Former prosecutor who fought corruption — at a cost — dies at 87

Robert Schillberg’s Snohomish County colleagues admired his ‘courageous’ pursuit of justice.

Robert Schillberg served as Snohomish County’s elected prosecutor for 12 years and later as a district court judge in south county. He died Aug. 15.

Robert Schillberg served as Snohomish County’s elected prosecutor for 12 years and later as a district court judge in south county. He died Aug. 15.

WOODWAY — Robert Schillberg earned a reputation for doing the right thing — even when he knew it would come back to hurt him.

During a dozen years as Snohomish County’s elected prosecutor, Schillberg set high standards for his staff. He mentored a generation of young attorneys. He took on public corruption.

After his grand jury inquiries began pointing to people in high places, he lost a bid for re-election.

His downfall in the late 1970s didn’t end his public commitments, though. Schillberg would later serve as a district court judge for another 12 years, and as a town councilman in Woodway.

After his death from natural causes this month, Schillberg’s colleagues were quick to extol his legacy.

“Bob was always a courageous person,” said Thomas Wynne, a retired Snohomish County Superior Court judge who started his career in Schill-berg’s office. “He did whatever he thought was right, regardless of political consequences or whatever fallout might come from it. And that’s uncommon. He was really a man of great character.”

Schillberg died Aug. 15 at his home in Woodway, after having dinner with a granddaughter who’s in college. His family said he had long suffered from serious heart problems. He was 87.

Born in Minneapolis in early 1932, Robert Erdall Schillberg was the fourth of five children of Gustaf and Marie (Erdall) Schillberg.

An obituary notice recounts how his family moved to a dairy farm in Osceola, Wisconsin, while he was in elementary school. He studied at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, left to serve four years in the U.S. Air Force, and returned to finish his undergraduate degree.

During his second stint at college, Schillberg met Winifred Rich, known to friends as Winn, whom he married in 1956. They moved out west so Schillberg could study law at the University of Washington, and to enjoy a more favorable climate.

“Wisconsin winters are cold and the summers are muggy and hot,” Winn Schillberg said this week.

Robert Schillberg graduated from the UW in 1958. He and Winn moved to Edmonds the next year. The couple’s first daughter, Valeri, was born in 1961, and their second, Kim, in 1962, the same year Schillberg joined the Snohomish County Prosecutor’s Office.

Just three years later, not quite in his mid-30s, Schillberg was appointed to lead the office. He ran unopposed for the prosecutor’s job on the Democratic ticket in 1966, 1970 and 1974.

“He was admired by everybody who worked with him and for him for integrity and leadership,” said Randy Furman, Schillberg’s one-time assistant chief criminal deputy and later a Superior Court judge in Cowlitz County. “He taught me everything I needed to know. I probably learned more eating lunch in his office than anywhere else I have ever been.”

Furman recalled a few of Schillberg’s landmark cases: cracking down on illegal gambling, suing a major computer maker over a faulty system sold to the county government and lawsuits to force the state of Washington to comply with tax laws.

“Everybody there was proud of Bob and his leadership, his example,” Furman said.

Seth Dawson began his career under Schillberg as a young deputy prosecutor.

“He ran a very ethical office,” Dawson said. “Any inappropriate conduct was never tolerated. The deputies were taught to strike hard blows, but no low ones. That was a common refrain. He supervised things very well. I think he reviewed almost every case to see how it was handled. If there was a teaching moment on cases, you would get a note. He would ask to talk to you.”

Those lessons became all the more relevant after Dawson was elected to lead the same office in the 1980s and 1990s.

“He was always emphasizing that prosecutors need to use their authority judiciously,” Dawson said. “I remembered that the power to charge someone with a crime was the power to destroy someone’s reputation and career perhaps. It became the bedrock for how I thought prosecution should be conducted and how a prosecutor ought to conduct himself.”

Jim Haley, a retired journalist who worked more than four decades at The Daily Herald, got to know Schillberg well on the courthouse beat.

“I had a great deal of respect for Bob, both as a human being and as a prosecuting attorney,” Haley said. “He was honest and fair. And he was brave. He didn’t shy away from what he thought was right, even though it eventually cost him his job.”

During his final years as prosecutor, Schillberg oversaw a grand jury investigation into corruption among public officials in the county and other local governments. The process resulted in two dozen or more indictments. Though a staunch Democrat himself, the evidence would put Schillberg in conflict with figures from his own party.

“Needless to say, Bob didn’t make a lot of new friends when he took on the county establishment, mainly a Democratic fortress at that time,” Haley said.

During the same period, a shocking crime would claim the life of Snohomish County’s top law enforcement officer. While vacationing in Mexico on Jan. 15, 1974, then-Sheriff Don Jennings was gunned down, along with his wife and her mother. The shootings happened as the family was traveling by motorhome near the resort town of Mazatlan, an area rife with drug trafficking.

“This happened during an investigation of missing property from the sheriff’s evidence property room,” Haley said.

The Jennings killings remain unsolved. Leading theories have centered on corrupt Mexican police officials or perhaps an armed robbery.

Detectives found no evidence that anybody in Snohomish County had anything to do with committing the murders, but the process of checking alibis — and eliminating people from suspicion — may have further damaged Schillberg politically.

In the 1978 election, Schillberg faced an election opponent for the first time. When the polls closed that November, he trailed his Republican rival by about 7 percentage points.

“He was very depressed about losing that election, it was very hard on him,” said daughter Kim Thwaits of Salem, Oregon. “But in the long run, we all think it probably saved his life.”

His stress level went down.

Schillberg ran for election again in 1982, winning a district court seat in south Snohomish County. He would serve there alongside Wynne, his former protégé. He retired from the bench in 1994 and served on the Woodway Town Council after that.

In retirement, Schillberg enjoyed gardening, reading and travel. He and his wife visited more than 35 countries on all seven continents, including Antarctica.

In addition to his wife and daughters, Schillberg is survived by two grandchildren, Jason Thwaits and Semolina Schillberg.

His family is planning a memorial service.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; nhaglund@herald Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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