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The High Road

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."

Jerry took up track and field in middle school and got hooked in high school. "Before he got good," says Johnson, "Jerry thought he was God. He'd make comments like 'That Claude is pretty fast--I'm just a little faster.' It was his way of saying 'I was better than you' without saying it. He's not a braggart, but he is a braggart. He doesn't like to bring attention to himself, but he likes the spotlight."

Not that he didn't have reason to brag. Claude and Jerry were classmates at East High, where kids in gym class had to run around Ferrill Lake in nearby City Park every Wednesday. A record time had been set years before, and no one had come close to beating it. "Jerry just decided he was gonna get the record," Johnson says. "He went out and just destroyed the record. And at that time, we had some of the best distance runners in Colorado. It was whispered through the halls: 'Jerry Stevens just ran the lake...' That was sophomore year. By the end, he was the best 220, 440, 880 and triple-jump man in the state."

Stevens's exploits earned him a plug in Sports Illustrated, which commonly profiled outstanding high-school athletes on its back pages. He attended the University of Iowa on a track scholarship, planning to study dentistry. But his fondness for track waned, and the interest in dentistry gave way to psychology and then law.

The move made sense for someone who loved verbal sparring. "To most of us, it didn't bother us when Jerry would play these word games," Johnson says. "That's what he hid behind. When he had athletics, that did all the talking, but without it, he needed something else. That's why he wanted to go into law, why he needed to be a judge."

Stevens says he became a lawyer to fight the good fight. "But trying to help people," he says, "the image was like carrying water in a sieve and pouring it into a perforated jar--you can never do enough. Sometimes I think in terms of my problem, or my fall--that in trying to help others, maybe I didn't attend enough to myself."

Being a lawyer may have disillusioned him, and he says now that he didn't commit himself fully to it. But the money he made handling personal-injury cases, helping mostly poor and black clients "go after the deep pockets," seduced him. The Eighties version of Stevens was caught, he says, in contradictory lives. When he wasn't practicing law or working every other week as a judge, he spent his time as a Red Cross instructor, training as an ambulance EMT and teaching Outward Bound courses, among other volunteer efforts.

At the same time, however, he was living it up. Friends remember him as a high-profile man about town. A sharp dresser, he had Stetson hats custom-made in Durango. He traveled frequently, too. Once, Shipp says, when Stevens was on his way to the Bahamas--tall, black and fashionably attired--he was asked by an airport ticket agent if he was a professional basketball player. "No," he replied, "I'm just rich." He was flying high.

Reaching that altitude was no problem. "Getting into the cocaine was easy, really," Stevens recalls. "At parties it was just sitting on the table. It was part of the lifestyle." Pretty soon, Stevens, a bachelor, was getting high regularly. As with so many things in his life, Stevens usually went at his cocaine alone. He says he doesn't remember how much he spent paying for his habit, only that "the loss was substantial."

If he hadn't been caught, he says, things would have only gotten worse. "If I had continued in the line I was in full-time," he says, "you might have found me dead in the closet. That was one alternative."

While some of Stevens's friends and family members view the drug bust as an aberration (few knew he had been using for so long), others think Stevens's troubles were bound up in his basic difficulty relating to people. Shipp says Stevens lived north of City Park in the hopes of staying connected with other black people. But it wasn't easy. "He doesn't relate well to average people," Shipp says. "He tries to be a regular person; he tries to hang out in bars with black folks. But he just isn't a regular fellow. He doesn't try to, but a lot of people feel he talks down to them."

 

He doesn't even relate well to his own brothers. "One birthday of mine, Jerry had gotten his income-tax return and paycheck," Keith says. "He never even said 'Happy birthday,' and that's just the way it's always been. Jerry has a tremendous ego and a big head. His situation brought him down to earth--what goes around comes around."

But it took more than his arrest and the end of his legal career to straighten Stevens out. He entered rehab for several months after his arrest; following his release at the end of 1991, he says, he stayed clean until 1993, when he started using again. "I can't deny it," he says of the random urine test that revealed cocaine in his system. "I had it retested and it came out the same. I have to take responsibility for that." When the court finally rendered a sentence in 1993, he was ordered into another rehab program, which he completed in 1994.

He says he's been clean since then, but work has been tough to find. So he's enrolled in a master's program in depth psychology through Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara, California. In 1993 he co-founded the James P. Beckwourth Mountain Club, an outdoors exploration group named for an important but little-known black explorer.

Beckwourth was an adventurer who traveled around the country in the 1800s. He fought alongside Californians rebelling against Mexico, farmed, set up trading posts and discovered what was later called Beckwourth Pass, at the northern end of the Sierra Nevada range in California.

The Beckwourth Mountain Club brings together dozens of adults and children, mostly black, to go on wilderness expeditions that range from hiking to backcountry skiing to rafting to fishing. Ostensibly the group is about honoring and carrying forth Beckwourth's legacy, but it also provides an opportunity to introduce young minorities to outdoor activities. The nonprofit group conducts about forty trips a year and is growing, says Stevens.

For Stevens, it's the culmination of a lifetime interest in the outdoors that has taken him climbing all over Colorado and even in Africa. The club, says another founder, Charles Corbin, is "man versus the wilderness. Jerry would want to climb the highest peaks. He enjoys the quest, the experience. In general, he likes the challenge."

In the meantime, he's working on both his thesis and a novel (about "self-awareness," he says) and pondering how to combine his psychology studies with the law.

Stevens already talks like a therapist: "Every moment is filled with the possibility of what might be." And he insists he's happy. His friends wonder what "happy" really means. "Jerry'll never be out of the wilderness," says Johnson. "This wilderness is something like clinical depression, something you have to fight against for the rest of your life. He'll have to be on guard.

"But I think he loves it--the lone wolf, him against the odds.


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