Retired judge Staples found dead at Richland home

A retired judge who was known for his "tough and gruff" demeanor in the courtroom and passion for the law was found dead Monday at his Richland home.

Fred Staples, 77, was the longest-standing judge on the Benton-Franklin Superior Court bench when he retired in September 1994.

Staples -- who usually had a cigar clenched in the teeth of his bearded face -- led numerous efforts, all unsuccessful, to relocate the Benton County seat from Prosser to Kennewick.

"He's one of the iconic figures to us attorneys who started when I did," said Kennewick lawyer Jay Flynn, who has been practicing since 1980. "He's one of those guys who you just thought was always going to be there."

Staples reportedly had been ill for about a year and told friends he had lung cancer.

Richland paramedics and police were called at 3 p.m. Monday for reports of a possible suicide at a house on Greenbrook Place on the Meadow Springs Country Club.

Staples lived in the home with his wife, Kay, the retired Benton County clerk.

Police Capt. Mike Cobb said they got the call "about a person being down." Staples' body was found outside on a patio.

No one else was home at the time.

The cause and manner of death were not released Monday out of respect for the family, said Michelle Genack, Benton County's chief deputy coroner. An autopsy will be performed Thursday.

Staples served as a Franklin County District Court judge for 12 years before his appointment in July 1974 by then-Gov. Dan Evans. He replaced Judge James Lawless, who was killed when a pipe bomb exploded in his Franklin County chambers.

Staples' judicial career was marked by a reputation for handing down stiff sentences and requiring high standards from the people who were going to be in his courtroom.

Benton County Prosecutor Andy Miller said he tried a number of cases in front of Staples, including some difficult murder cases. Staples -- "a true student of the law" -- would not only read the written arguments that attorneys submitted, but he also would do his own research and respond with carefully thought out and fair legal decisions, he said.

"I think he could be intimidating, especially with new lawyers. I remember I was intimidated the first few times I was in front of him," Miller told the Herald on Monday. "He did expect lawyers to be prepared and on time."

But Staples' bark was worse than his bite, Miller said, noting that Staples at times could be cantankerous from the bench but that was a part of his character.

"I enjoyed practicing in front of him. He was who he was, and he did love the law," he said. "I thought he was fair over the long run -- he yelled at everybody."

Flynn recalls being panicked when his first criminal trial ever was with the judge, yet Staples "could not have been nicer to a young attorney who came before him." That was a total revelation for Flynn of what type of guy Staples was: a nice, smart, good guy who was held in high regard by everybody.

"I think I can speak for all the attorneys who are my age and started as young attorneys before Judge Staples back in the 80s and 90s. He scared us to death because he was tough and gruff ...," Flynn said. "He didn't want to put up with anybody making stupid arguments. He wanted everybody to be correct and he scared us to death.

"And I think over time there wasn't an attorney who didn't grow to love him and think he wasn't the best judge around."

Former colleague and fellow golfer Duane Taber said he was fortunate enough to have worked with Staples on the Superior Court bench for 13 years, during which the two had "some very interesting discussions." Taber retired his black robe almost 21/2 years after Staples.

"If there was one word that would describe Fred Staples, it was that he was totally obsessed. And you say, 'In what?' In whatever he was doing," Taber explained.

Staples was into genealogy, going back east a half-dozen times to find family history. And when he discovered a link to Staples, Minn., the town made him grand marshal for their Fourth of July parade, Taber said.

"You couldn't hardly live with Fred after that," he said. "And of course he was obsessed with moving the Benton County courthouse. ... He really made up his mind."

Staples' first attempt to move the courthouse was in 1984. Benton County residents then opted to leave it where it was.

But Staples didn't give up. He spent his retirement years in a persistent, one-man fight over the relocation issue.

He unsuccessfully sued the county in 2003, claiming it unlawfully moved the seat by placing all key government offices in Kennewick. The Washington state Supreme Court the following year upheld a lower court ruling that confirmed the county is within its rights to have satellite officers outside of Prosser.

Most recently, he gathered 23,600 petition signatures to again force the question to the general election ballot in November 2010. He was more than disappointed when the last effort came up short of the necessary supermajority, with 56 percent supporting the move and 44 percent opposed.

He then said he had no plans to bring the issue back.

Staples "was a feisty son of a one," but with his recent illness he didn't have much fight left, Taber said Monday. "There is a passing of a great personality in the Tri-Cities, bar none."

-- Kristin M. Kraemer: 582-1531; kkraemer@tricityherald.com