Long-serving Pierce County judge Frederick Fleming has died

Judge Frederick Fleming could be as tough as they come on the defendants and lawyers who appeared before him in Pierce County Superior Court.

But let a child enter his courtroom, and Fleming turned into a softy.

“Judge Fleming made child witnesses and victims feel comfortable in his courtroom,” Prosecutor Mark Lindquist recalled Wednesday. “I had one little girl tell me after a hearing that she thought Judge Fleming looked like Santa Claus.”

Fleming, who served as a Superior Court judge for 20 years before retiring in 2013, died March 13 after a long illness. He was 76.

Colleagues remembered him as a consummate gentleman much more likely to brag on his family during lunch gatherings than to recite the details of the sometimes gruesome cases he presided over.

“Fred was such a gentleman, in the old-fashioned sense of the word,” Superior Court Judge Katherine Stolz recalled. “He was always talking about his wife, Caralene, and his children and his granddaughter. He was a family man, and it showed.”

He also was a lover of the mystique of the American West and liked nothing more than visiting Montana with his family, colleagues said. His chambers were decorated with Western-themed art and artifacts.

“I think he would have loved to have been a cowboy,” Superior Court Judge Vicki Hogan said.

Fleming was elected to the bench in 1992 after a career as a deputy prosecutor and private attorney.

As a judge, he presided over the trials of some of the most notorious criminals in Pierce County history, including Cecil Davis, who Fleming sentenced to death after Davis was convicted of killing 65-year-old Yoshiko Couch on Tacoma’s East Side in 1997.

Fleming did not always fare well when rated by the local bar association. Some attorneys knocked him for being unprepared for court or acerbic toward them or their clients.

But he never faced a challenger the four times he was up for re-election.

“I think that speaks volumes about his work,” Hogan said.

A memorial service has been scheduled for 3 p.m. Sunday at the Fircrest Golf Club, 1500 Regents Blvd.