The High Road

Judge Jerry Stevens was in the driver's seat--until he let cocaine take over.

Jerry Stevens was flying high. He was a successful personal-injury lawyer and municipal judge in Aurora. He had the things that Thurgood Marshall once said were at the root of the law's mystique: "Power, prestige and influence."

He also had money. There's a large painting of him that shows a young attorney posing triumphantly on top of his yellow Mercedes convertible (he owned two Benzes), wearing a gold ring and clutching a law book, while below, a montage of newspaper headlines details his legal successes.

Now the portrait is kept in a chilly storage room on Leetsdale Drive. Times have changed. "For much of the last few years, I've been a bystander in my own life," Stevens says.

Today he's trying to rebound from his arrest in 1991 for purchasing $25 worth of crack cocaine. His addiction to cocaine--both powder and crack--had been going strong for more than a decade. He got high several times a month, though he says he was never high while presiding as a judge. Stevens avoided jail time (he got two years' probation, mandatory drug rehab and community service instead) but was dismissed from the bench and suspended from the bar.

"I let down a lot of people," he says. "There's the sense I got all these things and threw them away."

These days the fifty-year-old Stevens is still self-absorbed, but in another direction. He studies Jungian psychology and thinks about mixing some sort of therapy practice with a return to the law. (Stevens has a bar reinstatement hearing scheduled for next month. "I fully expect I'll be reinstated," he says.) He hangs out at bookstores or libraries. Instead of fancy digs, he lives in the basement of his mom's house. Instead of a Benz, he rides the bus. "The Jerry Stevens that a lot of people are hanging on to is gone," says a longtime friend, Lovia Shipp. "He's more into himself and his knowledge and his awareness."

Deep into it. He's full of abstractions and metaphors and packed with Sartre, Jung and countless other thinkers. If he's not poring through books ("He has more books than the public library," says Shipp), he's thumbing through a large blue binder stuffed full of essays and poems from his favorite authors.

"Dealing with Jerry is sort of like going up to Lookout Mountain," says old friend Claude Johnson. "There are switchbacks, so you can't go straight to the top."

Or to the bottom. Stevens talks about his long drug habit and his suspension from the bar as "my time of trouble" or "when I was in the wilderness." He speaks about having to "go through the rings of fire." He'll say, "We all fall."

Many people who know Stevens see his intellectual posturing as a way to remove himself from the emotional pain of his habit and the embarrassment it caused friends and family. Even Stevens admits that his words may deflect a deeper truth: "Is it the spin I put on it or is it reality?"

Dealing with addiction, says Johnson, "has been an academic exercise" for Stevens. "That's how he retains his sanity," adds Johnson. "It gives him a laboratory in his own mind. It takes away the 'sucking it up'; it makes it so there was not really a wrong committed. There's not really a right and wrong."

There was only a high and mighty. "I was inflated," Stevens now says. Friends agree.

"I could understand how Jerry could get sucked up in that," Johnson says. "He was in a position of authority for once in his life. He was the man. He wasn't Jerry anymore; he was The Judge. His concept of self was so high, the drugs were his way of showing people that 'I'm one of you.'"

Most of the time, though, Jerry Stevens has gone it alone. "I was a made and manufactured person," he says. "A person gets on a path: They're born, they go to school, they get a job, they get married, they buy a house, they sell a house, and they die. There's not much chance for people to develop a sense of who they are."

Stevens's path was smooth enough, and maybe, he says, that was the start of his troubles. He grew up in northeast Denver, the second of three brothers. Their well-to-do father worked in construction and was devoted to the children. He fixed up a house in Denver for each son when he finished college. Dad even went so far as to move out to Kansas for a time when his youngest boy started at the University of Kansas.

"We looked at Jerry and his older brother as being really lucky," Johnson says. "They always had nice clothes, and in his junior year, their father bought them a Corvette. To have a '63 Corvette and be black? The only black kids who had cars were those who dropped out."

Though considered good-natured by his classmates, Stevens nevertheless earned the nickname "Grrr" for the way he frowned like a bear. By the time he had reached high school, sibling rivalry and a natural thirst to excel had put an edge on him. "Jerry used to be very cocky," says younger brother Keith. "He's always had to make himself better; he's very competitive. I remember playing chess with Jerry, and he played it very aggressively. He was determined to come out on top. It turned me off of playing."

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