Wednesday, April 30, 2014

In Memoriam: James W. Staerk

                                           James W. Staerk /Mercury Photo by Carl Hessler Jr.

     The news was shocking when it reached the Montgomery County Courthouse on Good Friday. Former Assistant District Attorney James W. Staerk had passed away in South Carolina on April 17, just one day shy of his 55th birthday and just two years after he retired from a prosecutorial career that spanned 27 years. Those who worked with the gentleman affectionately known as "Jim" walked the hallways of the courthouse in the days that followed with saddened faces, but wonderful memories, as they grappled with the unexpected news of their friend's passing.
     "We're all deeply saddened. Jim was an icon in the Montgomery County legal community. His knowledge of the law and the way that he dealt with people and the respect that he treated everybody with, is really what I think, everyone will remember, especially his sense of humor and his overcoming all the obstacles that he did in order to become such an icon here in Montgomery County," said Assistant District Attorney Matthew Quigg.
     Believed to be one of only a few prosecutors nationwide who plied their legal skills from a wheelchair, Jim never let his physical condition define him or keep him from realizing his goals as a dedicated public servant. A neuromuscular disease called spinal muscular atrophy, which became apparent when Jim was a young child, resulted in his using a wheelchair since he was 8.
     But it wasn't the wheelchair that colleagues, legal adversaries and jurors noticed. It was Jim's reputation as a tough, yet fair, reasonable man who had a combination of courage and humility, that stood out. District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman once told me Jim was "one of the most inspirational and extraordinary" people she'd ever met.
     Ferman said Jim was an "example of grace in a challenging circumstance."
     "Jim took me under his wing when I was in the pretrials division, taught me all about forfeitures and taught me about criminal prosecution in general," Assistant District Attorney Kathleen Colgan recalled this week. "He had an extremely sharp, legal mind, an even sharper wit and a huge heart. He will be greatly missed."
     Jim's quips were infamous and I witnessed many of them as I covered him in court.
     Shortly before he retired in the summer of 2012, Jim used drug forfeiture laws to seize convicted drug smuggling pilot James Handzus' 1959 Piper Comanche single engine aircraft, which was christened "My Lady." While arguing to have the plane forfeited Jim suggested to the judge, "It is time for Mr. Handzus to kiss his lady goodbye." Jim always nailed it in court.
     A 1977 graduate of Abington High School, Jim had a love of law enforcement that was deeply rooted in family. His father and uncle both served the public as Abington cops. Jim once told me being a prosecutor was "a good fit" for him.
     "He was inspired to be in law enforcement his whole life," recalled defense lawyer Jon Fox, who is also a former county commissioner. "He's a man who had a disability but he didn't think so and he inspired others to do their best, to keep a sense of humor and to make sure that whatever he did was to help the citizens of Montgomery County."
     In court, jurors couldn't help but notice the wheelchair, initially. But the wheelchair always seemed to fade into the background once Jim spoke, his commanding presence permeating the courtroom. Jim also was well known for arguing before the state Supreme Court in an appellate case that led to changes that strengthened corrupt organization laws.
     Hundreds of people, including former colleagues, judges, detectives, police officers, friends and family, celebrated Jim's life and remembered their good friend during a service last Saturday at St. John of the Cross Church in Roslyn.
     I had the privilege of interviewing Jim in May 2012 shortly before he retired and in typical Jim fashion he approached the interview with great humor and questioned the fuss people were making about his retiring. When the interview concluded, I was struck by his integrity, courage, determination, perspective on the world and knowledge about the legal institution he loved so much. Not once did Jim lament about his physical challenges.
     "My condition is what I am. But I don't let my condition limit what I am," Jim told me. "It's a part of me and I just go out and do what I feel like doing, the best that I can."
     Thank you for inspiring others, Jim. You will be missed.

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