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.
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. 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.