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.

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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 hellbent 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 days, 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 two women and a child. One of them was the woman who had testified against him; the child was 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 a 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 killing three adults and two children in 1978, he rushed to Mr. Savage for help.

“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.

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.

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 that they “used to call him the big Boy Scout because he was so low-key in prosecuting people.”

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. “He saw the light side of everything; he just had a lot of fun,” Kempton said.

Private practice

After about six years in the Prosecutor’s Office, Mr. Savage went into private practice first with Judge Dimmick’s husband then later at a firm with Kempton.

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,” Hayne said. “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, who has been friends with Mr. Savage since she was a King County Superior Court judge in the 1980s, said that Mr. Savage lacked the “melodrama” so common in lawyers.

“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,” she said.

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

King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg remembered Mr. Savage as “the consummate gentleman of the defense bar.”

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.

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 until last Friday.

Toward the end, when he couldn’t talk, he wrote out statements on pieces of paper complaining about “too much undeserved hoopla and praise.”

Mr. Savage is survived by a sister, Margaret Savage, of Shaw Island, and a sister-in-law, Margaret Vance Savage, of Edmonds.

At his request, no services are planned.

“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. … That would be enough.”

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