Dallas County district attorney Susan Hawk

Politics

The Untold Story of Susan Hawk

She had always dreamed about being Dallas County district attorney. But as her career took off, her personal life was falling apart—divorce, pain pills, thoughts of suicide. After two months of treatment, she says she’s ready once again to serve. Is she up to the job?

Susan Hawk lay in bed. She couldn’t sleep, hadn’t slept well for days. The refrigerator in her Highland Park duplex sat empty. She wasn’t hungry anyway. Her thoughts kept turning to the empty bottle of Trazodone sleeping pills in her top dresser drawer. She had one refill left. A final trip to the drugstore, she thought. One by one, the little white pills didn’t stem her torment. But what if she took them all at once?

At 4:30 am on Wednesday, July 29, Hawk finally climbed out of bed. She pulled a black cardigan over her t-shirt and workout pants, and willed herself outside. She started her Lexus SUV and steered it through the empty streets. She drove a mile to a brick house on West Beverly Drive, parked in back, and called her friend and political consultant, asleep inside. 

“I’m at your back door,” Hawk said.

Mari Woodlief padded through her living room to unlatch a glass door that opened to the backyard. Woodlief had masterminded Hawk’s surprising victory in the race for Dallas County district attorney nine months earlier. During the campaign, the women had grown close. Woodlief knew many of Hawk’s secrets and had helped to keep them from the media.

Hawk stepped inside, her blond hair disheveled, her blue eyes tired. The women sat down.

“I want to resign today,” Hawk said. 

In a few hours, Hawk was supposed to board a flight to San Antonio, where she was booked to speak on a panel of district attorneys. But she said she couldn’t get on the plane, could barely leave her house. For weeks, she’d been missing meetings, canceling lunches, skipping appearances.

“I can’t do this anymore,” Hawk said. “Will you help me?”

Woodlief was scared for her friend. The week before, she had spent three days at Hawk’s house, sitting beside her bed, worried about what Hawk might do if she were left alone. But Woodlief also knew that a sudden resignation would likely create more problems than it solved. More secrets. Ugly headlines. Another public crisis.

The women talked for hours, trying to think of what to do next.

 

Finding the Right Republican

Hawk and Woodlief first met at the start of the election season in 2013. They sat at a conference table on the sixth floor of a McKinney Avenue office building, the headquarters of Woodlief’s public relations firm, Allyn Media. 

Woodlief is one of the most powerful political consultants in North Texas, helping to elect judges and state representatives, working with the mayor of Dallas. She started at the firm when she was 24 years old, after graduating from Baylor University with a double major in anthropology and foreign service. She has held every job at Allyn Media, from answering phones at the front desk to drafting invoices. At 47, she is now president of the firm, which mostly handles public relations and public affairs for companies such as Walmart, Microsoft, and Uber. Truth be told, Woodlief doesn’t enjoy the political campaigns as much as she once did. They force her to spend too much time away from her 5-year-old son, whom she is raising as a single mother. But the political work builds Woodlief’s relationships with the city’s leaders, a potential draw for corporate clients who often need things from City Hall.

During the summer of 2013, Woodlief was debating which political races she might focus on, which ones offered the best shot at a victory. She was drawn to the race for Dallas County district attorney. The incumbent, Craig Watkins, was vulnerable. Despite garnering national attention for using DNA evidence to exonerate dozens of prisoners, his administration had become plagued by scandal. For one thing, Watkins had a habit of crashing his car into things. In one incident, he rear-ended a driver on the Dallas North Tollway, used more than $60,000 in forfeiture funds from his office to pay for the damage, and had the other driver sign a non-disclosure agreement to cover up the accident. As the first black district attorney elected in the state, Watkins was losing support even from his southern Dallas base, the “barbershop vote,” as consultants called it.

Woodlief had won a majority of the races she’d personally run, but some political operatives questioned whether she was aggressive enough to win a tight race with Watkins. Her doubters thought Woodlief had long coasted on the reputation of the firm’s founder, Rob Allyn, never quite living up to her mentor.

Woodlief knew that if she were going to enter a candidate in any 2014 race, putting her firm’s reputation on the line, she needed to win. So she began polling to see what type of candidate would have the best shot at defeating Watkins. Despite his flagging support, he would still win the Democratic primary. Any opposing candidate would have to run as a Republican. To win, a Republican candidate had to peel off thousands of votes from independents and Democrats, particularly from black voters on the city’s southern side.

Woodlief talked to several potential candidates. She was particularly interested in John Creuzot, a black Democrat who had been a respected state district judge for 21 years. But Creuzot didn’t like the idea of switching parties to run. And polls showed him losing in a primary race against Watkins, with whom black voters were likely to side. Watkins is a son of southern Dallas and lives in DeSoto with his wife and children. Creuzot was once married to a white woman and lives in East Dallas.

Polls suggested that a female candidate would have the best shot, coming in about 3 percentage points ahead simply because of gender. Women tend to vote in larger numbers than men and generally support other female candidates.

Creuzot decided not to run. But he called Woodlief with a recommendation for another candidate: Judge Susan Hawk.

 

A Quick Decision to Run

The two women studied each other across the conference table, with a wall of windows overlooking the city skyline. They were both blond, in their 40s. But the similarities stopped there. Woodlief is reserved, wears little makeup, and often comes to the office in jeans and flats. Hawk is outgoing and looks more like a Barbie doll, with silk tops and dangling earrings. Woodlief sat at the head of the table, Hawk to her left. Also at the table were Creuzot, Hawk’s father, and a respected criminal defense attorney named Toby Shook.

Shook’s presence at the table was significant; he represented a past that would come to bear on the election. Shook had served as a prosecutor under DA Bill Hill and had run against Watkins for district attorney in 2006, losing the bruising contest. Shook was part of the old guard, a leader among a group of attorneys who’d started as young prosecutors just out of law school, tried their first cases together, attended one another’s weddings, and become some of the most respected attorneys and judges in the city. To them, Watkins’ election had been a travesty. He was a bail bondsman who’d applied for a job as a Dallas County prosecutor and been turned down. Now he was the DA?

Not only was Shook’s loss to Watkins a personal defeat, the election cycle as a whole had been a blow to the Republican Party. Democrats swept into office at every level, turning the county solidly blue. If Republicans couldn’t figure out how to push back against the rising tide of Democrats, their party machine risked becoming irrelevant in Dallas. 

All the girls wanted to be her.

All the men wanted to date her.

Woodlief saw Shook and Creuzot’s presence at her conference table as an asset. If they respected Hawk, it was likely that others did, too. They vouched for Hawk, who had been elected as state district judge at the young age of 32 and was now in her 11th year. She was known for running one of the most efficient courts in the county. Hawk had taken the bench as a Republican but switched to the Democratic Party in 2010, to keep her job as the county turned blue. The political consultant who helped her navigate that switch and get re-elected: Craig Watkins’ wife, Tanya. To unseat the DA, Hawk didn’t mind switching back to Republican. 

Woodlief saw promise in Hawk as a candidate. She would need to stop wearing so much pink and ditch the dangling earrings. But she was attractive and had an impressive résumé. Before signing her as a client, though, Woodlief needed to make sure Hawk understood what she was getting into.

“You know you’re probably going to lose,” Woodlief told her. She would have to resign from the bench and give up her salary. She would have to raise at least $1 million. It would be a long, uphill climb.

Hawk asked some questions about logistics. When would she have to resign? What about health insurance? She was married to an anesthesiologist and could live on his salary. Her husband was supportive, she said.

After about an hour of discussion, Hawk turned to Woodlief. “I’m going to run,” she said firmly.

“Are you sure you don’t want to think this over for a few days?” Woodlief asked.

Hawk shook her head. “I’m doing this,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to be DA.”

In her 20 years of consulting, Woodlief had never signed a client so quickly. She printed the contract, and they finished the paperwork that day.

 

The Cheerleader From Arlington

In the coming weeks, Woodlief and her team learned what they could about Judge Susan Hawk, piecing together her political narrative. They didn’t have the money for an extensive political scrub, a background investigation that typically costs about $15,000. But most around the courthouse knew the outline of Hawk’s life. 

She grew up in Arlington, as Susan Lynn McWithey. Her father worked for 40 years as an engineer for Southwestern Bell; her mother was an interior decorator. She had one older brother, Mike. She was a varsity cheerleader at Lamar High, pretty and popular. In yearbook photographs, she has teased bangs and a dark tan. 

BRING IT ON: Hawk (then known as Susan Lynn McWithey) grew up in Arlington, where she was a cheerleader at Lamar High and a regular at tanning salons. She was pretty and popular, just as she would be years later when she joined the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office as a prosecutor.
After starting at TCU, where she pledged Tri Delt, she transferred to Texas Tech and graduated in 1992. She had planned to become a clinical psychologist but changed her mind after working in a mental health clinic. “I thought, These people are crazy. I don’t want to work with these people,” she said years later at a legal conference, to laughs. 

She enrolled in law school at the upstart Texas Wesleyan University, in Fort Worth, where Watkins was one year ahead of her (he was part of the inaugural graduating class, in 1994). After her second year, Hawk got an internship at the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office. She turned heads at the courthouse.

“All the girls wanted to be her. All the men wanted to date her,” says one lawyer who worked there.

George Milner III was a young prosecutor at the time. He asked Hawk on a date to a Dallas Cowboys game, and on the way home, she confessed her ambitions. “I’m going to be district attorney one day,” she told him.

Hawk got hired full time as a prosecutor and soon joined the child abuse division, one of the most difficult assignments in the building. Most prosecutors lasted only a year or two before requesting a transfer. Hawk stayed for five and a half years. Judges and lawyers admired her easy way with young victims and jurors.

“‘Hi everybody, I just got back

from rehab. Vote for me!’”

“You just can’t teach that,” says Vickers Cunningham, a judge at the time. “She was remarkable in a courtroom.”

She sometimes showed up at the courthouse at 3:30 am, dressed in her trial suit, prepping her cases. The district attorney, Bill Hill, promoted her to deputy chief when Hawk asked to take over a backlog of 100 old child abuse cases that had languished for more than three years. She pored through the files and took 24 cases to trial in one year, a workload virtually unheard of at the courthouse. Of those 24, she won 23 convictions. The North Texas Crime Commission named her Prosecutor of the Year in 2001.

“She was a star on the rise,” says attorney Danny Clancy, who ran for DA against Watkins in 2010. “We could all see that.”

Hawk was on her way to taking more than 150 cases before a jury as lead attorney, more trial time than many lawyers rack up with twice the experience. 

Brian Corrigan remembers being a young prosecutor nervous about one of his first cases. He had shared his feelings with other prosecutors in the office. Just before trial, Hawk, the chief, walked into the courtroom and sat beside him at the state’s table.

“She was in charge of some really big felony cases at the time, and here I was freaked out about this little misdemeanor,” Corrigan says. “She guided me through the whole thing. I never forgot that.”

After work, Hawk was a regular at Adair’s Saloon, in Deep Ellum, where cops and lawyers gathered for burgers and beers during happy hour. She would stay out late dancing at the Rio Room. 

Two years after joining the district attorney’s office, at 26 years old, she married a lawyer. They wed at University Park United Methodist in 1997.

Susan Hawk during her high school days.
Hawk walked down the aisle on her father’s arm, wearing a boat-neck embroidered gown, a long train behind her. Nine bridesmaids in gray silk lined the altar.

But the marriage was short-lived. A judge granted an annulment five months later. Their relationship had progressed too quickly, and they’d married before they had really gotten to know each other, friends said.

Two years later, she married Michael Hawk, another lawyer. This wedding was not as stately as the first. “It was a knock-down, criminal-courthouse, absolutely wild drunk-fest,” says one lawyer who attended the reception at the old Routh Street Brewery. For years attorneys told stories about the party, about the drunken female judge dancing across the floor, doing kick lifts as if she were in aerobics class. Another man had to be dragged out of the bar, someone on each arm, his shoes falling off behind him. Nights like that bonded the attorneys together, at times giving the courthouse the feel of a college fraternity.

Hawk’s second marriage ended in divorce after four years, in 2004. She was 33 years old. She signed the divorce papers just after winning her first election as a state judge, in the 291st District Court. It would become a familiar pattern: her personal life in tumult while her career took off.

Friends suspect that Hawk was efficient on the bench, in part, because of her attention deficit disorder. Her brain shifted rapidly from one problem to the next, an asset for a judge trying to clear a docket. But some criticized Hawk for being moody.  

Hawk worked to find her niche, expanding a mental health program launched by her predecessor. With a college degree in psychology, it seemed a good fit. About 20 percent of defendants in her court suffered from diagnosed mental illnesses. Without prescriptions, these people tended to self-medicate with street drugs, then commit crimes. Hawk started a program for 60 probationers. They were required to take their prescription medications, submit to random drug tests, and show up at court every Monday.

“I sound insensitive, and I don’t want to, but they will use their mental illness as a crutch,” Hawk told an audience at a judicial conference in 2012. “ ‘Well, Judge, I’m sick. Judge, I’m an addict … I was born this way.’ And so, they’re going to play on those sympathies. They do. So I say, ‘Your mental health, your disease, is like cancer, and you have to treat it. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. You’ve got to take medication for it. It doesn’t mean you’re any different than me.’ ”

This version of Judge Hawk, the attractive blonde in the tailored suit, charming a crowd in a hotel conference room in Austin, was the one people had come to know at the courthouse. This was how she appeared to Mari Woodlief the following year, ready to fight to become the first female district attorney of Dallas County.

 

The Campaign Takes a Toll

Hawk announced her run for district attorney and sent her resignation letter to Governor Rick Perry in September 2013. Something unexpected happened when she stepped off the bench. She missed being a judge. She missed the authority and power that came with her black robe. Too, Hawk had left behind a structured environment inside the Frank Crowley Courts Building, where staff arranged her calendar, and a crowded court docket provided a continuous stream of clearly defined objectives. Without that structure and support, her attention deficit disorder was free to run wild on the campaign trail. She had a million ideas—people to meet, churches to visit, donors to persuade—but organizing these tasks seemed to elude her. 

Hawk began losing weight. “I keep forgetting to eat,” she told friends. And now, without her job providing the anchor it had for so many years, her personal problems took on a new urgency.

The previous summer, Hawk had married her third husband, a Dallas anesthesiologist named John Geiser. She declined to talk about her marriage for this story, but friends say the union was troubled from the start. Without the demands of her judgeship, Hawk had more time to spend with her husband. Friends say this did not improve the relationship.

As Hawk wrestled with stress in her personal and professional life, an addiction to pain pills grew worse. She had always been athletic, running a couple times a week and going to hot yoga. But sometime around her 40th birthday, about three years earlier, Hawk says, she’d hurt her back. She says doctors diagnosed her as having a slipped vertebra. To cope with the pain, she began taking prescription pills. Over time, she found herself craving them, to feel better, to help her sleep.

So in the fall of 2013, Hawk missed the job that defined her, felt separated from friends at the courthouse, and realized her marriage was failing. She says she started taking more and more pain pills, spiraling into a deep depression. She had suffered bouts of sadness her whole life, as far back as seventh grade. But for the first time, she began to wonder whether she wanted to live.

 

An Incident at Whole Foods

Hawk says she doesn’t remember how she came to be standing at the Whole Foods in Highland Park one day in October 2013. She had several bottles of pills in her purse. And she was considering taking them, a lot of them. Had she gone to Whole Foods to get a bottle of water, something to wash them down? She can’t recall.

A friend spotted her in the store, babbling, incoherent. That friend took Hawk to the friend’s house and put her in bed. “How many pills have you taken?” the friend asked. 

Then the friend called another friend of Hawk’s, county criminal court Judge Nancy Mulder, who drove over immediately. She went through Hawk’s purse, pulling out bottles of hydrocodone and Oxycontin. It was time for Hawk to tell her husband what was going on, Mulder said. “Will you do it with me?” Hawk asked. 

Hawk called her husband, and he took her home. The next day, her mother and brother drove her to Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital. Hawk checked herself in to the psych ward for detox. She spent two days there, sick and vomiting, her body convulsing as she went through opioid withdrawal. Lying there, Hawk says, she couldn’t help but think of all the defendants who had come through her court, some of whom had spent time in that very ward. 

“I was in there with a bunch of folks who were schizophrenic and bipolar, and clearly off their meds,” Hawk says. “I was scared. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me. I was just really, really scared.”

Two days later, Mulder picked her up from the hospital, and they went to dinner. Mulder urged her to go to inpatient rehab, and Hawk said she would. 

“I just didn’t have any fight left in me,” Hawk says.

Hawk began spreading word that she would be out of town for a couple weeks. Outside of her close circle of friends, she did not tell anyone she was going to rehab. She said she was flying to the East Coast for back surgery. That’s the story she told the Dallas Morning News, which printed this quote in its report about her impending surgery: “I’ll be stronger than ever when I get back.” 

Hawk and her husband boarded a flight to Arizona. He flew back on the next plane, Hawk says, and she was picked up at the airport by a staff member of The Meadows, a drug rehabilitation facility outside of Phoenix. Hawk remembers walking past the nurse’s station, feeling like she was in a trance. She lay down on her bed, started crying, and couldn’t stop.

Hawk spent four weeks at The Meadows, seeing a therapist, attending group sessions. She flew back to Dallas alone in early November. The next day, she started campaigning.

 

A Dark Secret

In Hawk’s absence, rumors had begun to circulate. “I had been talking to her a lot. Then all of a sudden I’d call her, and she wouldn’t call me back,” says attorney Milner. “After about two weeks, I started thinking, That’s weird. It kind of pissed me off. I felt like I was doing all this work, and she couldn’t be bothered to return my calls.”

But in November, Hawk began calling supporters, scheduling lunches, planning fundraisers. “She called me and apologized,” Milner says. “She told me she’d had back surgery. I believed her.”

BLURRED LINES: Mari Woodlief, president of Allyn Media, asked Hawk to run for district attorney in 2013. Somewhere along the way, she became more of a friend than a political advisor. Photography by Elizabeth Lavin
Hawk struggled with her secret, wondering whom she should confide in. She asked Creuzot to lunch. Longtime friends, the two had talked over the years about their private struggles with depression. 

He remembers sitting down, thinking that Hawk seemed serious. “She told me she had just gotten back from rehab,” Creuzot says. “There was no talk of back surgery. She was very honest about it.” He thought Hawk seemed healthy and sharp. “I didn’t think it was that big of a deal. She had a problem, addressed the problem, and now the problem was in the past. But I think I cautioned her that I wouldn’t go around telling everybody and their mama about it.”

A few weeks later, in mid-December, Hawk went to see Woodlief. The women say they had not spoken much since their initial visit, earlier that year. Woodlief had turned over Hawk’s campaign to a longtime consultant in her office. But Hawk wanted to work directly with Woodlief. Hawk says it was then that she told Woodlief she’d spent a month in rehab.

Woodlief sat quietly, absorbing the news. “That’s not typically how I would like to start a campaign,” Woodlief recalls thinking. “ ‘Hi everybody, I just got back from rehab. Vote for me!’ ”

But as Hawk explained her situation, Woodlief felt sympathetic, she says. It seemed as if Hawk had dealt with the problem. Woodlief handed Hawk a legal pad and asked her to make a list of everyone who knew she’d gone to rehab. When she got to 10 names, Woodlief told her she could stop. In all likelihood, Woodlief said, the news would leak. They decided to wait and see how it played out.

Later, Woodlief began receiving calls from attorneys around town who had learned about the rehab. They were putting their names and money behind Hawk. They wanted reassurance that Woodlief had a plan in case it became an issue.

Woodlief told them she had drafted a statement. If an issue arose, she told them, she’d deal with it.

 

A Bombshell and a Victory

Hawk took a few hits during the Republican primary but won with a comfortable 63 percent of the vote in March 2014. Now, with a November showdown against Watkins looming, the pressure on Hawk mounted. Friends of hers who’d been involved in previous races with Watkins wanted her to fire Woodlief and hire someone more aggressive. Hawk had her own doubts about Woodlief and scheduled a meeting, intending to let her go.

The meeting didn’t go as planned. When Hawk told Woodlief that she was considering hiring another consultant, Woodlief fumed, then burst into tears. The suggestion that she wasn’t the right person for the job was particularly galling because she’d worked for many of the lawyers who were now filling Hawk’s ears with advice. She felt betrayed. Woodlief told Hawk that she should be careful about getting too close with these other attorneys. They had their own ambitions and their own scores with Watkins to settle. It was an emotional meeting, and, in the end, Hawk put her trust in Woodlief.

Looking back, both women see that meeting as the real beginning of their close friendship. Before long, they came to feel like it was Susan Hawk and Mari Woodlief against the world.

In the weeks that followed, Woodlief hired one of the city’s top Republican fundraisers, Alison McIntosh, and the campaign established connections with political operative Jim Francis and Ambassador Jeanne Phillips, both close friends of President George W. Bush. They met regularly at Francis’ Highland Park home, a group of a half-dozen people that included Woodlief, Creuzot, and Jonathan Neerman, former chairman of the county Republican Party. They were divided about the best strategy to beat Watkins.

“I thought we needed to go rip the guy’s face off,” Neerman says. 

But Woodlief and Francis disagreed. “That was never a serious consideration, in my mind,” Francis says. “The clear way to go in this campaign was to just present a contrast. The voters knew Craig Watkins. They needed to get to know Susan Hawk.” 

In October, Hawk and Watkins faced off in a debate. Watkins didn’t do well. He complained about his allotted time to speak, refused to sit down, and at one point asked an aide to remind him how long he’d been in office. 

As the debate wrapped up, Hawk muttered to Watkins, “Have another cocktail.”

Watkins turned. “A what?” he asked. 

Watkins had been dogged by talk that he hit the bottle too hard. But he knew about Hawk’s stint in rehab. Each campaign had tacitly agreed to ignore the other’s most sensitive issue, thereby avoiding mutually assured destruction. But that secret wore on Hawk, and she began to show signs of paranoia. 

“She was absolutely convinced that someone had planted something in her phone and her computer,” Creuzot says. “Honestly, she began to sound like some of these people who come into the courthouse wearing tinfoil on their heads.”

Her marriage unraveled, and Hawk moved into a spare bedroom in Woodlief’s house. Then, as election day neared, an anonymous one-page letter arrived at Republican precincts across town. It made a dramatic allegation about Hawk’s behavior and read, in part: “I am sharing this information with you now so that you can be informed. If we are to be taken seriously and remain relevant in Dallas County, we must support candidates that reflect our core beliefs.” Three precinct chairs forwarded the letter to Neerman, who felt a growing sense of unease. Had enough due diligence been done when recruiting Hawk? Worried about an “October surprise,” a campaign-killing bombshell dropped right before the election, he says he asked Woodlief about the letter. While he says she didn’t specifically deny the allegation, she told him it was nothing he needed to worry about. 

The bombshell never dropped. On November 4, the polls opened on a rainy day, good news for Republicans, who tend to turn out more early votes than Democrats. The lousy weather might keep Watkins’ supporters at home.

But by 11 pm, the election was called. Hawk won a squeaker, with 50.4 percent of the vote. After the watch party at Meso Maya, past midnight, Woodlief and Hawk returned to Woodlief’s house. They sat in the living room, talking and laughing. Both felt that it had been one of the best days of their lives. They stayed up talking past 4:30, the rain still falling outside.

 

Paranoia and Firings

On January 1, Hawk took the oath of office. She wore a black dress, looking polished in her pumps and pearls, standing onstage before a crowd at the Frank Crowley Courts Building. She had asked a friend, Judge Molly Francis, to swear her in. “Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the first female Dallas County district attorney,” Francis said to a crowd that included Hawk’s parents and Woodlief. “Ms. Hawk, this is a job you have trained your whole life for. Let’s start.”

Afterward, Hawk and her staff moved into their 11th-floor offices.

TRUST FALL: Jennifer Balido and Hawk had been friends for 20 years when Hawk took office. But the new district attorney still didn’t believe she was loyal. Photography by Dan Sellers
Hawk unpacked in the corner office. Her hand-picked first assistant, Bill Wirskye, moved in next door. Another top lieutenant, Jennifer Balido, was across the hall. The three went back 20 years. Wirskye had been Hawk’s first supervisor in the district attorney’s office. He had become a respected criminal defense attorney, and Hawk considered him a close friend. Balido, a former judge, was well-liked in the legal community, viewed as strong and capable. Hawk popped into their offices, noticing how many framed photographs they had—ballgames and birthday parties, happy family lives unfolding at home. Hawk didn’t have pictures like that for her office.

On her second day at work, Hawk seemed upset. Balido asked what was wrong. Hawk told her that her husband had just filed for divorce and asked if the news had hit the courthouse gossip circuit yet. Balido shook her head no.

As the days moved forward, they began learning how to do their jobs. Hawk says she struggled to find her place at the helm. She felt responsible for the office, but it was too much for her to oversee personally. What did she need to manage, and what did she need to leave in others’ hands? She had to trust her team. But she says from early on, she struggled to do that. She would often see Balido and Wirskye meeting behind closed doors. What were they talking about?

In interviews with D Magazine, Hawk discussed her general feelings about her early days in office. But she declined to talk about her reasons for firing, or asking for the resignations of, specific employees, calling them personnel matters. She admits that she was suffering from paranoia, as her mental health deteriorated. However, she says she had valid reasons for firing each employee, ranging from performance issues to personality clashes, and that she stands behind her decisions. She notes that she fired far fewer people than previous administrations did when they assumed the office.

Here’s how Balido describes what happened during her two months at the office: she was in charge of the office’s finances. Going in, she says, she warned Hawk the job was outside her experience. She was a trained attorney, not an accountant. But Hawk wanted her for the post, saying she needed someone she could trust.

Early on, though, Hawk seemed displeased with her work. After one staff meeting, Hawk summoned Balido to her office. 

“Listen,” Hawk said, according to Balido. “Next time I’m the last person in this office to know about something happening in this office, someone is going to get fired.”

“Okay,” Balido said. “I didn’t know about this either.”

“I’m just telling you,” Hawk said. “Next time, somebody’s getting fired.”

Balido studied Hawk, trying to absorb what was happening.

“Are you loyal to me?” Hawk asked.

“Yes,” she said. “I’m loyal to this office. I would do anything to protect this office.”

“No,” Hawk said. “I want to know that you’re 100 percent loyal—to me.”

“You are this office. There’s no difference in my mind,” Balido said.

“I want to hear you say it,” Hawk said.

Balido felt belittled, insulted. “I am 100 percent loyal to you, Susan,” she said.

Other employees on the 11th floor also say that Hawk was moody, agitated, and paranoid. She seemed unsettled by gatherings of people, as if she worried they were talking about her. So employees kept to their offices. The hallways became quiet.

Balido and Wirskye stopped meeting, too. But when Hawk was out of the office, Wirskye would slip over to see Balido. “I think I’m going to get fired today,” he often said. From their perspective, Hawk had created the very situation she had feared. Now everyone was, in fact, talking about her.

Hawk seemed to grow more paranoid as time went on. Balido says she would appear manic one day. The next, she would seem zoned out, not remembering conversations they had just had. Wirskye listened for the sound of Hawk’s heels clicking down the hallway. Calm clicks, and the day might go okay. Rapid-fire? Hit the deck.

Balido felt Hawk didn’t have the bandwidth to process the larger issues unfolding. Hawk made impulsive decisions, then demanded her staff work out the details. She hired a new public relations coordinator, without thinking through where the salary would come from. “Figure it out,” Balido says Hawk told her. When Hawk had expenses—such as having her office painted, then repainted—she sent Balido the bill. Where was that money supposed to come from? Balido ended up writing a personal check for the painter. She didn’t want to improperly—or illegally—spend office funds. Nor did she want to have a discussion about the money with Hawk.

Eventually, Balido says, Hawk told her it wasn’t working out. Balido asked if she could resign, and Hawk let her do it. Balido went home and opened a bottle of wine. She texted Wirskye: “I just got fired.” It had been a long two months. 

That evening, Hawk stepped into the wood-paneled back room of The Capital Grille at the Crescent Hotel. Waiters passed trays of hors d’oeuvres and bartenders kept glasses filled as two dozen of the city’s top lawyers gathered for a private audience with Hawk. A couple of her closest supporters had put together the event as a casual fundraiser to help her pay off some of her campaign debt.

After an introductory speech from one attorney, Hawk walked to the front of the room. She spoke only briefly before fleeing the room in tears. Most chalked up her odd behavior to the enormous pressure of running the office. Also, many knew about her divorce. That alone could do it.

After that night, though, word spread about Balido. “I was both sad and mad,” Milner says. “My first thought was, How do you do this to our friend Jennifer, who served with you as a prosecutor and a judge? I mean, we’ve all known each other for two decades. Absent her getting caught in a compromising situation with an animal, I couldn’t think of what possible justification she could have for firing her.”

 

The News Breaks

As the weeks passed, Hawk’s strange behavior continued. Hawk says that at this point, she was still struggling with how to get control of the office. She says she felt a power struggle with Wirskye, that he was shutting her out of important decisions. She also felt he and others were holding the secret of her drug rehab over her head. She was tired of keeping that secret, wanted to tell her office about it, put it squarely in her past.

She decided one day in March to come clean to her staff. She asked her mother and brother to come to the office for support. She also called Woodlief and asked her to come over right away. She didn’t say why.

In Hawk’s office, she told Woodlief what she planned to do. Woodlief says she thought Hawk seemed agitated and hadn’t thought through what she was about to do. If Hawk wanted to tell everyone, Woodlief said, then she should do it. But she should present a clear narrative. Craft a media strategy. Think through the fallout. Hawk wondered whether Woodlief was right, but she had already made the unusual move of summoning the entire 450-employee staff, including 260 busy prosecutors.

“Can you cancel the meeting?” Woodlief asked.

Hawk shook her head. It was too late.

Minutes before the meeting, Hawk decided not to mention her rehab. She started off by complimenting her prosecutors, as if she had only called them in for a pep talk. Then the talk turned weird, a little dark.

“I have heard there might be discussion about me or discussion about my personal life,” Hawk said. “If you have any discussion about me then I will be up in my office until 6:30. If you don’t come up and talk to me, then I will assume that there is no discussion and that it ends there.”

Then Hawk cried. 

“Some of you are not going to like me, and I don’t care,” she said. “I can honestly say that.”

Most of the prosecutors walked away from that meeting utterly confounded. 

Balido asked if she could resign,

and Hawk let her do it.

Hawk’s relationship with her first assistant, Wirskye, had worsened. Wirskye was at work one Saturday morning when he heard Hawk’s heels come rapid-fire down the hallway. She stepped into his office. She accused him of acquiring a key from a locksmith, breaking into her house, and stealing a compromising photograph of her taking a shot off the belly of a bartender during a bachelorette party.

By this point, Wirskye had had enough of Hawk’s paranoia. He pushed the phone across his desk. If Hawk truly believed he had done that, he told her, she should call the police.

They summoned two of the office’s chief investigators. Hawk said she thought someone had broken into her house. She seemed rattled, confused. She retracted her accusations. But as the meeting ended, Wirskye worried about Hawk’s mental state. He considered an intervention.

Days later, Hawk summoned him into her office. She was unhappy about how he was handling a particular task. Wirskye defended himself. The meeting turned tense. Hawk asked for his resignation. Wirskye refused. Hawk fired him.

Wirskye went to see Woodlief, whom he didn’t know well. In fact, he was one of the attorneys who had told Hawk to fire Woodlief early on. But Wirskye told her that he was worried about Hawk, that she seemed mentally unstable. He wouldn’t tell anyone, he said. But Hawk needed help.

News traveled quickly about Wirskye’s firing. Just before joining the district attorney’s office, he had served as a special prosecutor in the death penalty trial of the man who killed Kaufman County’s district attorney and two others. Wirskye’s performance was lauded. So when Hawk fired him, it sent a signal that, just three months into her term, the office was in turmoil. 

At first, Wirskye declined to discuss his departure publicly. But then Hawk said in an interview that there had been a “personality clash” and that the office “deserves a united front at the top.” Wirskye fired back. He released a statement, saying the district attorney’s office deserved “a leader who is stable and competent.”

Then the dam broke. Hawk learned that the Dallas Morning News was preparing to break the story about her rehab. During her divorce, she had moved into a duplex in Highland Park. Several attorneys stopped by to help strategize for the coming media onslaught. Hawk seemed calm.

“I don’t think she really grasped the magnitude of what was about to happen,” Milner says. “I tried to tell her, ‘You’ve got a major story coming. We need to do something about it.’ But she was calm. To me, she was overly calm.”

Hawk says part of her was relieved. She would finally be free of her secret. On the other hand, she was angry with Wirskye. She suspected he had leaked the story to the paper. She drafted a statement, calling him a disgruntled former employee who was attacking her character. And, for the first time, she confirmed going to rehab after taking pain pills to treat a back condition.

“A doctor prescribed me medicine. Over a year and a half ago, I decided I did not want to take it anymore, and I got help to quit taking it and haven’t taken any since,” she said. 

The next morning, as news outlets across the city reported the story, any relief that Hawk felt vanished. She knew this was bad. Here was the head of one of the country’s largest district attorney’s offices admitting she had been to rehab for a pain-pill addiction. And the story made clear that she had misled everyone while running for office.

Nothing to do now, Hawk thought, but put her head down and get back to work.

The Final Straw

Hawk promoted Messina Madson to be her new top assistant. Madson had quickly risen through the ranks. She was a formidable prosecutor but a quiet, understated worker. She listened more than she talked. Hawk would sit in her office, firing off ideas like pinballs. Madson would scribble them all down, then go back to her office and draft extensive outlines and “to do” lists. 

Hawk was determined to get through the storm, to keep working. By most accounts, the office ran smoothly for about the next two months. Then, in June, Hawk started firing people again. 

One day, Jeff Savage stepped out of the elevator on the 11th floor. He’d been an investigator with the district attorney’s office for 26 years, through four administrations. He’d recently been promoted to supervisor. He was well-liked around the office. A friend came to meet him at the elevator. “She’s letting you go,” he said. The friend escorted Savage to his office, where Hawk was waiting. “I’ve worked 20 years to get where I am,” Hawk said, according to Savage. “I’m not going to let anyone mess it up.” Savage was 10 months away from retirement.

The same day, Hawk fired another man, Jonathan Hay, who worked in the office’s technology department. Hay was the one who knew how to research people’s phones, find browser histories on computers. Hay was stunned by the firing and given no explanation. He, too, packed up, then went home to tell his wife, a stay-at-home mother of two. Now they had no paycheck and no health insurance. 

Later, Savage heard that Hawk had taken his phone down to the tech department to have it analyzed, to see whom he’d been talking to. But there was no one left who knew how to do that. A woman in the technology department, Edith Santos, resigned at the end of the week. Someone had come in asking whether she was monitoring Hawk’s communications. Santos saw the writing on the wall.

By last summer, Hawk had withdrawn from most of her family and friends. She still had not unpacked all of the moving boxes in her new duplex. For what felt like the first time in her life, she was home alone on Saturday nights. Instead of going home after work, she sometimes went to movies. She dreaded walking back out into the lobby lights, watching all the couples and families head home together. By the end of June, Hawk says, she found it hard to get out of bed.

But early that morning of July 29, Hawk finally had a plan. She would resign her office. Then she would refill the Trazodone prescription, take all the pills, and that would end it. She rose from bed and drove to Woodlief’s house.

“I want to resign today,” Hawk said. “Will you help me?”

“No,” Woodlief said. “Tell me what’s going on.”

“I can’t do this anymore,” Hawk said. “I can’t live like this anymore.”

Hawk sobbed. “I want to die,” she said.

Woodlief cried, too. “I know you don’t want to die,” Woodlief said. “I know that because you came here.”

As the sun rose, the women searched the internet for treatment programs. Woodlief texted a therapist friend for a recommendation. The friend texted back: The Menninger Clinic, in Houston. Hawk pulled up the clinic’s website and read about their programs, one of which was called Professionals in Crisis. By lunchtime, she had made plans to check in the next afternoon.

Hawk didn’t know how long she would be gone. She needed to turn the office over to her top assistant, Madson. She didn’t yet know how much she would publicly share about her treatment, so she wanted to be careful about what she told Madson. Hawk asked Madson to come to Woodlief’s house and told her she needed to take some time off. She asked Madson to take over operations but to keep her in the loop and continue forwarding emails. She would get to them when she could. Also, if Madson needed help with the media, she could call Woodlief.

The next morning, Woodlief and Hawk climbed into Woodlief’s Land Rover and drove to Houston. The car was quiet. Hawk remembers sitting in the passenger seat, gazing out the window. She looked up at the office buildings in Houston, thinking about all the people working inside, functioning, living. She studied every driver who passed, imagining that they all felt happy, content. What must that feel like?

The Land Rover pulled up at the Menninger Clinic, a collection of brick buildings connected by winding sidewalks and well-tended beds. Woodlief turned off the ignition. 

“I’m scared,” Hawk said.

“I know,” Woodlief replied.

Hawk pulled her suitcase out of the trunk, and the women walked inside. Hawk already had told Woodlief so much, but in here, she felt suddenly embarrassed.

“I should be stronger than this,” she told Woodlief, through tears.

Woodlief said, “This is the bravest thing you’ve ever done.”

Woodlief went out to the waiting room, as a psychiatrist joined Hawk. She told him how she was feeling: depressed, hopeless, helpless. She told him she felt overwhelmed by anxiety and paranoia.

After intake, the staff went to get Hawk a tray of dinner from the cafeteria. She noticed that when they left, doors locked behind them. She and Woodlief sat together, picking at their trays of pasta and corn chowder. Woodlief kept crying, struggling to find something to say.

“They say it’s really therapeutic to hold a cold orange,” Woodlief said, picking one up off her tray.

Hawk looked at her, partly amused, partly annoyed. “Thank you, Dr. Woodlief.”

Hawk desperately wanted her friend to stay and desperately wanted her to leave. Making small talk was excruciating. “Okay, I’m ready,” she said. “You can go.”

The two hugged. It was dark when Woodlief walked outside. She felt relieved. Her friend was tucked safely inside the clinic, where she couldn’t hurt herself. But as Woodlief joined the traffic on Interstate 45, headed back to Dallas, she knew her friend had only so much time. Before long, people would notice Hawk’s absence. Reporters would start asking questions.

 

The Healing Process

Photography by Elizabeth Lavin
Inside the clinic, two staff members led Hawk back to her assigned room. It was a shared space, with a large partition between beds for privacy. It had the look of a high-end hotel, with built-in wooden furniture and a fluffy white duvet cover on the bed. It was monogrammed with an “M,” for Menninger. Hawk sat in a chair as the two staffers snapped on rubber gloves and emptied her suitcase onto the bed. They went through every piece of clothing, removing all the drawstrings, anything she could use to hurt herself. They searched for pills, feeling their way along every pants seam.

“It felt so intrusive,” Hawk recalls. “I sat there thinking that I couldn’t believe this is what my life had come to. I remember wondering, Why didn’t I get help sooner? Maybe it wouldn’t have come to this.”

A nurse gave her a Trazodone to help her sleep, and she crawled into a ball and cried. Her roommate came over to sit beside her bed. “You’re going to get better,” she said. “I promise.” 

For the next few days, Hawk mostly stayed in bed. One friendly nurse left a sticky note on her bathroom mirror, filled with drawings of miniature hearts. “You can do this,” she wrote. “Don’t let this bed consume you.”

Hawk could leave the clinic at any time, and she considered leaving every day. But then what? Kill herself? Go back to living in her dark duplex? She felt driven into a corner, with no good way out.

On her fifth day, a Monday, she reluctantly joined the other residents for daily classes, such as Shame Resilience, Suicide Resilience, and stress management. Psychologists talked about regulating emotions, being mindful, but Hawk found it difficult to listen. She grudgingly sat down on the couch in the large common area, filled with games and a big-screen television. At tables, some adults sat coloring elaborate mandalas, a way of reducing stress. As people introduced themselves, Hawk felt her anxiety rise. Please don’t ask me what I do for a living, she kept thinking. When pressed, she would say she was an attorney.

On the Sunday after Hawk’s first full week, August 9, Woodlief went to Houston to see her. Hawk walked into the visitors’ room. No hug, no hello. “I’ve got to get out of here,” she told Woodlief. The discharge process took four hours, Hawk said. They could be home by nightfall.

Woodlief could see her friend was still struggling. Deflated, desperate.

“You made the choice to come here,” she told Hawk. “You need to see it through.” 

Hawk agreed to give it one more week. But in the coming days, Hawk felt despair. She was so tired. Why hadn’t she just taken those pills? She says she began thinking of ways to kill herself. She studied the blow-dryer in her room. Was the cord long enough to strangle herself? What about the strap on her purse? 

I’m going to kill myself anyway.

Just let me go home.

That night she told a nurse, “I’m going to kill myself anyway. Just let me go home.” But once she uttered those words, she no longer could leave the facility voluntarily. Hawk was officially committed. She was placed under one-on-one supervision, a nurse following her at every moment, to every class, to every meal. At night, a nurse sat beside her bed, watching her sleep.

That weekend, reporters began calling Woodlief, wondering where Hawk was. 

At this point, the lines had blurred badly for Woodlief. She was a hired gun, paid by clients to shape public perception. But Woodlief hadn’t been on Hawk’s payroll for nearly a year. The women now considered themselves best friends, and Woodlief was too close to the crisis. As she took reporters’ calls, Woodlief wasn’t thinking clearly. She told reporters that Hawk’s absence was nothing to worry about. Woodlief said Hawk was on “summer break.” 

In her attempts to protect her friend, she created for her a public relations disaster. She later wished she had stepped away as Hawk’s spokesperson and instead turned over that role to the co-owner of her firm. 

After about two weeks, Hawk’s brother, Mike, came to Houston to see her. Hawk wore the same black yoga pants she’d had on for days and a wrinkled green t-shirt that was inside out. She hadn’t showered. Mike was surprised at her appearance. “Man, you’re looking a little rough,” he said.

Something about the way he said it made Hawk laugh. But his eyes were teary. Her brother is seven years older. They are close, but he was one of the people she had shut out of her life. When Hawk told him that she wanted to leave, he made her promise to stay in treatment, to go to every group session, to try.

“We love you,” he told her. “We’re behind you.”

The next morning, she walked into the Suicide Resilience group. For the first time during her stay, she shared with the other patients. She told them about the pills and the blow-dryer cord. During the next few weeks, Hawk spent five to six hours a day in group and individual therapy, she says, and doctors gave her a diagnosis: major depressive disorder. They prescribed new medications and helped her craft a 22-page wellness plan that would guide her treatment after she left.

Over time, Hawk bonded with the other professionals. She sat on the living-room couch, watching episodes of Big Brother with them. She felt stronger and began joining the other women in her unit for evening sessions of Guitar Hero on an Xbox. They took turns singing “Imagine” and “Sister Christian.” At one point, Hawk realized that she was standing in the middle of the room, her eyes closed, singing as hard as she could—feeling joyful. 

As her health was improving, a story appeared on the front page of the Morning News. The first sentence: “Where is Susan Hawk?”

 

An Uncertain Homecoming

After two months at the Menninger Clinic, on Friday, September 25, Hawk packed her bag and said goodbye to her doctors and new friends.

In Dallas, she moved back into the spare bedroom on Woodlief’s second floor. She didn’t want to go back to her duplex. Needing to leave that and so much else behind, Hawk started looking for a new place to live.

The next morning, she settled on the living-room couch, her bare feet tucked beneath her. She wore a white cotton shirt and black pants, gold hoops dangling from her ears. Her blond hair was perfectly fixed, her lips glossed. She held a small spiral notebook filled with cursive script, pieces of her story she wanted told.

It was the first move in Hawk’s plan to reclaim the district attorney’s office. Despite calls for her resignation, she would not step down. Instead, she planned to drive alone to the Frank Crowley Courts Building later that week and park in her reserved spot. She would ride the private elevator up to the 11th floor. As she stepped off, she would enter a storm: questions about whether her failing mental health had led to unfair firings; new allegations that she had misspent forfeiture funds collected from criminals; disappointed Republicans who had worked to get her elected; and 450 employees wondering if their boss is fit to handle the demanding, high-pressure job of managing the process by which Dallas County prosecutes criminals.

At Woodlief’s house, the women laid out their plan. Hawk would call a meeting with her employees to explain where she’d been. She would meet privately with the city’s power brokers. She would work to convince everyone she was healthy. She would tell them about her new batch of tools: weekly appointments with a therapist, carefully calibrated medications, guitar lessons to help her unwind.

As Hawk sat on the couch that afternoon, she tried to project a strong, clear voice. She sounded like she was campaigning again. “With my 20 years of experience, there is no one more qualified to do this job,” she said. “I’ve been given this opportunity to make Dallas County a safer place. I intend to do everything I can to make that happen.”

But then her eyes filled with tears. She said she just wanted to put the past behind her. More than a plan, it sounded like a plea.

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