When Bernie McCabe first thought about becoming a lawyer, the name that came to mind was TV’s most famous defense attorney.
“I was always fascinated by Perry Mason,” he told the Tampa Bay Times in 2018.
Instead, McCabe’s historic career went in the opposite direction: He spent a half-century as a prosecutor and in 1992 was elected to the top job.
As Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney, he spent nearly three decades overseeing the prosecution of murderers, cop-killers and con men in both counties. He also led the office in its unsuccessful prosecution of the Church of Scientology.
McCabe died on Friday. He was 73.
He had been in poor health for some time. In February, he suffered what he called an “adverse health event” before the pandemic and started working from home. McCabe provided no details about his health then.
“It’s no secret he’s been in poor health,” said Pinellas Pasco Clerk of the Circuit Court Ken Burke, a longtime friend of the state attorney.
McCabe leaves behind a wife, Denise, who he married in 1969, and two children.
In a 2018 interview with the Times, McCabe said his job meant everything to him.
“There’s a lot of satisfaction there. I think I would feel a big void (if I wasn’t working),” he said. “I don’t play golf. In fact, I hate gardening. I can cook reasonably well, but I can’t do that all the time ...
“I don’t know if there’s anything else that I could find that would give me the sense of fulfillment that I get out of this office.”
When the news of McCabe’s death broke Saturday, the region’s top officials offered praise.
“He was a man with great intelligence. He had a superior insight into our judicial system. He was a keen politician, and he was always mindful of the other justice partners,” said Pinellas-Pasco Chief Judge Anthony Rondolino, who had known McCabe since both were young attorneys. “He was a great leader for the state attorney’s office and has a legacy that will be very, very difficult to surpass.”
The state attorney was a “consummate professional, very ethical,” said Bob Dillinger, who retired last week after 24 years as Pinellas-Pasco’s top public defender.
“I’ve lost a longtime friend,” he said.
The chief judge on Saturday appointed Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett, McCabe’s longtime second-in-command and close friend, as acting state attorney.
“Trying to step in for Bernie — they’re hard shoes to fill,” Bartlett said. “I just hope that the public will be satisfied with what I do.”
McCabe’s only contested election was his first one in 1992, and he has run unopposed since. In April he was automatically elected to another four-year term that was to start Tuesday. The governor will have to appoint an interim state attorney, and then voters will elect a new state attorney in 2022.
McCabe’s death and Dillinger’s departure means new faces will fill the Pinellas-Pasco circuit’s top criminal justice positions for the first time in decades.
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McCabe was raised in Mount Dora, where his father once served as Lake County school superintendent. What first drew him to the law, he said, was the school board’s colorful attorney, a cigar-chomping lawyer who drove a white Cadillac convertible with red leather seats.
But when McCabe went to Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport, his career path fell into place after his first prosecution clinic in 1971. He said he enjoyed the “satisfaction” of helping people and doing the right thing. He graduated in 1972 and joined the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney’s Office.
“It was kind of right place, right time,” he said, “and I came to really love what I was doing.”
He spent eight years there, supervising the St. Petersburg and then Pasco County offices. Then in 1980, after his father died, he returned home and went to work as a prosecutor in Lake County. Two years later, then-Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Jimmy Russell asked him to come back. McCabe became Russell’s top deputy, then his heir apparent in the 1992 election.
Under his tenure, the State Attorney’s Office won convictions in some of the worst crimes in Tampa Bay history. That includes the case of Oba Chandler, who was executed in 2011 for the murders of Joan Rogers and daughters Michelle and Christe. The Ohio family was visiting Florida in 1989 when Chandler offered to take them out onto Tampa Bay in his boat. They were found floating in the bay, bound, tied to concrete blocks and stripped below the waist.
McCabe prided himself on personally prosecuting cop-killers. He was on the prosecution teams that convicted the killers of Belleair police Officer Jeffery Tackett, who died in 1993; Pasco sheriff’s Lt. Charles “Bo” Harrison, who was killed in 2003; and St. Petersburg police Officer David Crawford, who died in 2011.
“Any good trial lawyer first and foremost is preparation, and Bernie did his homework,” said Pinellas-Pasco Judge Jack Helinger, who started his legal career as a prosecutor in 1976. And to jurors, Helinger said, McCabe “was a good ‘ol Mount Dora boy. He didn’t talk down to them. He talked with them.”
He supervised an office of about 165 attorneys that handles roughly 80,000 felony, misdemeanor, traffic and juvenile cases a year. In recent years he complained about the toll austere budgets took on his agency.
In a 2011 interview, McCabe noted one of the most disappointing cases of his career: The failed prosecution of the Church of Scientology for the 1995 death of member Lisa McPherson who spent her last days in the church’s care. In 1998 he charged the church with two felonies, practicing medicine without a license and abuse of a disabled adult. But in 2000 he dropped the charges after the medical examiner changed McPherson’s manner of death from “undetermined” to “accident.”
The most famous white collar crime that McCabe’s office prosecuted was against the Rev. Henry Lyons, the St. Petersburg preacher who was then one of the nation’s most powerful Black church leaders. In 1999 he was convicted of using his position as president of the National Baptist Convention USA Inc. to swindle corporations out of more than $4 million.
McCabe’s decisions also made headlines. In 1996, Officer James Knight, a white man, fatally shot Tyron Lewis, a Black motorist who edged his car forward, knocking the officer onto the hood. That incident sparked two nights of rioting in St. Petersburg. McCabe took the case to a grand jury, and its decision not to charge the officer led to more violence. However, when the Times raised questions about the evidence presented to the grand jury, McCabe insisted the grand jury’s report was accurate.
More recently, McCabe prosecuted a man the Pinellas sheriff declined to arrest: Michael Drejka, a white man who killed a Black man, Markeis McGlockton, in a 2018 dispute over a Clearwater parking spot. The sheriff cited Florida’s stand your ground law, but McCabe charged Drejka and he was convicted of manslaughter in 2019.
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McCabe had a big heart for children, said Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri. He supported juvenile diversion programs, which channel children arrested for certain crimes into social services and community services and away from the criminal justice system. He also supported Gualtieri’s move to start a similar program for adults accused of minor crimes.
“What made him stick out was his firm belief in doing the right things and treating people fairly and treating them humanely,” Gualtieri said.
But McCabe was also tough when he needed to be, the sheriff said, calling him “an icon in the legal community and law enforcement.”
Florida House Speaker Chris Sprowls, a Palm Harbor Republican who worked as a prosecutor in McCabe’s office until about four years ago, on Saturday posted a statement on Twitter.
“Bernie was my mentor and my friend,” he said. “I will miss him more than I can put into words, but I also know that I will carry the lessons I learned from him with me through all the days of my life.”
Despite his declining health, Gualtieri said McCabe’s mind was as sharp as ever. And his passion for his work never diminished either.
“I thoroughly enjoy this job and I don’t know what it is, but when I start contemplating not coming to work, I just sense a sort of emptiness,” he told the Times in 2018. “I enjoy coming to work, I enjoy interacting with people, I thoroughly enjoy trying to make the community a safer place, or at least keep it from becoming a more dangerous place.”
Friends and colleagues believe that’s why McCabe continued to run for office, despite his declining health. He once said he’d retire after 2016 — but ended up running two more times.
“It doesn’t get more dedicated than he was,” Gualtieri said, “right to the end.”
Times staff writers C.T. Bowen and Laura C. Morel contributed to this report.