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Longtime federal prosecutor who tried Cleveland arsonist, helped in case against Saddam Hussein retires

September 1, 2018

Longtime federal prosecutor who tried Cleveland arsonist, helped in case against Saddam Hussein retires

CLEVELAND, Ohio — It’s sometimes hard for people who don’t know David Sierleja well to know when he’s joking or not.

Whether he’s talking about about winning a race for district attorney in rural Wisconsin in 1984 — he said of his opponent that “I’d like to think I crushed him” — or talking about the importance of prosecuting the arsonist in the deadliest house fire in Cleveland history, the longtime federal prosecutor often tells it in the same dry delivery.

He took his work seriously, though. Sierleja, 66, retired from the U.S. Attorney’s Office on Friday, after 28 years as a federal prosecutor. The Painesville resident ascended the ranks, with his final gig at the office being first assistant to U.S. Attorney Justin Herdman.

He also briefly served as acting U.S. attorney after Attorney General Jeff Sessions fired 46 Obama-era holdovers, including Carole Rendon in Cleveland, in March 2017.

A selection committee also pegged Sierleja as a finalist for U.S. attorney, though it later picked Herdman. Sierleja said he respects Herdman and even told Trump as much when he met the president in Youngstown in 2017.

He said the compliment came after an awkward exchange.

“I told him I was the acting United States attorney and he asked me if I put in for it,” Sierleja recounted. “And I said ‘well, it’s the one complaint I’ve got about what you’ve done. I think it’s the one mistake you’ve made as president.’ And he looked at me, somewhat shocked that I would say that to him, and I said ‘you didn’t pick me.’

“And to that he responded, ‘I picked somebody?’” He said Trump then asked him for his business card, which put the Secret Service on high alert as Sierleja reached into his pocket.

A prosecutor with a tough-on-crime mentality, Sierleja said he is kind of upset to leave at a time when Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions are encouraging federal authorities to bring more serious charges in cases involving drugs, violence and illegal immigration.

“it’s a refreshing time to be here ... because we’re going back to simply (being told to) just enforce the laws,” he said.

Critics say such tactics could lead to overcrowding the nation’s prisons, much like the War on Drugs did in the 1980s and 1990s.

Craig Morford, a retired Justice Department attorney who spent most of his career as a federal prosecutor in Cleveland, said “I think agents appreciated the fact that he went the extra mile. You could sit and have a beer with him and just talk as a regular guy.”

Morford, now the chief legal and compliance officer for Ohio-based drug distributor Cardinal Health, also said Sierleja easily relates to people and recalled fond memories working with him as the co-criminal chiefs for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the 2000s.

Greg White, the former longtime Lorain County prosecutor who hired Sierleja in 1982, said his friend helped build stronger relationships with local police.

“It’s hard to come by, to get the level of trust across all those agencies,” said White, who went on to be U.S. attorney and a federal magistrate judge. “He was able to accomplish that.”

Sierleja grew up at East 71st Street and Harvard Avenue in Cleveland and was the first one in his family to graduate college.

“I went to Harvard Elementary. I went to Harvard school, just not quite at that level,” Sierleja, who got his law degree from Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, joked.

His biggest case is likely that of Antun Lewis, who set an East 87th Street house on fire in 2005, killing eight children and an adult at a sleepover.

Then-Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Bill Mason did not file charges and the case languished for a few years. Sierleja knew the case had problems, but also wanted to ensure Lewis was prosecuted.

A federal grand jury indicted Lewis in 2008, but that was just the beginning of a tortured legal saga.

A jury convicted Lewis in 2011, but U.S. District Judge Solomon Oliver Jr. overturned the verdict, citing problems with the reliability of some of the government’s witnesses. Prosecutors tried again, securing another conviction in 2013.

After the second verdict, prosecutors sought a life sentence. Oliver gave Lewis 35 years.

Asked if Lewis got enough time, Sierleja said, “he killed nine human beings in a very violent, in my mind, a horrific manner. And what we asked for was what we thought was a fair sentence.”

His other major case took place more than 6,000 miles away, when Sierleja and a team of federal prosecutors traveled to Baghdad in 2006 to assist in the prosecution of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. He said he gained a new appreciation for the American criminal justice system, even with all its flaws, when working over there.

Sierleja said he plans to travel with his wife and spend time with his grandchildren in his retirement.

Sessions thanked Sierleja for his years of service during a trip to Cleveland last week. However, in singling Sierleja out at a news conference, the attorney general slightly mangled his name.

Sierleja was nonplussed.

“I take, actually, some pride in the fact that people can butcher my name,” the prosecutor, whose last name is pronounced Sir-la-jay, said in his typical delivery. “Nobody can pronounce it, so I have no problems with it.”

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