Former Hillsborough judge Tracy Sheehan, 60, was found dead in a cabin in Georgia

TAMPA – Former Hillsborough Judge Tracy Sheehan, a widely respected attorney and jurist who was known as an advocate for children, died unexpectedly on Christmas morning at her vacation home in Georgia. She was 60.

Ms. Sheehan has served as a mediator in family law cases since retiring in 2017 after 11 years on the bench. She died in a cabin she recently purchased in the Blue Ridge Mountains. A neighbor alerted authorities after hearing Ms. Sheehan's dog barking early Wednesday morning, a coroner in Fannin County, Georgia, told the Tampa Bay Times. The neighbor entered the cabin and found Ms. Sheehan unresponsive.

An exact cause of death had yet to be determined on Thursday. Friends said they knew nothing of any recent illnesses or medical problems.

Known as outspoken and independent, Ms. Sheehan was one of the more colorful characters to sit on the Hillsborough County bench.

She rode a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and carried a raspberry-colored pistol. She had a yellow Labrador named Gunnar and before that a black Labrador named Molly. She vented to her dogs when it came to court cases.

Before becoming a lawyer, she worked as a television journalist, landing in Tampa via Alaska in the early 1980s, with stops in Washington state and Tennessee.

Tracy Sheehan spends some quality time with her black Labrador Molly after a walk along Bayshore Boulevard. [ Times (2010) ]

She worked as a criminal defense attorney for many years before becoming a judge in 2006. She ran unopposed for the office, a testament to the respect she enjoyed throughout the community, Hillsborough Chief Judge Ronald Ficarrotta said.

“She was an outstanding judge,” Ficarrotta said. “She brought a lot of compassion to the bench.”

Her work as a judge also included presiding over juvenile and family law cases. She gained a reputation as a champion of the young and the vulnerable.

“She was a person who dedicated her entire career to advocating for children more than anything else,” said former Tampa City Councilman Harry Cohen, who worked alongside Sheehan in the law firm of the late Tampa criminal defense attorney Barry Cohen. “That was her enormous passion.”

Her friends called her “the girl from the Alaskan wilderness,” a nod to her origins on the Alaskan border. She grew up south of Fairbanks, in a place where the local judge ran a gas station and liquor store and the nearest McDonald's was hundreds of miles away.

Ms. Sheehan often returned to her home state, where she had a shuttered cabin in the mountains with no toilet or running water. She hunted bears and moose. She swore like a biker.

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She survived breast cancer twice. After the second fight, she told the Tampa Bay Times, she prayed to God that if she survived, she would do good things for others.

She made good on her promise by taking $100,000 from her retirement fund to help found A Kid's Place, a children's charity based in Brandon.

In 2013, Sheehan was stopped from leaving Ybor City and charged with drunken driving. “This was a colossal lack of judgment,” she told reporters. “A terrible, bad choice.” When reprimanded by the Florida Supreme Court, the chief justice noted that Sheehan had accepted full responsibility.

More than two decades before taking over the Hillsborough County bench, she studied journalism at Washington State University. From there she worked as a reporter and anchor for news stations in the Northwest and later in Tennessee. The station managers found her first name, Brenda, boring. They renamed her Tracy.

It was a name she kept when she started at WTSP-Ch. 10 in Tampa.

Kevin Kalwary, a private investigator and close friend of Ms. Sheehan for more than 40 years, met her when he worked for the station. He remembered her stubborn and fearless. When she wanted to leave television to study law, the network refused to release her from her contract, Kalwary said, and so she showed up to work with her hair dyed blue and purple. They let her go.

“All I can say is that she was the most wonderful person I have ever been with,” Kalwary said. “I feel like I’ve lost a sister.”

Ms. Sheehan went on to earn a law degree from Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport. She later worked for Barry Cohen, whom she had observed during the trial.

Cohen was planning to defend a client in connection with Ms. Sheehan's swearing-in ceremony. He asked Judge “Hangin' Harry” Coe to do the honors before sentencing the client, a drug dealer, and then arranged for Sheehan to take over the defense before Coe that same day.

“I thought Coe wouldn't let Tracy's first client go to prison,” Cohen told the Tampa Bay Times in 2010. The defendant received probation.

Tracy Sheehan was considered outspoken and independent in her bench.Tracy Sheehan was considered outspoken and independent in her bench. [ JONES, OCTAVIO | Tampa Bay Times (2015) ]

Ms. Sheehan worked for Cohen until 1994, then spent two years as a public defender before returning to Cohen's office. She later entered private practice and served as a juvenile judge and guardian ad litem.

Tampa attorney Lyann Goudie said Sheehan was one of the first friends she made when Goudie started as a prosecutor in Tampa in the early 1990s. Although they were often adversaries in the courtroom, their friendship grew. Goudie knew Sheehan to be outspoken and opinionated, qualities she retained despite the limitations of judicial service.

“Don’t ask Tracy for her opinion if you don’t really want to,” Goudie said. “She had strong opinions on things, particularly things that dealt with addiction and juvenile justice.”

“She was an independent thinker and a hard worker,” said Tampa attorney Scott Tozian. “She was truly a kind soul. … The nicest thing you can say about a lawyer or judge is that he was a decent human being.”

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated where Tracy Sheehan was found dead.

Times staff writer Josh Solomon contributed to this report.