When Valora first stepped through the door of my office, the smell of cigarettes followed, along with a palpable physical tension. He was in his thirties but looked older, with a tight, tense frame, deep creases in his face, and bags under his eyes. His thin, sinewy arm muscles twitched under his skin, and his fingers beat a rhythm against each other as he fidgeted to find a comfortable position. He spoke in a staccato voice, interrupting himself when his train of thought outpaced his speech. He had a million questions for us. Who were we? What did we want to know? Where should he start? Did we know about his pending criminal case? He didn’t care if helping us helped him with that; he just didn’t want Dr. Li to get away with fraud or dangerous prescribing.
“Hold on,” we said, Joe and I both reaching toward him, arms outstretched. We had spoken to his attorney to understand the nature of Valora’s arrest and make sure it was okay to meet with him, but, we told him, we couldn’t talk to him about that case without his attorney present.
I pulled out a chair for Valora, picking the most stable one from my collection of discolored brown-upholstered seats in various states of disrepair. I explained that we had received his tip but needed more information to determine whether we could pursue a case. Valora told us his story. We listened, interrupting only to keep him on track; then we went back over every detail from the beginning and opened up countless lines of inquiry. What he told us launched a long and secret investigation, of which only the parts ultimately disclosed at trial ever may be known other than to the judges, attorneys, and prosecutors and, of course, the witnesses and Dr. Li.
At the end of our meeting, Valora repeated that he didn’t care if helping us made a difference in his own case. After his last visit to Dr. Li, he had overdosed on Xanax. He just didn’t want anyone else to get hurt.
“Have you heard about any other overdoses?” Joe asked. It was a key question—one that he would end up asking many times, of many different people. Valora gave Joe just enough to keep him on the road pursuing leads for the next few weeks: a first name, a neighborhood, and a rumor. He also remembered a sign he’d seen in Dr. Li’s office—something about prices per prescription. Sounded too crazy to be true—no doctor would ever do that!
We asked Valora about his health. We had saved these questions until the end. Of course, this was necessary information if we were to understand Valora’s interaction with Dr. Li, but there were other questions in the back of our minds: Was Valora strong enough to go forward? Would it be ethical to expose him to the type of scrutiny and pressure that might be involved in testifying about the case in an eventual trial? As Valora spoke about his illness, Joe and I took in its physical manifestations: foreshortened arm muscles; swollen and stiff hands; body mass reduced to the absolute minimum. Valora had been a body builder, so he was now left with a defined but atrophied body. He’d also struggled with addiction in the past and still denigrated himself for some of the choices he’d made. In body and spirit, he was a man under relentless attack by an unavoidable foe: himself.
Nevertheless, Valora assured us that he was determined to go forward. I explained what this meant: At some point, his identity and testimony would be a matter of public record. Should we ever go to trial, Valora would be cross-examined on the stand by Dr. Li’s defense attorney, including about his criminal record and credibility. We’re far from that now, I explained, and we’ll work with you to prepare if it happens, but it’s not easy. You’ll have to be up-front about all of it. Are you up for it? Yes, he answered. When I shook it, his hand was clammy and cold, but his grip solid.
Afterward, alone in my office, I wondered whether I was up for it—whatever “it” was. Where was this case going? At the time I couldn’t know. Valora’s story raised the possibility of criminal behavior, ranging from prescription sales to health-care fraud, but there also was the possibility that Dr. Li was just a bad physician, running an unprofessional and lax—but not criminal—practice. It would have felt irresponsible to just stop, without a proper resolution or answer, but the uncertainty made me anxious, especially now that Joe, too, was clocking so many hours on the case.
Valora also presented a particular challenge. He was an important fact witness but had vulnerabilities ranging from his criminal record to his health. If I wanted to preserve him as a witness, I’d have to strike a balance between warning him of the difficulties ahead and guiding him through with a steady and neutral hand. It was not my job to protect him—in fact, I had to be level-headed, transparent, and direct about the challenges he would face down the line. And I would have to subject him to the toughest questioning myself.
You would think that this comes naturally to prosecutors. To some, maybe it does. To others, like me, this kind of questioning is an acquired skill and a significant challenge. When you have grown up seeking to avoid conflict at all costs, it takes deliberate effort to speak awkward truths and accept discomfort. That is precisely why I wanted this job: I hoped and expected it would force me to counter my deep-rooted instincts to put everyone at ease and keep every situation conflict-free. Call it voluntary aversion therapy for a lifelong people pleaser. My old way of functioning would be unethical and unprofessional in the context of my work. I had to let it go. It certainly hadn’t served me well in my personal life, either. At tense moments throughout my workdays, as I realized that I was, yet again, trying to appease or avoid tense situations and emotions, scenes flashed through my mind, warning me away from the old trap.
I’d catch myself studying body language for signs of annoyance, frustration, tension, wondering if someone hated me or was angry at me—those fears and feelings then sent me into a spiral of anxiety and paranoia. For too long, I had learned to watch for danger signs, detect the signals, and ward off trouble by any means necessary.