Well-known and much-respected criminal defense attorney Tony Savage died Tuesday at 81. Among his clients were Gary L. Ridgway, the Green River killer, and David Lewis Rice, murderer of four members of the Goldmark family in 1985.

Share story

Anthony “Tony” Savage may have lacked the schmooze of a big-city lawyer and the slick, headline-catching demeanor, but for 56 years the bearded bear of a man strode into courtrooms up and down the West Coast hell bent on giving everything he possibly could to defend mass murderers, rapists and dope smugglers.

In addition to his trial work, where prosecutors considered him a skilled opponent, Mr. Savage was a mentor to defense lawyers across the region. From the day he passed the bar exam in 1955 until recent weeks, when his terminal cancer left him weary and unable to speak, he dedicated his life to practicing law.

Mr. Savage died Tuesday (Jan. 3); he was 81.

Anthony Savage Jr. was a gigantic presence both in person — he was 6-foot-6 — and inside the courtroom, where he sat with his many infamous clients, among them Green River killer Gary L. Ridgway; David Lewis Rice, who murdered four members of the Goldmark family in 1985; and Charles Campbell, a convicted rapist who escaped from prison and killed both the woman who had testified against him and her 8-year-old daughter. Campbell was executed in 1994.

Mr. Savage vehemently opposed the death penalty and spent a large part of his career fighting it.

“He was just a 100 percent all-around guy. He never said an unkind word about anybody,” said Senior U.S. District Court Judge Carolyn Dimmick. In the course of friendship of more than 50 years, Dimmick said, the only skeptical thing she ever heard Mr. Savage say about anyone was about Charles Campbell.

“He said, ‘That was the only man who I looked in those eyes, and I didn’t feel a thing for,’ ” she recalled. “He felt sympathy for every other defendant he had.”

Bellevue attorney Stephen Hayne said that when he was assigned to handle the defense of Henry Grisby, a man accused of murdering three adults and two children in 1978, he rushed to Mr. Savage for help. Grisby and co-defendant Raymond Frazier had faced the death penalty, but were instead sentenced to life in prison.

“I was a young public defender and in no way qualified to try a death-penalty case. I was in a panic, and I had nowhere to turn, so I showed up in Tony’s office and poured my heart out,” Hayne recalled. After about a half-hour, Mr. Savage agreed to help try the case. “I don’t think Clarence Darrow or F. Lee Bailey could carry Tony’s briefcase. Those guys didn’t have near the career or credentials of Tony Savage,” he said.

In father’s footsteps

Mr. Savage proudly followed his father, former U.S. Attorney Anthony Savage Sr., into the world of law. Savage Sr. would sometimes quietly stand in the back of courtrooms and watch his son, then a deputy King County prosecutor.

The Savage family hailed from North Seattle. Anthony Jr. was an Eagle Scout and graduate of Roosevelt High School. He went on to attend Wesleyan University in Connecticut and was a member of the football team, said retired King County District Court Judge Joel Rindal. Mr. Savage then went to law school at the University of Washington.

After getting his law degree from the UW, Mr. Savage worked at a downtown law firm handling civil cases. He joined the King County Prosecutor’s Office in 1956, just a few months after Rindal. Within two years, Rindal was the chief criminal deputy prosecutor and Savage his right-hand man.

Though he was very good, Rindal said, prosecutorial work was tough for Mr. Savage because he had to push for the death penalty in several cases.

Judge Dimmick, who also was a deputy prosecutor at the time, said Mr. Savage was never bombastic.

“We used to call him the big Boy Scout because he was so low-key in prosecuting people,” she said.

Jim Kempton, a longtime friend, said Mr. Savage was always popular with women because he behaved like a gentleman. He was also a fantastic dancer “who was light on his feet,” Kempton said.

“Tony had a great sense of humor,” Kempton said. “Nothing went over his head. He saw the light side of everything, he just had a lot of fun.”

Private practice

After about six years in the Prosecutor’s Office, Mr. Savage went into private practice with Judge Dimmick’s husband, at the firm Dimmick, Samson and Savage. Mr. Savage handled mostly criminal defense work.

A few years later, he moved to the firm Kempton shared with attorney Dave Gossard. He was there for more than 20 years, Kempton said.

“He was unable to ask anyone for money; all of his clients were broke. I used to say that if a defendant didn’t have the $25 filing fee for the Public Defender’s Office, they sent them to Tony Savage,” Kempton recalled.

It was as a defense lawyer that Mr. Savage’s courtroom skills won renown. He had a gift for catching a liar on the witness stand and was known for keeping juries on the edge of their seats.

“He would, on cross-examination, build a fence around a witness and leave them no room for escape. Tony was just extraordinarily skillful at fencing people in,” said Hayne. “He would get up and ask a question and get closer and closer and closer to the witness. The guy was an amazing trial lawyer, he would turn the prosecution’s case on its head.”

Court of Appeals Judge Anne Ellington said that when she was a young King County Superior Court judge in the 1980s, Mr. Savage paid her a compliment in the press, and she immediately called his office and, as a joke, asked him to marry her. He accepted, and their joke continued; the two often called each other’s offices asking for their fiancé.

“Lawyers have some room for melodrama in cases, and they tend to take advantage of that. But that was never Tony’s way,” Judge Ellington said. “If Tony rose from behind the counsel table, he had something to say. If he approached the bench, he lumbered up, which was especially the case in recent years.”

Mr. Savage’s slow movements won him a nickname among judges: “the wounded buffalo,” Ellington said.

Judge Dimmick said that when Mr. Savage tried a case in her courtroom, jurors were out for several hours deliberating. One panel later told her that they had no question about the defendant’s guilt, but they wanted to stay in the deliberation room because they didn’t want to disappoint Mr. Savage.

King County Superior Court Judge William Downing said that Mr. Savage was always “the paragon of integrity”; he exhibited outstanding legal skills and was simply a delight to be around.”

“I have been in the court system 35 years and there’s nobody for whom I have the admiration and affection that I have for Tony,” said Downing, who prosecuted the Goldmark case. “Tony had a unique gift for being able to figure out the vulnerability of a prosecutor’s case. I think he must have had a photographic memory. He never gave the impression that he worked hard.”

The courtroom consumed every aspect of Mr. Savage’s life, until he married his now-deceased wife, Barbara, in the 1980s. The couple lived in Edmonds.

Jail stint

Mr. Savage spent some time on the other side of the jail-cell door when he was sentenced to a month for not paying his taxes. Judge Dimmick said she and other friends tried to get him to pay his taxes, and he promised to get around to it eventually.

“Tony was a great procrastinator, as most lawyers are,” Kempton said.

As Mr. Savage grew older and as his friends retired, he remained as dedicated as ever to work. Even ill, he could be found in his office every day until last week.

Colleagues and friends tried to host parties for him and even surprise him with Champagne in his office, but he refused. When a group of King County Superior Court judges, defense lawyers and the Prosecutor’s Office tried to coax Savage into court to give him an award honoring his legal career, he refused. The Prosecutor’s Office set up a video camera in a conference room, asking people who knew him to say a few nice words for a video to be delivered to him.

Toward the end, he hunkered down at home and told friends they could see him one by one. Though he couldn’t talk he remained as funny as ever, writing out statements on pieces of paper complaining about “too much undeserved hoopla and praise.”

“I have always thought that I had a pretty good grip over who I was and what I was doing,” Mr. Savage wrote in a recent note shared by Hayne. “If everybody wanted to get together, have a few drinks and tell stories about when I went to jail, got my ass kicked by the WSBA (the state Bar Association), etc. That would be enough.”

Mr. Savage was preceded in death by his wife. He is survived by a sister, Margaret Savage, of Shaw Island, and a sister-in-law, Margaret Vance Savage, of Edmonds. He is also survived by granddaughter, Adelle Chisholm, of Little Falls, Minn; grandson Quentin Starin, of Crystal, Minn;. and a great-grandson.

At his request, no services are planned.

Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or jensullivan@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @SeattleSullivan.