Tuned Out

Jason January, left, with fellow Acoustix. Believe it or not, many people think they're cool.

Jason January, a Dallas County special prosecutor until he suddenly and inexplicably quit in October, accumulated some impressive photographs during the last couple of years.

There's the one where January's arm is around Peter Jennings' shoulder at Jennings' ABC News office in New York City and one of January on the set of Good Morning America. There's January in a golf shirt with sunglasses hanging from his open collar in a hotel lobby in Tokyo. There he is in Salt Lake City wearing a tuxedo and singing with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. There he is in Atlanta, in front of an enormous U.S. flag and singing with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, at San Francisco's Candlestick Park stadium before thousands of football fans, at Lone Star Park, and entertaining at a True Value Hardware convention.

January is a celebrity in certain circles far outside Dallas, and he was well known as a high-profile prosecutor in Dallas before he quit. That's why his departure from the $93,000-a-year job left many wondering what happened and whether January's "international quartet champions" barbershop quartet had anything to do with it.

Nobody besides January (especially his old boss, Dallas County District Attorney Bill Hill, who did not return telephone calls) would say publicly why January resigned. But those who know of him say the simple fact is that January abruptly quit because he was more popular on the barbershop quartet circuit than he was among his boss and his peers at the courthouse.

January's departure was surprising because he had worked his way up in the prosecutor's office during the last 15 years, earning a spot among the elite stable of what's known as Dallas County's "super" chief prosecutors. He made a name for himself and often appeared in the media for prosecuting high-profile cases such as the notorious Mi-T-Fine Car Wash murders, which he worked in September just before quitting. In about 18 months before he left, he took part in six death-penalty trials. He did not lose a case.

But sources say January, who is now a personal injury lawyer in private practice in Dallas, rubbed the relatively new Hill the wrong way. January wasn't promoting Hill's office policies and morale among the troops the way Hill (who took office two years ago) wanted, they say. It's said that January talked badly of Hill's administration and was considered "subversive," according to one courthouse source (one of several who asked not to be identified for fear of being seen as subversive). Some said January, who was active in politics, also bothered Hill because he had designs on Hill's job.

January himself concedes he had differences with Hill and that the office morale was "at an all-time low." But, January says, he quit because he had come to the end of the line after 15 years of public service.

"No question, I had some mild philosophical differences with the way that things were running down there but nothing that stopped me from working with him for a year and a half," he said. "September 15 or so I had crossed the line of 15 years and got my little 15-year pin. At that point, I thought it was time to move on."

When asked what specifically the differences were about, January said, "A lot of it wasn't really spoken because I followed his policies. My job was to be an Indian, which I was. I guess I was not as much a cheerleader for his policies as I should have been, but I certainly followed them."

And then there was Acoustix, January's top-name barbershop quartet that has produced albums and appeared on national television and at major sporting events and is wildly popular among devotees.

Barbershop is a niche in the music business, but the group, which usually sing a cappella, has rabid fans and lists impressive credits among barbershop quartet enthusiasts and in the mainstream. The group, which was the "1990 International Quartet Champions," claims to have had 250 appearances in 37 states and appeared in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. They've appeared on the Today Show, and tracks from their latest album Stars & Stripes (whose cover depicts the four singers in Navy dress white uniforms) were featured in in-flight programming on American Airlines jets. The Acoustix rendition of the Star Spangled Banner greets American troops tuned into the American military television network in the Far East every day.

But letters from fans, on the Acoustix Web site, speak more to the group's popularity and the enthusiasm of its fans than any list of appearances could.

Greg Thomas of Milbank, S.D., wrote: "Still on a high from seeing Acoustix perform in Fargo Saturday night. I've seen three...quartets in the past six weeks and Acoustix still ranks at the top. Thanks for signing my pic. I will treasure that forever."

The pull of the quartet's obligations may not have been the reason January quit, and it may have been an irritating intrusion at January's office, sources say. Records obtained by the Dallas Observer show (and courthouse sources confirm) that while January often put in marathon hours with work-weeks exceeding 50 hours, his concert dates with Acoustix appeared to have had at least some effect on his courthouse face time. In the last couple of years, it was not unusual for January to take a long weekend or vacation day that coincided with Acoustix gigs in distant or local venues. January says his time off was not always for Acoustix and that what he does on his vacation time is his personal business anyway.

"It didn't conflict with anything," he says. "It didn't conflict with any trial at all."

Actually, an Acoustix appearance did conflict at least once. In 1999, during a capital murder trial, January took a vacation day on a Wednesday to travel to New York on Acoustix business. He and his group spent most of the night at a party with Jennings and also working on television spots before boarding a plane for Dallas, where January attended the trial early the next morning.

January concedes the trip took place during the trial but says he missed only a "couple hours" of testimony and that he had gotten approval to go long before the trial started.

"That can sound really bad, 'Oh, he left during a capital murder trial, whooo,'" he says. "The real story is I had it approved, I'm sitting there taking notes like anyone in the audience. My job is done. I missed two hours of testimony. That's it."

January says he had accumulated all of the vacation time he took off.

"Having been there 15 years, I got three weeks of vacation a year, and I had plenty of vacation days to take it," he says. And, he says, his association with Acoustix, his "hobby," had nothing to do with his eventual departure from his courthouse post.

"On occasion I would get a question from someone, 'Hey, how do you have time to be in a great quartet and be a great prosecutor having never lost a murder case' and I'd always answer, 'I sing on the weekend and judges don't typically have trial on the weekends,'" he says. "It worked out fine. I just worked a lot of hours."

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