LONG BEACH - After 29 years on the bench, Long Beach Superior Court Judge Charles Sheldon began a new phase in life Friday upon his retirement.
But thanks to the 24 boxes of case files cluttering his Seal Beach bedroom, Sheldon likely won't stray too far from the law.
"I've been thinking about writing true crime," the judge said after his retirement luncheon this past week, which drew more than 200 well-wishers to the Long Beach Courthouse.
With his lengthy and storied career, Sheldon is lacking in neither subject matter nor experience.
"This building was built in 1960, that's how long I've been here," Sheldon said, referring to his career as a prosecutor and a judge.
In addition to his legal duties, Sheldon served three, seven-month-long tours of duty in the Navy aboard the USS Princeton, an anti-submarine aircraft carrier in the South China Sea. He also served six years in the Navy Reserve.
During Sheldon's 22 years as a Los Angeles County deputy district attorney, the New York native served as head deputy prosecutor in Long Beach from 1981 to 1983; he was the head deputy prosecutor in Compton when it opened in 1978 to 1981 and was assigned to the DA's Organized Crime Unit in downtown Los Angeles from 1969 to 1972.
Sheldon was a young man when he prosecuted imposing Mafia figures like Jimmy Fratianno, Frank "The Bump" Bompensiero, Jimmy Casino, the Van Horn brothers and Joe Donao. He recalls taking a death threat from Fratianno - whose son lived in Long Beach - seriously enough to go out and buy a gun.
A few days later, Sheldon was working on a case at his home - then in Belmont Shore - around midnight when he heard someone rattling the back door. The married father of four got his new firearm and barked out "freeze mother f-," he recalled - apologizing for the profanity, explaining that was what his police friends told him to do.
As he threw open the door, he saw the barrel of his gun was pointed at the head of one of his son's young friends who had been given a key but who couldn't work the lock.
"I took my gun and I put it away it away and I never pulled it out again," Sheldon said.
It's a story that might surprise some who would assume a former military man, prosecutor and judge would be unswayed by such a moment. But it reveals a lot about how Sheldon has used his many years of legal service and his own personal experiences to come to an informed personal view on many legal subjects, including the death penalty, which he argued for as a prosecutor and which he ordered as a judge.
"I'm going to vote against the death penalty" this November, he said, referring to Proposition 34. "I'm totally discouraged with how it is implemented here in California it's just too expensive and I'm not convinced it's a deterrent."
Still, his roots as a prosecutor could be seen whenever he would stop lawyers to question difficult witnesses personally. Both defense attorneys and prosecutors agreed that though he was tough, he was fair.
"You had better be prepared, and you had better know the law," said longtime defense attorney Robert Welbourn III, a friend of Sheldon's.
Lawyers who have argued cases in Sheldon's court describe him as a stickler for efficiency and preparation. Attorneys who liked to threaten, shout or employ other shock tactics never got much of a reaction from Sheldon, though he notes that there were many frustrating moments.
"When you're the judge it's easy, you just call for a 10 minute recess and cool down," he says with a broad smile.
That warm smile, and his ability to spin a tale at a moment's notice from any one of the 1,200 cases he presided over since his appointment to the bench in 1983 by Gov. George Deukmejian, are among his most enduring qualities.
When asked about his most notable cases, he says the murders, rapes and kidnappings start to blur after so much time. The high volume of cases was due to his push for hearing back-to-back trials, something he continued up until this last week on the job.
But there are still those cases that stick out in his mind. Cases like People V. Verduzco, in which Sheldon came within a few feet of being slashed by convicted killer Daniel Verduzco, who instead went after his court-appointed defense attorney, Welbourn.
Verduzco - an alleged member of the Mexican Mafia - was already serving a life term for a Compton murder when he came before Sheldon in 2002 as a defendant in an assault with a deadly weapon case for stabbing two partygoers in Long Beach.
"He hated me, because I wouldn't let him represent himself...," Sheldon said. "He was able to get the razor blade into the court by hiding it in a slit cut under his eyebrow."
But it was Welbourn, who was sitting next to Verduzco, who was ultimately targeted. The defense attorney said his plastic surgeon had the damage fixed within a few hours at Torrance Memorial Medical Center.
As Welbourn and Sheldon laugh as they remember that day - but both added it was a very serious situation. Verduzco missed Welbourn's carotid artery by mere inches. Welbourn's wife, Sheldon said, was ready for him to retire.
"It was disturbing," Sheldon said. "You expect to be safe in a courtroom."
Now, however, is the time for something new, he said.
Whatever it is will include his four sons, his eight grandchildren and the woman with whom he has shared many years of his life, Brenda Hoffman.
Though they are not married - Sheldon never remarried after his divorce from his first wife - the retired physician wears a diamond ring given to her by Sheldon as a sign of their commitment.
"I'm looking forward to it," Sheldon said of this new phase of life.
"There's so much to do."