TAMPA — Former Hillsborough Circuit Judge Tracy Sheehan, a widely respected lawyer and jurist known as an advocate for children, died unexpectedly Christmas morning at her vacation home in Georgia. She was 60.
Ms. Sheehan had worked as a mediator in family law cases since her retirement in 2017 after 11 years on the bench. She died at a cabin she recently purchased in the Blue Ridge mountains. A neighbor alerted authorities after hearing Ms. Sheehan’s dog barking early Wednesday morning, a coroner in Fannin County, Ga., told the Tampa Bay Times. The neighbor entered the cabin and found Ms. Sheehan unresponsive.
An exact cause of death had yet to be determined Thursday. Friends said they were unaware of any recent illnesses or medical problems.
Ms. Sheehan was known as outspoken and independent, among the more colorful characters to sit on the Hillsborough County bench.
She rode a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and carried a raspberry-colored pistol. She had a yellow Labrador named Gunnar, and before that, a black Labrador named Molly. She vented to her dogs about court cases.
She was a TV journalist before she became a lawyer, ending up in Tampa in the early 1980′s by way of Alaska, with stops in Washington state and Tennessee.
She worked as a criminal defense lawyer for many years before becoming a judge in 2006. She ran for the office unopposed, a testament to the respect she held in the community at large, said Hillsborough Chief Judge Ronald Ficarrotta.
“She was an outstanding judge,” Ficarrotta said. “She brought a lot of compassion to the judge’s bench.”
Part of her judicial tenure included time presiding over juvenile and family law cases. She earned a reputation as an advocate for youth and the vulnerable.
“She was a person who really dedicated her entire career to advocating for children, more than anything else." said former Tampa city councilman Harry Cohen, who worked alongside Sheehan at the firm of the late Tampa defense lawyer Barry Cohen. "That was her tremendous passion.”
Her friends called her “the Alaskan wilderness girl,” a reference to her origins in the Alaska frontier. She grew up south of Fairbanks, in a place where the local magistrate ran a gas station and liquor store and the nearest McDonald’s was hundreds of miles away.
Ms. Sheehan often returned to her home state, where she kept a cabin in the mountains with bear shutters and no toilet or running water. She hunted bear and moose. She cursed like a biker.
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She twice survived breast cancer. After the second bout, she told the Tampa Bay Times, she prayed to God that if she lived she would do good for others.
She made good on the promise when she took $100,000 from her retirement fund and used it to help start A Kid’s Place, a children’s charity based in Brandon.
In 2013, Sheehan was stopped leaving Ybor City and charged with DUI. “This was a colossal lack of judgement,” she told reporters. “A horrible, poor choice.” When she was reprimanded by the Florida Supreme Court, the chief justice noted Sheehan accepted full responsibility.
More than two decades before she took the bench in Hillsborough County, she studied journalism at Washington State University. From there, she worked as a reporter and anchor for news stations in the northwest and, later, Tennessee. Station managers thought her given name, Brenda, was boring. They renamed her Tracy.
It was a name she kept when she started at WTSP-Ch. 10 in Tampa.
Kevin Kalwary, a private investigator and close friend of Ms. Sheehan’s for more than 40 years, met her when he worked for the station. He recalled her stubborn and fearless. When she wanted to leave TV to attend law school, the station refused to let her out of her contract, Kalwary said, so she showed up to work with her hair dyed blue and purple. They let her go.
“All I can say is she was the most wonderful person I’ve ever been around," Kalwary said. “I feel like I’ve lost a sister.”
Ms. Sheehan went on to earn a law degree from Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport. Later, she went to work for Barry Cohen, whom she had watched at trial.
Cohen planned a client’s defense around Ms. Sheehan’s ceremonial swearing-in as a lawyer. He asked Judge “Hangin’ Harry” Coe to do the honors before the sentencing of the client, a drug dealer, then arranged to have Sheehan handle the defense before Coe on the same day.
“I figured Coe wouldn’t let Tracy’s first client go to jail,” Cohen told the Tampa Bay Times in 2010. The defendant got probation.
Ms. Sheehan worked for Cohen until 1994, then spent two years as a public defender before returning to Cohen’s firm. She later entered private practice and served as a teen court judge and guardian ad litem.
Tampa attorney Lyann Goudie said Sheehan was one of the first friends she made when Goudie started as a prosecutor in Tampa in the early 1990s. Although they were often adversaries in the courtroom, their friendship grew. Goudie knew Sheehan as outspoken and opinionated, traits she retained even with the constraints of judicial service.
“Don’t ask Tracy her opinion if you don’t really want it,” Goudie said. “She had firm opinions about things, especially things that dealt with dependency and juvenile court.”
“She was an independent thinker and a hard worker,” said Tampa lawyer Scott Tozian. “She was really a kind soul. ... The nicest thing you can say about any lawyer or judge is that they were a decent human being.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story stated incorrectly where Tracy Sheehan was found dead.
Times staff writer Josh Solomon contributed to this report.