Judge’s death saddens court’s family

HOLLIDAYSBURG – Blair County Senior Judge Thomas G. Peoples Jr. loved the people in the Blair County Courthouse, and that feeling was mutual according to his colleagues and courthouse workers who shed tears and quietly related their feelings upon learning of his death Thursday night.

“We loved him deeply. It has been a privilege to serve with him,” said Blair County President Judge Jolene G. Kopriva.

Please see brief obituary on Page A9.

She replaced Peoples as the county’s president judge in 2005 after he reached Pennsylvania’s mandatory retirement age of 70. At that point, Peoples became a senior judge, and according to those who knew him, he seemed happier because he no longer had the burden of administering the courts but instead could focus on his duties in the courtroom, which he enjoyed.

In recent years, he handled major drug cases, including that of Gene “Shorty” Carter, a Philadelphia native who restarted his drug organization as he was completing a sentence in a state correctional institution on drug-related offenses. Peoples concluded Carter could not be rehabilitated and sentenced him to a second jail term of 104-208 years, the longest sentence in Pennsylvania history for drug offenses.

In the last couple of weeks, Peoples was working on Carter’s post trial appeals.

PFAs taken seriously

He also was the judge who heard the county’s yearly load of 600-plus protection-from-abuse cases.

Just about all of those cases are contentious, and the judge jumped right into the squabbles that erupted.

He wanted to know why some PFA complaints were brought. He wanted to know why police weren’t filing assault charges in some cases. He quizzed alleged victims of violence why they sought PFA orders and then came into court a week or two later and asked to withdraw their requests.

Cherie Phillips, who was a court reporter for Peoples for 12 years, talked about him Friday morning, tears slowly streaking her face.

“He took every [PFA] complaint seriously. He would come in and go through every file,” she said.

Peoples, during his time as a judge as well as a senior judge, was concerned about domestic relations and family cases, Phillips said.

“He was a man of the utmost integrity. … He treated his staff like God, just like he treated everybody,” she said.

And, at the end of the day when the work was done, Peoples would look at Phillips and say, “The taxpayers got their money’s worth today.” Then remembering how hard the judge worked, she added, “They sure did.”

Blair County Sheriff’s Deputy Beth Seidel provided security in Peoples’ courtroom on many occasions, and she offered her opinion of the judge, saying, “He was a wonderful man.” She related how dedicated he was in doing the right thing when it came to family-related matters.

Not feeling right

Even though Peoples was in his 33rd year as a judge, he never lost his enthusiasm for the job, which is why people in the courthouse became concerned when he did not appear for the PFA court just over a week ago. He wasn’t feeling right.

At first, it was believed he was suffering from heart problems. He had heart bypass surgery in 1991 while he was serving as president judge.

Eight days ago, he was taken to the hospital, and it was discovered he was suffering from a “rare blood disorder,” according to a statement released by Kopriva to county workers.

After a brief rally this past week, he succumbed Thursday night to the infection.

Kopriva said Peoples fought hard “as we would all expect from his well-known stamina.”

His family, including his three children, were at the hospital when he died.

“You all, as his courthouse family, meant a great deal to him as he spent his entire professional career in some sort of public service at this courthouse. Many of you inspired and admired him, which he considered precious in either account. We all grieve his death as he made the world better in many ways for many folks,” stated Kopriva in her message to courthouse employees.

His death means that for the first time in 93 years, there will not be a Thomas G. Peoples in the courthouse.

Peoples’ father, Thomas G. Peoples Sr., was the county register of wills and recorder of deeds from 1920-68.

Judge Peoples, a graduate of then Altoona Catholic High School and the University of Pennsylvania, taught at a private school for three years before going to Dickinson Law School.

Start of law practice

The future judge opened a law practice in Blair County in June 1965 and became associated with attorney Abraham Colbus.

Peoples became assistant district attorney in 1974 and then spent four years as the county district attorney.

In January 1979, Peoples ran for judge, and after a spirited campaign, he won the election.

D. Brooks Smith of Altoona is a judge with the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, but when Peoples was beginning his legal career, Smith worked for a radio station. He met Peoples, and in 1975, when Peoples was running for district attorney, Smith, then a Tyrone resident, volunteered to work for him and took him door-to-door through the borough.

He then became an assistant district attorney under Peoples, and it was there that the saw the future judge as “dedicated, selfless and hardworking.”

He said Peoples took on the tough cases, the homicides, himself, often asking for no help.

Peoples as a district attorney would run the DA’s office in the day and work his private practice at night.

The years that Peoples was DA represented “a very pivotal time,” said Smith.

It was during these years that drug offenses and violent drug crimes began to emerge.

Mob activities targeted

As Peoples became a judge in the early 1980s, a countywide grand jury was formed, and Peoples supervised an investigation into mob activities.

It was also a time when a backlog of cases began to build in Blair County, another issue Peoples had to address.

Smith, who became a district attorney and county judge before assuming the federal bench in the late 1980s, described Peoples as “low-key, agreeable” but a man who took his judicial role very seriously.

He was “an example for emulation,” said Smith.

Not only did Smith admire Peoples, but Peoples’ colleagues in the Blair courthouse felt the same way.

“I think it is a tremendous loss, not only for the court system but the community,” said Blair County Judge Timothy M. Sullivan.

Sullivan said as an attorney he found the “perfect balance” in Peoples’ courtroom. He was in charge, but a lawyer was given leeway to tell his story.

“You just feel like there is a black cloud over the courthouse. We will miss him,” Sullivan said of Peoples’ unexpected death.

Role model to lawyers

Judge Daniel J. Milliron grew up in Peoples’ Altoona neighborhood. He and his brothers often cut grass for Peoples.

Milliron called Peoples “the perfect lawyer and the perfect judge.”

He knew Peoples also because Million’s dad was a police officer, and Peoples was the district attorney.

“He was a role model, a mentor to an entire generation of lawyers. … The most important thing to him was his family and his faith,” Milliron said.

Milliron said in his early years as a judge, he went to Peoples many times for advice on every aspect of his job.

“I never left there disappointed,” he said.

Blair County Judge Elizabeth Doyle mentioned Peoples’ “incredible integrity.”

He was always a gentleman and a leader, she said.

Doyle has a framed message from Peoples on the wall of her judicial chambers that she reads often.

It was his message the day she took the oath of office, and in it Peoples talked about the public trust that is placed with a judge.

“That public trust is placed with and in you in an untarnished state, and your performance of the duties of your office should at all times be such that when you have completed your period of service that trust remains without blemish. Whatever power of authority comes to you in your office is merely on loan to you from the citizens of the community.”

Peoples had a small office in the courthouse and on Friday, several people stood in the hallway outside, talking about the judge.

Gina Stellabotte, with tears in her eyes, said Peoples “was one of my best friends. He took care of us. He had a deep sense of honor. He was one of the most genuine people I’ve ever known,” she said. Stellabotte at one point worked for Peoples.

Brenda Prosser, a court reporter, called Peoples “an amazing man.”

“He was a one-of-a-kind judge. He had a good heart. He really, truly cared about people. He was just a good guy,” she said.

In 1988, Peoples was asked by the Altoona Mirror to fill out a questionnaire, and he was asked to names things he could not do without. He answered, “The love of my family and my rights as an American citizen.”

He was asked what his epitaph should be, and he answered, “In all he did, he did his best.”