Judge Wyatt McKay prepared for retirement
Reflects on 45 years in Trumbull County court system
These words sum up W. Wyatt McKay’s 45 years in the Trumbull County court system, the last 36 being served on the bench of the Common Pleas Court.
His retirement took effect at year’s end since he is constitutionally barred from seeking re-election after age 70.
On Wednesday, McKay presided over his last “criminal day” — where the docket is full of cases which, McKay sadly stated, are made up of offenders who have a drug problem.
During that last session, McKay was prepared with an answer for a prisoner from Pennsylvania, who had told the judge a detective had threatened him. The judge, after a slight pause, told the inmate that his job was only to inform him of his rights and make sure that he was signing the waiver of extradition back home “of his own free will without any duress and being of sound mind.”
“I can’t accompany you to Pennsylvania,” the judge told the defendant — assuring him he won’t be harmed in the transport back to his home.
The assistant prosecutor, Chris Becker, said McKay’s quick wit and coolness under pressure have always been a trademark of his time on the bench, even on that last day.
“But the way he handled the extradition was just a perfect example of his judicial demeanor, patience and the way he was able to deal with anything, even things that should have been routine but ended up not being routine,” Becker said.
SADDEST PART OF JOB
After the hearings, McKay spent some time with the newspaper talking about his time in the public eye. Again, the judge was prepared with his responses.
“The saddest thing that I can tell you about my job is to arraign a young adult on a serious drug charge like fentanyl, heroin, methamphetamine, and have their parents at the arraignment, maybe their grandparents,” he said. “And all they want is to get their loved one off of drugs and into treatment.”
McKay said unfortunately that defendant has between a 9 percent and 11 percent rate of cure from his drug habit “no matter what we do.”
“These powerful drugs fry the brain receptors and unfortunately the young adults that we now know — according to DNA — that the brain development of childhood lasts until age 26. The only way to stop the drug epidemic, in my opinion, is education at an early stage.”
Without giving an age when this education should start, the judge said the process should include giving the child “evidence-based examples.” He said this education can take place in the setting of youth groups.
“For me I had a wonderful experience as a Boy Scout adult leader. At the end of every weekly meeting, we would have the Scoutmaster include a message, a warning about drugs,” McKay, said noting the Scout motto of “be prepared.”
He said the boys would be involved in projects, such as a field trip visit to his office and courtroom.
“I would show them through the windows of my office a view of the jail across the street and the prisoners in their orange jumpsuits,” he said. “Guess what? I would tell them these prisoners wouldn’t be going home for the holidays, and the kids would respond accordingly.”
McKay noted that in his 11 years as a Scout leader, none of his “kids” ever got involved in drugs.
“Well, (drug) treatment is important and will help some people, but we have to tackle this problem with education,” McKay said.
Among the many joys of his job, McKay said, was “meeting all types of people from different walks of life.” The judge especially noted the quality of the attorneys in the Mahoning Valley. “I am very proud of our bar organizations. By and large, our attorneys are well-versed in the law and know their jobs and you can see this by the way they conduct themselves in court.”
WEALTH OF KNOWLEDGE
As a judge, McKay said he always sees himself having “a thumb on the heartbeat of the community.”
“I took this responsibility very seriously and acted upon it as a duty,” McKay said, saying he learned how to deal with pressure mixed in with heavy doses of humility and joy.
Becker, who had worked for the state in six counties with the last two decades in Trumbull County, continued his praise of the man who was required to step down from the bench because of a state age requirement.
“Hands down, Judge McKay is the best judge I ever worked with. In my 37 years of prosecuting cases, he is the most fair judge — to both sides — I have been associated with. We will all miss his knowledge, wisdom, experience and humor. Most of all we will miss his camaraderie. Having been both a defense lawyer and a prosecutor, he could always relate to both parties. It has been a privilege and an honor to practice in front of him for the last 22 years. It was an honor being there for his last case,” Becker said.
During his retirement, McKay said he would be willing to pass on that knowledge to “anyone who wants it.” He said he has been working with new Common Pleas judges Sean O’Brien and Cynthia Rice, who were both in the courtroom for McKay’s final criminal day and gave McKay a standing ovation after he completed the session.
McKay said he also will be available for mediation cases as well as filling in on the bench in case of sickness or conflicts of interest.
The judge began his public law career in 1977 when he was hired by then-Prosecutor J. Walter Dragelevich.
McKay and colleague Peter Kontos, who later became a Common Pleas judge who retired earlier in 2022, prosecuted all of the high-profile cases. Both men were in the courtroom to see justice for the community and the victim’s family in the wake of the brutal slaying of Boy Scout Raymond Fife, the 12-year-old whose death sent shock waves through the community in September 1985.
“I was so stunned at the time that I had to call home to see where my daughter was,” McKay recalled on the day Raymond Fife died. McKay was the lead prosecutor in the trial of Timothy Combs, which had to be moved to Ravenna. “I kept the picture of Raymond on the outside of my folder to inspire me.”
Combs was convicted in 1996 and later that year, McKay was elected to the Common Pleas Court bench, the first of six terms.
As a judge, McKay gained national attention when he was the subject of a syndicated column by Mike Royko of the Chicago Tribune. Apparently Royko caught wind of the blistering verbal lashing McKay had given to a man who was just convicted of crimes including numerous rapes and assaults. The columnist saluted the judge for his words.
McKay said the cards and letters that he received in response to the column overwhelmed his office staff. But he recalled one reaction from a woman he had met at a New York area ski lodge.
“We were riding the lift and she asked me what I did for a living, and I told her,” McKay noted. “As we were riding, she was just going on about Royko’s column and how all judges should be like that man. Well, as we were getting off the lift, the woman reached out her hand and asked me my name. I said, ‘I’m Wyatt McKay, the judge you have been talking about!’ Well, I thought that woman was going to fall off the ski lift!”