Laura Duffy walked to the lectern of her first big meeting as U.S. attorney recently and about 250 lawyers and staffers welcomed her with applause.

“She’s one of us” is the most often-repeated phrase among federal prosecutors when asked what they think about Duffy, an office fixture for 16 years, best known as the one who put away the highest-ranking members of the Arellano-Felix drug cartel. To colleagues she’s like a pair of slippers — comfortable, familiar.

“She was very warmly greeted by the lawyers and the staff in a way I hadn’t seen before,” said a veteran prosecutor who asked not to be identified because the June 4 meeting was private. “I think she’s a known quantity and people like her. She’s no nonsense and she has a good rapport with people.”

Duffy isn’t expected to initiate radical change in the office. Her autonomy is limited by mandates from the Justice Department to put national security and border-related crimes at the top of her agenda, and those priorities are firmly in place already. But she is expected to do some things differently.

In her first interview since she was confirmed by the Senate and sworn in as U.S. attorney almost a month ago, Duffy said she will reestablish major fraud cases — particularly financial crimes involving health care, banking and mortgages — as her third-highest priority under national security and border crimes.

There were fewer headline-grabbing, white-collar cases prosecuted since the departure in early 2007 of Carol Lam, who was fired by the Bush administration for focusing too much on those very cases at the expense of border-related ones. Lam’s temporary replacement, Karen Hewitt, doubled and even tripled prosecutions of those cases in the third-busiest district in the nation, along the world’s busiest land border crossing.

Among Duffy’s other goals: With her background partnering with Mexican officials to dismantle drug cartels, she is expected to take those relationships to an even deeper level, possibly by creating a special unit that will focus on intelligence gathering and information sharing as well as extradition matters. And she will keep the pressure on the remains of the Arellanos and those who seek to replace them.

Duffy’s career so far has been defined by her dealings with the most violent of drug kingpins who torture, behead and drown victims in vats of acid.

She went after the most notoriously violent drug lords in Mexico, negotiated death-penalty cases across the table from them, and even interviewed one on a Coast Guard cutter off the coast of Baja after being lowered aboard from a helicopter.

She said she has passion for tackling what other people would consider lost causes – like targeting the Arellanos.

“When I and other members of a prosecution team began an investigation into the Arellano-Felix Organization back in 1996, with the goal of dismantling the organization and bringing its leaders to justice, the majority of people in this community and in law enforcement thought it was a pipe dream.

“Well, over the last 12 years, that pipe dream has been coming true piece by piece,” Duffy wrote in an email exchange. “Why? In large part because myself, other members of the team, and our colleagues in Mexico decided it was going to happen.”

Duffy will face some tough decisions out of the gate — like whether to proceed with some corruption and fraud cases that aren’t yet public. And, what to do about years-old corruption cases against former San Diego City Councilmen Ralph Inzunza and Michael Zucchet and former city pension officials. The decisions will be more complicated in light of last month’s Supreme Court decision that limits the use of the controversial honest-services statute.

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Duffy is generally well-liked by the numerous federal law enforcement agencies that send cases to her for prosecution, particularly those that investigate border and drug-related crimes, since she has spent most of her time as a prosecutor working those types of cases.

San Diego FBI chief Keith Slotter and Miguel Unzueta, special agent in charge for Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigations, praised Duffy for understanding the needs of agents.

“I know Laura, she is an excellent choice,” Unzueta said. “She’s worked well with all the law enforcement agencies in our community and we are lucky to have her.”

U.S. Border Patrol officials offered similar sentiments. “U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy is a top-notch prosecutor who is tuned in to border issues,” said Rodney Scott, acting deputy chief of the San Diego sector. “She has been a good friend of the Border Patrol for many years and we look forward to working with her.”

But some Border Patrol agents remain angry about the way Duffy handled the murder of one of their own, 30-year-old Robert Rosas. They said they were blindsided in court last year when Christian Daniel Castro-Alvarez, a 16-year-old Mexican national who confessed to being part of a trio that attacked Rosas, was given a 40-year sentence.

Some of the Border Patrol agents said allowing anyone who murders a federal agent to make a deal for anything less than a life sentence is insulting.

“It’s just demoralizing for our agents,” said Shawn Moran, vice president of the National Border Patrol Council, the agents’ union. “We’ve always known we’re at the bottom of the pecking order. We can’t get an assault charge to save our lives when we are assaulted, but we thought if one of us is murdered, that no deals would be cut. You just don’t cut deals with people like this.”

Prior to the sentencing hearing, the U.S. Attorney’s Office had said Castro — who was not the shooter — was facing a life sentence. Why prosecutors sought a 40-year sentence, rather than life, is unclear. Duffy declined to comment.

Federal law enforcement sources previously said Castro surrendered to American agents in Tijuana in August, about three weeks after the shooting, and was escorted across the border by FBI agents, arrested in the United States and taken to a juvenile detention facility without official extradition. His arrest was kept secret as authorities tried to close in on accomplices, who are still being sought.

Defense attorneys familiar with legal issues between the U.S. and Mexico speculated that the Mexican government agreed to turn Castro over to the FBI only if the juvenile was not subjected to a life sentence.

Despite outrage by some Border Patrol agents, this sort of agreement is just part of doing business with Mexico, said criminal defense attorney Geoffrey C. Morrison, who handles a lot of drug cases that involve Mexican nationals.

“The result in this case is as clear an example as you can find of the United States government bending over backward to accomplish its own goal of punishing someone responsible for a horrible crime while at the same time respecting the concerns of the Mexican government,” Morrison said.

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Duffy said her tenacity comes from her Midwestern upbringing in a “down to earth” family of four sisters and still-married parents who taught “strong values and hard work.” She’s a new parent herself, raising a toddler with her spouse, Keri Davis.

Duffy is believed to be the second open lesbian (and first legally-married) to become a U.S. attorney. Her confirmation was celebrated by numerous organizations within the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities.

“The nomination of Duffy, who is an out lesbian, to serve as a U.S. attorney is significant for the LGBT community and demonstrates the Obama Administration’s dedication to promoting qualified and diverse candidates, judging them on their professional accomplishments,” says a blog post for The Human Rights Campaign, which bills itself as the largest national lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil rights organization.

There are numerous openly gay officials in San Diego, including Duffy’s counterpart on the county level, District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis. But some prominent people in the LGBT community said it continues to be important to take note when one of its own takes an important leadership role.

“I still think it’s a big deal anytime anyone is one of the first people within a group or an organization to accomplish something,” said Thomas Bunton, co-president of the Tom Homann LGBT Law Association in San Diego. “It’s a big deal and it’s a major accomplishment. On the other hand it doesn’t have anything directly to do with her job. It just shows that gay and lesbian people can do the job just as well as anyone else.”

Duffy said she is proud of her family, but hopes her sexual orientation isn’t a distraction.

“I am honored that people would follow and celebrate the successes of my career, and I take to heart even the possibility that my being open about my orientation may lessen the stigma or apparent limitations even one individual feels,” Duffy said. “It is my sincerest hope, that in the days and months to come, the thing that I become most known and celebrated for is the quality of my leadership and the continued good work of this office.”

And she said she’s excited about meeting the challenges of the new job.

“I have the same passion and energy as I did when the Arelllano-Felix prosecutions began.”

Contact Kelly Thornton directly at kellythornton7407@yahoo.com. And follow her on Twitter @kellymthornton.

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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