(Updated) Tom Ullmann was training for a far more challenging hike as he set out Friday morning on the OK Slips Falls Trail in the Adirondacks.
Ullmann and his wife Diana Pacetta-Ullmann had traveled to nearby Olmstedville, N.Y., to open up their vacation home for the season. Ullmann retired the previous September from his sometimes around-the-clock job as New Haven’s chief public defender so he could spend more time with his family traveling and pursue adventures in nature, like an upcoming 10-day, eight-to-13-mile-per-day hike he was in training to undertake this fall in Finland.
After breakfast, he told Diana he’d be out hiking OK Slips Falls on a trail that leads to a gorge. An easy trail. A warm-up for Finland.
“He had just read about” the trail, Diana recalled in a conversation Monday. “He gave me the name of where he was going to be, and where the car was going to be parked. Which we always do.”
He said he’d be back by 4 p.m.
“Four o’clock came and went. Four-ten came; 4:15; 4:30.
“By five o’clock I knew something was wrong. This was out of character for him.”
So Diana called state troopers, who in turn contacted forest rangers. For hours no one could find him.
Finally that night, “they found him in the woods off the trail. He had fallen into a ravine. They got him. The troopers came to my house to tell me he was deceased.”
Now Diana is waiting on autopsy results to find out how exactly her husband died. She’s putting together the details of a funeral scheduled for this coming Sunday. Meanwhile, there has been an outpouring of grief from friends, court colleagues, and members of the public whose lives were touched by Ullmann’s decades of indefatigable legal defense of the poor and crusading for criminal justice reform.
On Monday morning some of those colleagues gathered in the rain as the flag was flown at half-mast outside the 235 Church St. courthouse where Ullmann worked until his retirement.
“My husband is a very cautious person. He’s not a daredevil or a risk-taker,” Diana said. “For this to happen, it had to come upon him very suddenly.”
A Life-Choice Pivot
Ullmann decided to retire this past September as New Haven’s top public defender after 43 years of tireless advocacy because he had watched friends die before they had a chance to enjoy life beyond work.
He got to work traveling with his family and enjoying nature.
The news of his death shocked colleagues who carry on his work defending the poor and outsiders in the court system.
“If Clarence Darrow lived and breathed and walked the earth in the 21st century, he inhabited the body of Tommy Ullmann,” said criminal defense attorney Norm Pattis.
“Tommy was an inspiration. He was a role model. His loss is devastating.”
John Williams, who represented some of the same people and causes in private practice that Ullmann did for the state of Connecticut, spoke of how Ullmann “was 100 percent, unequivocally dedicated to providing the highest quality possible, strongest most aggressive possible criminal defense to those who had no other friends. Some of us try to do what we can, and many do. But there’s never been anybody in my experience like Tom. He was just 100 percent, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He in my opinion personally transformed the public defender office in New Haven.”
While showing up to court after pulling all-nighters to defend sometimes unpopular and often longshot cases, Ullmann retained a bright demeanor, a focused passion and an impish half-smile. He was a joy to work with for colleagues on both sides of cases, for the many younger public defenders he mentored (and who cried when he retired), as well as for reporters who came to trust him for his insight into the workings of the criminal justice system.
In an interview on his last day of work in the chief public defender’s office in the 235 Church Street courthouse, which he ran since 1992, Ullmann said he was inspired to retire now after watching several of his closest friends, including New Haven defense attorney Diane “Cookie” Polan, suddenly take sick and die.
“I’m excited. I feel proud of my career. I’ve loved every minute of it. I would never trade a minute of it,” he said. “What could be more important than [protecting] someone’s freedom?”
He also looked forward to writing about his experiences as a public defender.
It would have made for a powerful book. Because Ullmann had a lot to write about.
For Ullmann, defending accused criminals who can’t otherwise afford a lawyer wasn’t just a career. It was a life mission.
He began working for the state judicial system in a work-release program in 1974. He has worked in New Haven’s public defender office, first at the Elm Street court, then across the street on Church, since 1980. He made a mark as a passionate advocate for indigent accused criminals and as a dogged opponent of the death penalty. In both day-to-day and headline-grabbing cases, he won the freedom of the falsely accused and spared the life of one high-profile killer.
He helped make Connecticut a model for the nation by helping to create and then working on the state Sentencing Commission. On the side he inspired a generation of younger lawyers as a professor at Yale and Quinnipiac law schools.
His memorable cases included defending Branford businessman Anthony “Gene” Bontantibus, who was accused of an arson murder Ullmann was convinced Bontantibus he didn’t commit. After three mistrials, Bontantibus won his freedom. “He’d go to the ends of the earth for his clients,” Bontantibus said in an interview years later. “Never once did he make me feel like a criminal, treat me like a criminal. He listened when somebody spoke to him.”
A foe of capital punishment, Ullmann saved Guilford murderer Jonathan Mills from the death penalty. Mills received a life sentence instead. (Click here to read more about Ullmann’s life and cases.) He soldiered on to spare one of the Cheshire murderers the death penalty at a time when international attention to the case led to a collective blood lust. More recently he spent years representing Branford murderer Lishan Wang, a particularly challenging task that involved navigating uncharted legal waters.
His final crusades included reforming the state’s sex-offender registry system. Click here for an article about that; click on the audio file at the bottom of the story to hear him discuss the issue on WNHH FM’s “Legal Eagle” program with Marcia Chambers. Ullmann reflected on his career in the “Legal Eagle” episode podcast above that one.
On the one hand, when Ullmann retired in September, it was hard to imagine someone who spent over 40 years devoting such long hours to the job walking away from it last fall when he retained such vigor. On the other hand, Ullmann was always seen around the Westville neighborhood jogging and discussing his many other passions in life, including travels with his wife and sons. Now it’s hard to imagine him now not jogging or hiking or kayaking through a well-earned decades-long final lap.
(The interview with Thomas Ullmann about the sex offender registry begins at the 11:25 mark.)