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Sudden Death

Colleagues credit Robert Hooker for creating a sense of family in the Pima County Public Defender's Office

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Bob Hirsh's office is at 33 N. Stone Ave., on the 21st floor in the Pima County Public Defender's Office.

It's Friday, April 4, and at the other end of the hallway sits a collection of almost 10 flower arrangements in the doorway of another office--a sad reminder to everyone who works there that the office's occupant is not coming back.

In 2005, Robert Hooker was hired to lead the Public Defender's Office, and he instituted a series of changes to improve the quality of legal representation for indigent clients in Pima County.

Hooker, 65, died in the evening hours of Tuesday, April 1. He was in his Chevrolet Trailblazer driving north on Main Avenue when a pickup--racing another vehicle--slammed into Hooker.

"I dearly loved him. He's been gone for three days, and when I say this, I become very sad again. It is a great sadness," Hirsh says.

Hirsh began working with Hooker after they graduated from the UA College of Law in 1972. Hooker served as a Pima County Superior Court judge for three years before returning to private practice and criminal defense. In 2005, when he was picked to lead the county's public-defense office, he brought in Hirsh to serve as his deputy.

"We were kindred spirits," Hirsh says, adding that they had different styles that worked well together.

"He was a very quiet guy. He doesn't talk a lot, and I talk all the time," Hirsh says, smiling. "Sometimes, I want to grab him and say, 'Bob, talk to me.' But that was the way he did things. What always impressed me was when he did say something, it was well thought-out. ... It was all about making improvements and people doing a better job."

Hirsh says it is difficult to put into words what Hooker did to improve the defense system. "It's hard, because what it comes down to is he made changes that created a sense of family and helped everyone feel more supportive and more productive," Hirsh says. "It is a very difficult and lonely job to be a criminal lawyer. You are against the world. In practicing with a group, it makes it so much easier, because you are with people who will support you."

Hirsh says the changes Hooker led in the Public Defender's Office made people want to stay and work there. Hirsh reaches out to knock on his wood desk.

"We have very few openings. It is difficult to get a job in this office. Our lawyers are happy here," Hirsh says. "Of course, I'm partial to do-good, left-wing people who want to help others. We have the cream of the crop of those people here."

Hirsh and others say filling Hooker's shoes will be a difficult task. That responsibility will fall on Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry.

Pima County Board of Supervisors Chairman Richard Elías says Huckelberry will begin looking at the position in two weeks.

"I did talk to him about it. I know those folks are looking for leadership," Eliás says.

"Mr. Hooker's affections for his family and the poor and underserved in our community were evident. I learned that ultimately he was a believer in God and civil liberties," Eliás says.

Hirsh says one of Hooker's gifts was forging a positive relationship with the county supervisors and county management. Eliás agrees.

"I always felt able to speak to him about any subject regarding county government and get solid advice. He also understood his job as a public defender. We all trusted him and understood he was best at what he did," Eliás says.

Huckelberry confirmed that a process will begin to search for Hooker's replacement in a couple of weeks. There is no deadline.

"Right now, we'll search as long as it takes to find someone with Bob Hooker's philosophy and professionalism," Huckelberry says.

Huckelberry describes Hooker as someone who was soft-spoken, but who obviously knew what he wanted and "didn't have to bang his shoe on the table to get it."

When the county looked to replace retiring Susan Kettlewell, Huckelberry says, he was shocked to see Hooker's application.

"I told him I was surprised and wondered why he decided to apply. He said, 'It was time for me to put up or shut up. If I didn't apply, I'd be a hypocrite,'" Huckelberry recalls.

Huckelberry says he often had impromptu meetings with Hooker in the county parking garage, as Huckelberry was returning from his morning workout at the YMCA.

"Our last conversation showed his great, dry sense of humor that I always appreciated," Huckelberry says. "You know we have budget issues. He told me, 'Hey, I've got some great ideas to reduce expenses. I was looking at the County Attorney's Office and know where you can make some cuts.'"

Back at 33 N. Stone Ave., Hirsh looks down the hallway toward Hooker's office, getting ready to join Hooker's son, Lance, and an officemate to go through Hooker's files and personal belongings.

"The two of us were going to come here and be in a position to make changes and raise some hell and improve the level of criminal defense in our county. He was successful in this regard," Hirsh says. "The backbone of our justice system is the quality of the defense services. If you don't have strong adversaries, the prosecutors and judges will walk all over the defense. It is so critical to have strong defense services. Bob and I know it. It has been a driving factor here."

The accident that took Hooker's life occurred when a red pickup went out of control, crossed over into the northbound lanes of Main Avenue and crashed into a maroon Acura SUV and Hooker's Trailblazer. As of the Weekly's press deadline, the driver of the truck who crashed into Hooker--Alexander Rodriguez, 18--is now in serious condition, while the driver of the Acura had non-life-threatening injuries.

Tucson Police Sgt. Mark Robinson says the driver and vehicle involved in the street race with Rodriguez left the scene and remain at large. Police continue to look for a gray or silver Nissan Altima and have received several viable tips from the public, he says.

Rodriguez will face charges when he is released from the hospital. Rodriguez was ejected from his truck and sustained serious injuries, Robinson says.

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