as we strive to serve the public good. The camaraderie that you develop is unique and the friendships are long lasting. We are so invested in the cases we handle that our bonds become strong."

Prosecutor Jessica Cooper, a former judge on the Michigan Court of Appeals, can attest to that fact.

"With John retiring, we are missing a big part of our family here at the Prosecutor's Office," said Cooper. "He has been an institution here, and is so widely admired and respected for the work he has done on behalf of the county."

The remarks were echoed by Paul Walton, chief assistant at the Prosecutor's Office, and John Skrzynski, chief of the Circuit Court Division, both longtime colleagues and friends of Slevin. Both praised Slevin for the "commitment and dedication" he displayed in his various prosecutorial roles, particularly in handling the challenge of reorganizing the Warrants Division during a time of county-wide austerity.

Cooper, Walton, and Skrzynski were among the featured speakers at a retirement party for Slevin during his final week on the job. It was a "surprise" party attended by some 160 well-wishers, and the outpouring of praise and appreciation was "deeply moving," according to the honoree.

"They caught me completely off guard with the surprise aspect, but it was a special time that I will treasure for years to come," said Slevin, who admitted to being overcome with emotion at various points during the event. "It was a wonderful gesture by my colleagues and it offered me an opportunity to express my thanks for all that they have done for me over the years."

Slevin, who recently turned 64, had a career plan in mind when he joined the Oakland County Prosecutor's Office fresh out of law school nearly four decades ago.

Then "love" got in the way.

It was entirely unexpected, Slevin said of the obstacle that altered his career path.

"I started work the day after I took the bar exam and my plan was to stay with the Prosecutor's Office for three years, which I figured was more than enough time to gain the trial experience that I needed to succeed in private practice," Slevin said. "But then I found that I loved the job and I loved the people working here. Public service was in my blood."

Slevin, a 1971 product of Royal Oak Shrine High School and a 1975 graduate of Wayne State University, spent some nine years as chief of the warrants division for the Prosecutor's Office after serving the previous 18 years as director of the district court operation. For the first 12 years of his career Slevin tried cases at the district court and circuit court levels.

"I tried hundreds of cases during that time, everything from murder, to rape, to robberies, to domestic assaults," Slevin said. "One thing was always certain in this job there will be variety. You think you've seen it all, then something else comes along that tops it. The criminal mind is ever changing."

Several years ago, two cases, in particular, brought public pressure to bear on the Oakland County Prosecutor's Office, highlighting the difficulty of affixing blame when there are conflicting accounts and mysterious circumstances.

The first involved an Oakland County man accused of invading his wife's privacy by hacking into her e-mail account while the couple was involved in divorce proceedings. The case drew national attention and sparked debate over the proper reach of prosecutorial powers.

The second, which flooded the Prosecutor's Office with thousands of e-mails from pet-lovers around the country, involved whether to charge a Waterford dog groomer in the death of a pit bull named "Gooch" that died October 14, 2010 while having its nails clipped. A necropsy by the College of Veterinary Medicine at Michigan State University found that the dog died of multiple internal injuries and suffocation.

"We have to look solely at the facts and do our best to determine whether there is enough evidence to sustain charges," Slevin said of his most recent role. "As anyone who has been involved in law enforcement can attest, it's seldom a cut-and-dried case. We have to be thorough in our investigation and sometimes it can take a lot longer than anyone might have initially expected. The last thing we want to do is to try a case that is flawed, where we can't meet the burden of proof that is required."

A 1978 graduate of the former Detroit College of Law, Slevin was among the longest-serving assistant prosecutors on the job, a key member of the prosecutorial team that handles some 15,000 cases annually.

Slevin was raised in Royal Oak, meeting his future wife, Theresa, while in high school. His father, John Sr., was a veteran of World War II and died of lung cancer at age 49 when Slevin was a freshman at Wayne State. He was a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and worked as an analyst for General Motors.

"My Dad was a B-29 navigator in the Pacific during World War II," Slevin said. "He was stationed on Tinian Island when the atomic bombs were delivered near the end of the war."

His mother, JoAnn, was a native of Detroit and helped raise the couple's four children. She passed away nine years ago at the age of 80 following years of declining health.

Slevin and his wife were married in 1976 in their hometown of Royal Oak, living there until moving to Livingston County in 1989. She served as director of the after-school program at Spencer Elementary in Brighton before retiring three years ago.

The couple has two children, son Chris and daughter Katie, both living in the Tampa Bay area. Chris is a graduate of Western Michigan University and works in personnel for Johnson & Johnson. He and his wife, Katrina, were married last fall. Katie, who graduated from Michigan State University, was a member of the MSU Marching Band during her collegiate career. She earned a doctorate in physical therapy from Oakland University, and works at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital in Tampa.

His kids "will always help keep me humble," Slevin said with a grin, acknowledging that his family has had a "special knack" of providing the proper balance to his high-stakes work in the legal world. In cyber terms, Slevin likes to follow a message that appears on his computer screen:

"Read it again. Count to 10. Hit send."

Such words of wisdom have served Slevin well in big cases and small. He remembers well a murder case he tried more than 25 years ago in which two teen-age brothers were charged in the brutal killing of their stepbrother. The deceased's body was discovered in a basement closet, wrapped in carpet.

"We had strong evidence against the older boy and he was convicted in a separate trial," Slevin said. "The case wasn't as strong against his brother and the trial wasn't going too well, so I was hoping that I could offer him a plea."

But Prosecutor Dick Thompson wasn't in a bargaining mood, telling Slevin to press on for a murder conviction. During a break in the trial, fate intervened. A woman tapped Slevin on the shoulder, sensing that he needed a few words of encouragement for a case that was headed nowhere.

"I asked her who she was and she admitted that she was the girlfriend, the extramarital girlfriend, of the father whose boys were charged in the killing," Slevin said. "She said that she had been having conversations with the boys while they were in jail and they admitted their roles in the killing. When I told her that she would need to testify to that, she tried to bolt from the courtroom, knowing that the affair that she was having would come out. I literally had to have her arrested as a material witness so that she would be forced to testify. It was the break we needed."

Early in his career, Slevin had occasion to make his own "breaks" with colleagues. It was 1978 and Slevin was among several up-and-coming young assistant prosecutors, a group that included Mike Schloff, Joe Papelian, Tom Keenan, Ron Covault, and Len Gilman.

"We were a bunch that worked hard and played hard," said Schloff, a longtime criminal defense attorney and a past president of the Oakland County Bar Association. "At times, we could be a bit silly, a bit mischievous."

Such as when during a prolonged coffee break on the fifth floor of the courthouse they decided to engage in some much-needed recreational activity, snagging a bowling ball and rolling a few frames in the hallway, knocking down carefully placed MCL statutory books along the way. The game was affectionately known as "Bowling for Knowledge." For Schloff, Slevin and their legal brethren, it was a short-lived release valve that may have helped cement their bond forever.

"It was fun, it was somewhat creative, and it was all about great legal minds at work," Schloff said in jest. "It's a memory we will share for life.