In Los Angeles' legal community, James A. Bascue was a towering and admired figure.
As a top prosecutor, he became a national expert on gang prosecutions. Appointed to the bench, he rose to presiding judge of Los Angeles Superior Court.
But shortly after 2 a.m. Thursday, Bascue found himself on the other side of the law.
Los Angeles police said they arrived at Bascue's West L.A. townhouse to find him inside holding two guns. Authorities said he fired on officers, prompting a standoff with a SWAT team that ended with the arrest of the 75-year-old retired jurist.
While Bascue sat in jail, friends and longtime colleagues struggled to understand the bizarre twist after such a distinguished career.
“How do you explain someone who is accomplished and upstanding for six decades all of a sudden engaging in an act that's this serious?” asked former Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley.
“Something went on here. Something broke.”
“It's inexplicable what led to this situation,” said Robert H. Philibosian, another former district attorney who appointed Bascue as his chief deputy in 1983. “I'm glad he didn't injure himself, or God forbid, kill himself.”
About 11:45 p.m. Wednesday, Bascue called police reporting that he was being held hostage inside his home in the 1900 block of South Barrington Avenue, police said.
Dispatchers gleaned little information from Bascue's call. He offered few details and refused to turn down the volume on a blaring TV set, said LAPD Officer Liliana Preciado.
When officers arrived, authorities said, they peered into a window and saw him sitting in a living room chair with two guns in his lap. He loaded the guns' magazines and pointed a gun at his head, police said.
Officers pleaded with him to drop the weapons.
He fired two shots: one inside his house, another toward the officers at the window.
“Thankfully he was a bad shot,” Preciado said.
After the SWAT team was called in, officers tried to talk Bascue into surrendering. Family members were contacted, but he would not emerge, police said.
A neighbor eventually persuaded him to give up.
Police evaluated Bascue for mental health issues, but they did not place him on a psychiatric hold. Investigators said they were looking into whether he was under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
The standoff surprised neighbor Ellen Hoffman, who has lived for more than a year in the small, gated complex but saw Bascue only about three times.
“The judge,” as neighbors call him, kept to himself, she said.
Former state Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp said the Bascue he knew would never flout the law. The two met in the 1970s, when Van de Kamp was L.A. County district attorney and Bascue a prosecutor. He praised Bascue as a “serious, straight arrow.”
Under Van de Kamp, Bascue spearheaded the hardcore gang unit that prosecuted the county's most violent offenders.
Philibosian, who later served as chief deputy attorney general, was so impressed with Bascue that he named him his second-in-command, then recommended him to help reform the State Bar of California.
Gov. George Deukmejian appointed Bascue to the bench in 1990. He rose through the ranks to become head of the criminal division. While holding the post, he frequently criticized the state's “three-strikes” law for failing to rehabilitate criminals and for placing financial pressure on local courts.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 1996, Bascue said he often escaped the stories of violence he heard in court by retreating to his vacation home in Northern California, where he planted more than 8,000 trees.
Peers on the bench elected him to serve as assistant presiding judge; he served as presiding judge from 2001 to 2002. As leader of the state's largest county court system, he worked through the turbulent process of merging the municipal courts with the superior courts.
The massive merger ruffled a lot of feathers, Philibosian said, but “Jim, with good humor and dignity, was able to make it all work.”
The Judicial Council of California awarded Bascue the jurist of the year award for his work to unify the courts.
Attorney Richard G. Hirsch, who is representing Bascue, said the retired judge was released Thursday afternoon after posting $100,000 bail.
“I've known Judge Bascue for many, many years. When he was a D.A. and a judge, and since he's left the bench,” Hirsch said. “He's devoted his entire life to seeking justice for everyone, and I hope will receive the same.”