Clarence Fanto: Capeless was a crusader for civil, socially conscious leadership

LENOX — Since learning of the surprise retirement announcement by Berkshire District Attorney David Capeless after 14 years in that post and 35 years as a high-profile county prosecutor with an enviable record, I've been recalling his leadership on drug abuse, cybercrime and bullying in schools amid an unraveling of social norms.

Capeless, who's 65 and has earned a well-deserved retirement from what must be one of the most stressful positions in public service, was mentored by his esteemed predecessor, Gerard D. Downing, who died in December 2003 at age 52. After an interim appointment by Gov. Mitt Romney, Capeless won a special election and three four-year terms.

It's good to know that his immediate successor will be the highly respected and impressively credentialed first assistant district attorney, Paul Caccaviello, appointed by Gov. Charlie Baker for swearing-in March 15, ahead of his candidacy for election Nov. 6.

The last time I spoke with him directly, four years ago, Capeless emphasized his frustration over getting specific details about the scope of fatal heroin overdoses in the county.

"I'm glad people are finally seeing this as a crisis and epidemic," he said.

As a public health issue, more and better treatment is needed from the medical community, he emphasized, while the criminal justice system must handle heroin dealers.

At a Lenox Town Hall forum organized by state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli in March 2013, Capeless described how "the whole crime landscape has been changing" since the early 2000s, with a level of violence, especially the use of guns, that hadn't been seen before.

"The guys in the gangs were the guys selling drugs who had the guns," he said, urging more state funding for the Berkshire Law Enforcement Task Force run by his office, employing 23 local police officers from towns on overtime, along with state police detectives.

Capeless, who often appeared on panels with Dr. Jennifer Michaels of The Brien Center, the area's leading medical specialist on drug abuse, was ahead of the curve when he focused public attention on opioid addiction.

During a thought-provoking panel discussion at Lenox Memorial Middle and High School in February 2012, he cited prescription drug abuse as "an epidemic, a crisis, the leading nondisease cause of death among young people in Massachusetts. They've grown up bombarded by the media about medication, drugs, the 'positive' effects those can have on people's lives. They see prescription drugs as safe because they're medicine and therefore they're OK, but many of them are far more dangerous than street drugs such as cocaine and heroin. There's an enormous number of overdose deaths here in Berkshire County."

He also detailed a dramatic increase in emergency room admissions at area hospitals caused by intoxication and explained that it's legal for parents to provide alcohol to their own child in the home, but not to others younger than 21.

"Sometimes, even if something is legal, you shouldn't be doing it," Capeless pointed out. "It would be very helpful for parents to say, `I can do that, but I'm not going to because I don't think it sends the right message.'"

On another occasion, he told me that parents need to know "the very important role that they can play in seeing to it that their kids don't get involved in underaged drinking, because it's unsafe and unhealthy. The goal is to dispel the myth that it's just something the kids do. It's something kids are taught to do by the example of adults."

During a conversation about his bullying-prevention initiatives, Capeless said "all too often, we look to our public institutions to deal with social issues. Really, it should be taken care of by the family; the parents are the primary ones, not the schools. A lot of schools are trying their hardest, but they're not getting anywhere because the parents don't want it."

"We've seen our efforts shift increasingly over time younger and younger, so now we start out these programs in kindergarten, first and second grade," he added. "We've got to get to these kids as early as possible. Obviously, a lot of the incidents do occur later. But we're starting to see 'sexting' and cyberbullying filter down from high school to the lower ages."

He urged parents who allow their kids to have a computer and Facebook account to make a deal with them: "You can have it as long we have access to it."

On a personal note, I was touched when he introduced me to his father, former Pittsfield Mayor Robert Capeless, shortly before his death at 91 in 2008. The elder Capeless served from 1948 to 1955.

At his farewell news conference Thursday, Capeless, rarely emotional in public, brushed away tears as he saluted his assistant DAs and other staffers as "talented, professional, ethical, dedicated and hardworking, and the greatest reward of my career has been to work with them and lead them."

"Prosecution is not an easy job, and too often our successes are taken for granted," he said. When asked why he would retire now, after citing his 35 years on the front lines, he stated that he'd "rather be doing something else. In fact, nothing."

Perhaps, from time to time, Capeless can be coaxed out of retirement to speak in public as an advocate in the battle against drug abuse and cyberbullying and as a crusader for civil, socially conscious leadership in our all-too-fractured society.

Clarence Fanto writes from Lenox. He can be reached at and on Twitter, @BE_CFanto. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.


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