Retired Sonoma County Superior Court Judge John Gallagher was an outspoken, good-natured lawyer who worked to maintain his faith and optimistic approach to life despite the inhumanity he saw in criminal trials and the revelation three decades ago that as a teenager her only son was sexually abused by a Catholic priest.
Prior to Gallagher’s election to the local bench in 1976, he was a senior prosecutor in the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office. During more than 20 years as a judge, he presided over approximately 50 homicide cases. In 1990, suspected mass murderer Ramon Salcido of Sonoma Valley was on his roll when he decided fairness demanded the trial be moved out of the county.
Gallagher retired for two decades when in 2017 the Tubbs fire destroyed the charming rural home and gardens in northeast Santa Rosa that became his home and his wife, Wendy, in 1978.
The widely traveled former judge, prosecutor and jurist had endured a long period of declining health when he died on Sunday. He was 84 years old.
“John was a good, strong, honest man,” said retired Sonoma County District Attorney J. Michael Mullins. Both Gallagher and Mullins worked as attorneys in Orange County before moving north 50 years ago to join the staff of Sonoma County District Attorney John Hawkes.
Gallagher’s “reputation for honesty was excellent,” Mullins said.
Retired local judge Elliot Daum, who represented defendants as an assistant public defender before his election to the bench, appreciated Gallagher’s “ability to change and evolve from a really tough prosecutor to someone who has learned to pass in the middle”.
Talking about Gallagher saddened but also made Daum laugh as he recalled the humor and pranks that flowed from the judge, mostly at the end of his career.
Daum recalled being in Gallagher court as a public defender when, during questioning of potential jurors for potential conflict or bias, a woman said she would have to reveal that she and Daum des years before had sailed together. Daum’s rival in the courtroom that day, the prosecutor, was asking the prospective juror to elaborate on the day she and Daum shared over the water when Gallagher cut the prosecutor off.
Said the judge, “Mr. Daum is married now and we don’t have to worry about what might have happened on that sailboat.
Chris Andrian, the famed Sonoma County criminal defense attorney, remembers worrying when Gallagher became one of the first in a long line of local prosecutors to don the judge’s robe. Andrian anticipated a pro-chasing trend by Gallagher.
But that didn’t happen.
“He treated me fairly,” Andrian said. “He was a guy you could talk to. You could walk into his apartments and chat with him.
Andrian, too, had a chuckle at the jokes and jokes that would come from Gallagher. Specifically, the defense attorney recalled walking into the judge’s courtroom with an important client.
Gallagher looked at them, then joked to Andrian, “So is that the guy who paid you the big deposit so you could drive your awesome BMW?” Andrian admits: “I didn’t know what to say.
John Joseph Gallagher was born in Anaheim in 1938. His father, Stephen Gallagher, was a lawyer.
Young Gallagher grew up in Orange County, then attended Loyola University and earned a law degree from USC. He was still in law school when he met and fell in love with Wendy Thayer.
The two joked that they had come to forgive the mutual friend who had set them up for a blind date with sundaes at a cafe. They married in 1963 in a Catholic church in La Habra. They would raise three children.
As a young attorney, John Gallagher went to work as a staff member in the Anaheim City Attorney’s Office. After two years, he left to join his father’s law firm.
Soon after, a desire for change led him to discover that Sonoma County was hiring assistant district attorneys, responsible for accepting investigations from police departments and deciding whether or not to charge suspects of crimes.
Gallagher was hired, and in 1967 he and Wendy moved to Santa Rosa. In 1972, District Attorney Hawkes promoted him to assistant district attorney.
Four years later, at age 38, Gallagher ran and won a seat in Sonoma County Superior Court. His daughter Kathleen Gallagher Jones of Rancho Murietta said he enjoyed the work, but the demands and exposure to so much violence and pain wore him down.
To relieve himself, the judge golfed whenever he could – he shot two holes in one – and he relished the hunting trips with the deputy sheriffs and probation officers he befriended on the job. , hobbies spent with his children and grandchildren, running, reading and playing his guitar.
The family suffered a devastating blow when, in the early 1990s, the Gallaghers’ son Stephen decided he was no longer holding a heartbreaking secret. He was 13 when a priest from the Diocese of Santa Rosa, Gary Timmons, sexually assaulted him at a camp where his parents had sent him.
Stephen Gallagher has lived with the trauma, in silence, for almost 20 years. He went public with the abuse in 1994 interviews with The Press Democrat.
Stephen Gallagher told a reporter: “I’ve already hated myself a lot for not doing this a long time ago.”
His father, the judge, was a prominent longtime Catholic in the Diocese of Santa Rosa. John Gallagher spoke as a private citizen, demanding that church leaders address and resolve their failure to act aggressively against abusive priests such as Timmons.
Timmons was arrested in 1995 and later convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison for child molestation. The Diocese of Santa Rosa has poured millions into settlements with victims of abuse.
His father eventually switched to the Episcopal Church.
John Gallagher admitted he was ‘burned out’ when he retired from the bench in 1997. Wendy Gallagher retired the same year from teaching.
John Gallagher did not entirely retire from law, but took assignments as a “practicing judge” in Sacramento and Plumas counties, and as a private mediator and arbitrator.
When the Gallaghers’ home fell in the 2017 wildfires, they decided they couldn’t rebuild. Instead, they moved to the Folsom area to be closer to their daughter Jones.
She credits her father for teaching her to be kind to others.
“He loved Sonoma County,” said Jones, who lives in Rancho Murieta. “He loved Santa Rosa and really tried to make it a safer place.
“He felt obligated to do the right thing.”
Besides his wife, son and daughter Jones, Gallagher is survived by his daughter Mary Beth Salmon of Medford, Oregon, and seven grandchildren.
A 2 p.m. funeral mass will be held Oct. 1 at St. Therese of Avila Catholic Church in Bodega.