Bob Dillinger was far more than Pinellas-Pasco’s community defender

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Bob Dillinger has been quite a few items to many individuals over his 40-calendar year legal profession:

A zealous litigator. A mentor to young lawyers. An advocate for children. A philanthropist, alongside his longtime wife, Kay. A recognized cryer, so moved by his do the job that it moved the people all-around him, far too.

As the Pinellas-Pasco judicial circuit’s chief community defender, that enthusiasm went a very long way. For 24 years, Dillinger took an office environment tasked with defending all those who can not manage a personal protection attorney and broadened it into a social solutions company that experimented with to address root leads to these types of as mental health issues, homelessness and childhood trauma.

“Not to get all horoscope-y, but he’s a Leo, and it seriously reveals,” said Pinellas County Decide Lorraine Kelly, referring to the astrological sign represented by a lion. “He is intense, and he really has usually had a coronary heart for the underdog and the cheapest of the reduced.”

Dillinger is retiring at the close of the calendar year. He was 1st elected general public defender in 1996 and served five terms, but Thursday is his final day on the task.

His main deputy, Sara Mollo, can take in excess of Jan. 5 and explained she hopes to carry on her boss’ legacy.

“It’s just a massive honor and privilege to adhere to in his footsteps,” claimed Mollo, 51, who ran unopposed this year.

Dillinger, 69, leaves guiding a legacy of compassion and management, coworkers, mates and community leaders reported. He spearheaded social plans and racked up awards from legal and social solutions organizations.

And for additional than a ten years, he and his wife have helped 1000’s of community little ones by means of the Beth Dillinger Basis, a charity named just after their daughter, who died by suicide in 2006.

“I consider we’ve altered the concentration,” he claimed, reflecting on his profession, “that general public defenders do additional than just signify criminals. We in fact are included in the local community.”

• • •

Working at the general public defender’s workplace convinced Dillinger to turn into one.

He was born and elevated in Daytona Beach, then moved to New York Town to show up at Columbia College, wherever he researched environmental sciences. He returned to Florida to be closer to his loved ones and attended Stetson University Higher education of Regulation in Gulfport.

He experienced an desire in city arranging. But he required to attempt out staying in a courtroom and heard the public defender clinic allowed regulation college students to try out conditions. He tried two scenarios and was hooked.

Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger, right, and senior assistant public defender Violet Assaid, left, sit in court in 2006 during their office's lawsuit against the Department of Children and Families. Dillinger argued that the state wasn't pulling mentally disabled people out of the overcrowded Pinellas jail fast enough, in violation of state law.
Pinellas-Pasco Community Defender Bob Dillinger, proper, and senior assistant general public defender Violet Assaid, still left, sit in court in 2006 during their office’s lawsuit versus the Department of Small children and Households. Dillinger argued that the condition wasn’t pulling mentally disabled persons out of the overcrowded Pinellas jail quickly ample, in violation of point out legislation. [ SHADD, DIRK | Times (2006) ]

He graduated from law faculty in 1976 and took a work in the Pinellas-Pasco office environment as an assistant public defender. Quickly, he was performing on funds circumstances, expertise that led him to enable publish Florida’s 1st loss of life penalty teaching handbook for protection lawyers.

“He was normally geared up, diligently studying and discovering, with the overlay of great particular worry about the nicely-staying of his clients,” stated Pinellas-Pasco Main Decide Anthony Rondolino, who worked with Dillinger in the public defender’s place of work again then. “It was a tremendous mixture for a prison protection attorney, particularly a public defender.”

In 1981, Dillinger remaining the business office to get the job done in private exercise. His function incorporated suing the Pinellas sheriff at the time, alleging he allowed deputies to beat suspects with a shotgun and flashlights, and properly defending a person towards a murder charge following arguing his customer was taken gain of thanks to his cocaine addiction.

Circuit Decide Linda Allan, who shared office environment house with Dillinger as an attorney then, explained he often experienced a “real yearning” to run for community defender.

Bob Dillinger is congratulated by supporters after winning election as the Pinellas-Pasco public defender in 1996, unseating the incumbent public defender and his boss in the process.
Bob Dillinger is congratulated by supporters soon after successful election as the Pinellas-Pasco community defender in 1996, unseating the incumbent general public defender and his manager in the procedure. [ CABBLE, KATHLEEN | Times (1996) ]

He took the leap in 1995, submitting to run from his aged manager and fellow Republican, Robert Jagger, in the 1996 principal.

At the time, Jagger was considered to be the longest-serving public defender in the nation. To Jagger, that meant he brought regularity and knowledge to the job. To Dillinger, it meant stale and out-of-contact management.

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Experiencing a 35-12 months incumbent, in a race couple voters paid focus to, Dillinger utilised some imaginative ways. At a 1995 Bucs-Jaguars game, a modest airplane flew earlier mentioned the 71,629 spectators with a banner: “Dillinger for public defender.” The following year, days prior to the election, as all eyes were being on the forecast for Tropical Storm Fran, he purchased air time on the Climate Channel.

One thing worked, mainly because Dillinger conquer his outdated boss with 57 p.c of the vote. On his 1st day on the career, he mentioned he had his workplace doorway taken off the hinges — the literal embodiment of an open up-door policy.

• • •

Before she was a circuit decide, Chris Helinger was performing at the community defender’s office environment when her freshly elected boss asked her to evaluation some circumstance files. Dillinger experienced a hunch about them.

In a single, Gulfport law enforcement had pinned a dozen burglaries on a Black male with mental disabilities. As Helinger dug in, the situation versus him fell aside. Law enforcement stated he’d confessed, but there have been no recordings or published information of what he claimed, and there was no other proof tying him to the alleged crimes. It was just one of several concerns in just the office that sparked a Department of Justice civil legal rights probe.

A different scenario was a Madeira Beach front man who was experiencing costs of armed theft and sexual battery in a series of resort robberies on the beach front. Dillinger informed her the person insisted he was innocent, and that there was an additional gentleman in jail — accused of murder and financial institution robbery — who looked just like him.

Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger seen during a 2000 interview with the then-St. Petersburg Times.
Pinellas-Pasco General public Defender Bob Dillinger viewed through a 2000 interview with the then-St. Petersburg Occasions. [ GARY RINGS | Tampa Bay Times ]

A description of the so-called “beach bandit” was that he was putting on a distinct shirt with the term “Meridian” on it. So, through an interview with the lookalike’s girlfriend, Helinger asked if she had any of his clothing. The girlfriend claimed she did.

In an unparalleled transfer, Dillinger’s workplace pursued a lookup warrant — a legal maneuver commonly utilized only by legislation enforcement. There, at the top rated of a bag total of clothing, was the shirt.

“I’ll never ever overlook that instant,” Helinger explained. “I have this sort of fond inner thoughts for him mainly because he enabled me to do these factors. He was extremely great at picking out where the expertise was and exactly where it wasn’t.”

A person of Dillinger’s most superior-profile victories was the exoneration of Dale Morris Jr., who the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office accused of the 1997 rape and murder of his 9-calendar year-outdated neighbor, Sharra Ferger. Dillinger, convinced of Morris’ innocence, threw his office’s assets at Morris’ protection.

Dale Morris Jr. (left facing camera) hugs his stepdaughter Amanda Peeks as his wife Sandy Morris and his mother Dawnell O'Malley look on after he was freed from jail and arrived home in 1998. Morris was accused in the 1997 rape and murder of 9-year-old Sharra Ferger, but the charges were later dropped. His exoneration was one of Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger's most high-profiler legal victories.
Dale Morris Jr. (still left facing camera) hugs his stepdaughter Amanda Peeks as his spouse Sandy Morris and his mother Dawnell O’Malley glance on right after he was freed from jail and arrived residence in 1998. Morris was accused in the 1997 rape and murder of 9-yr-old Sharra Ferger, but the costs were afterwards dropped. His exoneration was just one of Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger’s most large-profiler legal victories. [ ANDY JONES | Times (1998) ]

The state’s case hung on a bite mark on the child’s shoulder: the sheriff’s dental skilled said it matched Morris’ imprints. Protection specialists came to the reverse conclusion. Then, just a number of weeks right before Morris’ 1998 demo was established to begin, crime labs determined that hair found on the girl’s entire body matched an additional person, not Morris.

Dillinger mentioned he’d never ever neglect the contact from a prosecutor, letting him know the point out was abandoning the demand. The courtroom doc dismissing Morris’ case is framed in his office with this brass engraving: “These steps are the immediate end result of whole dedication by an whole workplace.”

• • •

It wasn’t just defending clients in the courtroom that Dillinger excelled at.

“His check out of his career … went way past the regular function of defending a person in a courtroom,” Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri stated.

Dillinger explained he came into the job with a passion for mental health just after observing how much it played a role in his clients’ conditions.

He drew interest in the early 2000s to an problem that nevertheless persists nowadays, that a damaged mental wellness treatment system led jails and prisons to become de facto mental hospitals. He received a grant in 2003 for a method that has because diverted extra than 7,000 jail inmates with critical psychological disease into cure.

Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger speaks at a 2017 panel on juvenile justice at the Dr. Carter G. Woodson Museum in St. Petersburg.
Pinellas-Pasco Community Defender Bob Dillinger speaks at a 2017 panel on juvenile justice at the Dr. Carter G. Woodson Museum in St. Petersburg. [ SHADD, DIRK | Tampa Bay Times ]

He was instrumental in producing courses that assisted with substance abuse issues and homelessness. And he cared deeply about kids. Dillinger observed a link involving dependency instances, a civil action that occurs when a youngster is suspected to be a victim of abuse or neglect, and delinquency cases, in which a little one faces legal fees. He explained it this way to the then-St. Petersburg Times in 2008:

“They press someone in a foster care dwelling, they act out since they feel they’re currently being abused or not currently being handled appropriate,” Dillinger claimed. “And they stop up with delinquency rates.”

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That resulted in 1 of the systems he’s most very pleased of: Crossover for Little ones, which pairs a youngster with the exact same community defender for each conditions. The program not only gives young children authorized enable, he stated, but also a regular advocate in lives typically marked by uncertainty and trauma.

Outside the business office, the Dillinger relatives grappled with their have tragedy. He and his wife’s only boy or girl, daughter Beth, killed herself in 2006. She was 32 and engaged. Her moms and dads went from setting up her wedding to arranging her funeral.

An undated photo of Bob and Kay Dillinger with their daughter Beth. The Beth Dillinger Foundation was created in 2007 by the parents after their daughter died by suicide in 2006.
An undated image of Bob and Kay Dillinger with their daughter Beth. The Beth Dillinger Foundation was made in 2007 by the moms and dads soon after their daughter died by suicide in 2006. [ FLYNN, KATHLEEN | Times (2011) ]

The Dillingers channeled their suffering into aiding other youngsters. The yr following her demise, they began the Beth Dillinger Foundation.

It began with Beth’s Closet, a boutique of dresses and components for at-hazard teens served by the Pace Center for Girls and has grown to provide numerous applications, like Nourish to Flourish, which supplies foods on weekends to countless numbers of little ones whose only access to consistent meals was at school all through the 7 days.

“Within a single meeting you could locate him passionately virtually currently being in tears about youngsters in hunger and severely holding folks accountable,” mentioned Beth Houghton, main executive officer of the Juvenile Welfare Board of Pinellas County, on which Dillinger served for 20 decades.

“He introduced out the aspect of him that was wanted at the time.”

• • •

So what does slowing down appear like for a person like Dillinger?

It was heading to involve touring and museums and evenings out to dinner, just before the coronavirus pandemic swept the planet. For now, it is textbooks, a small Netflix, and a lot of time at his household on the Withlacoochee River, fishing for massive-mouth bass, elusive amid the panfish. He and his wife will also continue their operate with the foundation.

Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender Bob Dillinger and his wife, Kay, pose for a photo in 2013.
Pinellas-Pasco General public Defender Bob Dillinger and his wife, Kay, pose for a image in 2013. [ ZUPPA, CHRIS | Times (2013) ]

Retirement may well contain some doctor’s visits, as well. Dillinger is on his ninth spherical of chemotherapy since he was identified with leukemia in 2007. He feels fantastic, he stated, but the most cancers has racked his immune procedure, producing his last year in office significantly tough amid a pandemic.

He’s hunting forward to his subsequent phase. He feels like he accomplished something and claimed that he’s “ready to fade into obscurity.”

That will be difficult following a job like Dillinger’s.

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