Jeff Armendariz finds practicing law stressful. That’s why he loves his weekends, when he can leave the pressures of defending people accused of drunken driving or domestic violence and drive the 58 miles south to the Battleship Iowa Museum in San Pedro.
“Not only is it a great escape from being an attorney, it’s a subject I love and get to learn more about,” he said.
Two to three times a month, Armendariz finds himself on the Iowa, where he gets to indulge his passion for military history, which stems from his sixth-grade teacher bringing the Civil War to life. He has collected numerous artifacts, including rifles, pistols, swords, cartridge boxes, carbines and an 1811 printing of George Washington’s Farewell Address.
The USS Iowa has a colorful past that includes carrying President Franklin Roosevelt across the Atlantic to meet with Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin, and bombing the Marshall Islands and Japan during World War II; bombing North Korea during the Korean War, and escorted oil tankers during the Iran-Iraq War. Also, a mysterious explosion inside the second turret killed 47 crewmen in 1989.
Armendariz gets to tell visitors these stories and more, but he especially enjoys what he learns from the guests, some of whom served on the Iowa and worked in the hot and sticky confines of the engine room or kitchen. They tell tales of sleeping under the stars on the deck because it was so hot below deck, and they remember how rough the Pacific Ocean waves could be.
“They can tell you more than what you learn from a book,” Armendariz said.
Yet the most interesting person he ever met since starting as a volunteer tour guide July 7, 2014, was a WWII army paratrooper from the 82nd Airborne who jumped onto the beach at Normandy on June 6, 1944. This veteran also participated in the Battle of the Bulge and the unsuccessful Operation Market Garden.
As he walked around the Iowa – and Armendariz marveled that this 80-something man walked up and down ladders like he was 18 – he walked onto the bridge and remarked, “If I’d known the Navy was this cush, I’d have joined the Navy.”
Armendariz’s law career has been anything by “cush.” After passing the bar in 1994, he worked in the Ventura County district attorney’s office handling assault and battery, driving under the influence, drug possession, weapons charges, petty theft, grand theft and hit-and-run cases.
Starting out on his own in 1998, he went with what he knew and started defending people who he says are “legitimately responsible” for the crime of which they are accused “and must pay a price.”
Much of his job is damage control and managing expectations while showing he cares, he said. For example, a domestic violence case might find him defending someone whose spouse demands “a pound of flesh,” but other times the victimized spouse might not realize that a call to law enforcement brings about an arrest, emotional tolls and the need to report what happened.
He often encounters a wife that tells him, “I don’t want my husband to go to jail even though he hit me. Help me, Jeff.”
Armendariz might be able to have his client plead down to something like disturbing the peace. Some clients appreciate what he does; others wonder if that was the best he could do. Not every client’s sense of what’s fair matches reality, he said.
His other cases – DUI, drugs, hit and run, grand theft, child pornography and sex crimes – often are similarly stressful. He often finds himself with clients who committed the acts they are accused of, and it’s his job to explain why going to trial might not be the best option (a majority of his clients never face trial, he said).
“But if a person didn’t do it, and they’re factually innocent, I’ve got to convince a jury, or prosecutors, so they can see it the same way. That can be stressful,” he said.
Is it any wonder he likes to indulge his passion on weekends?
“It’s a nice place to get away for five hours,” he said of the Iowa.