Retired SLO defense attorney killed in car crash remembered

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James Maguire, seen here serving as a public defender, died in a car crash in Santa Margarita on Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2021. He worked in San Luis Obispo County as a defense attorney for four decades.

A longtime San Luis Obispo public defender who represented serial killer Rex Krebs died in a car crash in Santa Margarita on Tuesday, sending the local legal community into shock and mourning.

James “Jim” Maguire, 76, was killed when his pickup truck collided with a turning semi-trailer truck on Pozo Road just east of Las Pilitas Road at about 5:45 p.m. Tuesday,

Maguire spent most of his career practicing criminal defense after starting as a prosecutor in the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office in 1972.

Maguire became a partner in the firm Maguire & Ashbaugh in San Luis Obispo in 1980, retiring in 2016. He also owned Riconada Dairy Farm in Santa Margarita with his wife, Christine.

In total, Maguire practiced law for 46 years.

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Sunni Jackson, joined by her attorney, James Maguire, appear in San Luis Obispo Superior Court in June 2013. [email protected]

SLO County lawyer killed in crash grew up in military family

Born in Abington, Pennsylvania, on June 16, 1944, Maguire grew up in a military family and moved often. His father was a squadron leader and fighter pilot in the U.S. Marine Corps, according to a 2016 article by defense attorney Raymond Allen in the SLO County Bar Bulletin.

Maguire attended Occidental College and later Hastings College of Law in San Francisco between 1965 and 1968. He then was drafted into the U.S. Army.

“(Maguire’s father), who had been to Vietnam numerous times, told his son that the conflict was not ‘our war’ and that he should do everything he honorably could do to stay out of it,” Allen wrote. “He applied for a commission to become an officer and, as the fates would have it, the Army Office of Personnel lost his file.”

When the file was finally found, “The Army offered to make Maguire a lieutenant if he extended his service date, but he declined,” Allen wrote.

Maguire first met his wife, Christine Dawson, in 1975, when the pair were set up by friends at a North Beach dinner.

They sought out a rural place to live and settled on San Luis Obispo County.

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Rex Krebs appears with public defender James B. Maguire at his arraignment in 1999. [email protected] David Middlecamp

Public defender was part of Rex Krebs legal team

At Maguire & Ashbaugh, Maguire and his partner of 36 years, Patricia Ashbaugh, managed a team of more than 20 attorneys and around 15 support staff, including investigators.

During a lengthy, widely publicized trial in 2001, Maguire was part of the legal team that defended Krebs, who was eventually convicted of raping and killing two young women in SLO County in the 1990s. Krebs is currently on death row.

In defending the serial killer, Allen wrote, Maguire talked about “the story behind the story — the broken home Krebs had fled and the abuse Krebs had suffered.”

“He reminded the jury we are all comprised of good and evil,” Allen wrote.

“(Maguire) was a wonderful trial lawyer because all those things that Jim was as a person as a man came through to a jury,” said Ashbaugh, another member of Krebs’ defense team. “He was honest, he was compassionate and he was just, so when Jim spoke, people listened, and they cared.”

“We really never had a disagreement,” she added. “The way Jim was, you just sat down and talked things out and reached a place where both of us were happy and comfortable. I always feel like it was like a huge privilege, quite honestly, to be in a business relationship and have that kind of friendship with someone.”

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Jim Maguire feeds goats and sheep in Riconada Dairy Farm in Santa Margarita in 2014. The Rinconada dairy milks sheep and goats, makes cheese and offers farmstay and tour options. [email protected]

Maguire balanced his duties as a defense attorney with his passion for farming.

San Luis Obispo Superior Court Judge Matt Guerrero, who worked with Maguire as a public defender for 15 years, recalled Maguire getting to the barn of Riconada Dairy Farm by 5 a.m. and then leaving in time to get to court.

“Then he would go home and work past dark,” Guerrero said. “Nobody knew where he got his energy.”

Maguire died about a half-mile from his farm, said Steven Rice, a partner in Maguire’s former firm, now called San Luis Obispo Defenders.

When the crash occurred, Ashbaugh said Maguire was returning home after picking up a pizza order.

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Jim Maguire takes hay and grain to pigs and sheep at Rinconada Dairy in Santa Margarita. [email protected]

Legal community reacts to defense attorney’s death

On Wednesday, members of the legal community voiced their admiration for Maguire and his legacy.

“I am heartbroken,” Guerrero said. “Jim was a wise man who used his intellect to show compassion to others. Though most of us knew him for decades, I never heard anyone criticize him or say a negative work. He was respected and loved and sought out for his counsel.”

“Most of us cried (after hearing of his death) because we have lost a role model and a friend,” Guerrero added.

Rice called Maguire a humble yet “tenacious advocate.”

“Like most public defenders, he handled thousands of cases,” Rice said. “Jim was best known for patience and mentoring. He always had an open door policy. He always made time to talk to us, the attorneys, for advice or whatever we needed.”

SLO Defenders partner Brian Buckley, who started working under Maguire in 2007, said the late attorney “never got frustrated with lawyers or clients.”

“He was great to learn from as a young lawyer,” Buckley said. “Even as I got more experience, he still had a lot to teach and always wanted to be helpful.”

In a joint email, Allen and his wife, Jennifer Alton, called Maguire “a noble and honorable gentleman” who was “held with immeasurable reverence, regard, respect and love. …Our collective hearts weep.”

And SLO County public defender Ken Cirisan, who worked with Maguire for nearly 40 years, called the late attorney “the best boss you could ever want.”

In a statement, San Luis Obispo County District Attorney Dan Dow praised Maguire’s “limitless energy and passion,” noting that the community lost a “good and honorable man.”

“He embodied the best qualities and character traits that an attorney could exhibit,” Dow said. “It was a privilege to serve together in our courthouse.”

“Jim made a lasting impression on me as an honest, humble, and hard working friend and advocate who earned the trust and respect of his clients and opposing counsel,” Dow said.

Former Assistant District Attorney Dan Hilford echoed that sentiment.

“We were in court every day, for hours together, and it was always a pleasure dealing with him,” Hilford said via phone. “He was a good person outside of the courtroom. He was a good lawyer inside the courtroom.”

“We could arm wrestle as good as anyone, but I don’t think there’s anyone who would utter an unkind or bad or mean word about Jim,” Hilford said. “He just left a huge mark on the legal community and I think he’s a guy that everybody looked up to.”

This story was originally published November 25, 2021 8:00 AM.

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Nick Wilson covers the city of San Luis Obispo and has been a reporter at The Tribune in San Luis Obispo since 2004. He also writes regularly about K-12 education, Cal Poly, Morro Bay and Los Osos. He is a graduate of UC Santa Barbara and UC Berkeley and is originally from Ojai.