Douglas County District Judge Mark Ashford had spent part of his lunch Wednesday talking about retirement, about how, after 30 years on the bench, he might be the next judge to step down.
He had plans. He wanted to spend time with his wife, Deborah, and his two adult sons, Steven and Sam. He and Sam were going to the PGA tourney in St. Louis next week. He also had won a lottery to attend the Masters next year.
Some time after lunch, Ashford, 66, died in his chambers. About 6 p.m., another judge found him, unresponsive, in the office behind his courtroom. Foul play is not suspected.
His death will leave a void in and outside Omaha’s legal community, colleagues say. Anywhere you saw Ashford — who, with his dark-rimmed glasses, had a resemblance to the comedian Drew Carey — you typically saw his big smile and his characteristic chuckle.
“He was a very warm-hearted, jovial guy,” said Douglas County District Judge Peter Bataillon, a close friend. “Everywhere we went, we’d run into somebody Mark knew.
“He had a great demeanor in and out of court. He always wanted to make sure he did the right thing.”
One cause he had no doubt was right: Veterans Treatment Court, a diversion program recently started by the Douglas County Attorney’s Office for former military members who have found themselves on the wrong side of the law.
Ashford jumped on board to be the first judge to oversee the program. He proudly presided over the program’s first graduation in June. He made sure he had flags representing all branches of the military. He even had court officials send out embossed invitations.
Ashford felt a calling to oversee Veterans Court because his father was a World War II pilot — who once flew a fighter plane called the Aksarben Knight.
“Our father’s service definitely was the motivator,” said brother Brad Ashford, a former congressman. “The veteran’s court, without question, was his crowning achievement.”
There were others. Ashford also presided over the young adult court — a diversion program for defendants facing their first felonies. And he was a stickler for accountability — be it criminal defendants or governmental agencies.
He once refused an effort by a taxpayer-funded utility to seal exhibits in a case. He also ordered the city to make public a video of Omaha police shooting a man who had held up a Wendy’s restaurant in midtown Omaha — an incident that resulted in the death of a “Cops” TV show sound operator.
He was tough on criminals. He recently blasted a felon who sold numerous guns to undercover cops — dubbing the man a “dealer of death.”
“Mark was not afraid of publicity,” Bataillon quipped.
Ashford had a history of heart problems but had been doing better in recent years, his brother said.
Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine said his office will conduct an autopsy Thursday morning.
“He’ll be sorely missed,” Kleine said. “With his experience on the bench, he was somebody who was looked to for advice and counsel. He was well liked — a judge who had a lot of friends, was very affable and told a good story.”
William Mark Ashford was one of three brothers who grew up in the Dundee area. Younger brother Carl owns a bookstore in the Old Market.
After graduating from Brownell Talbot School, Mark Ashford attended college in Texas for a year before transferring to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He went to law school at Creighton University in Omaha — and counted former County Attorney Donald “Pinky” Knowles and former Judge Jim Murphy among his mentors.
He majored in English in college and loved to write — something that made him a natural storyteller, his brother Brad said.
The storytelling was on display daily as he held court with his fellow judges at many downtown lunch spots. Wednesday, his final meal was with three judges across the street from the courthouse. At a corner restaurant called The Verdict.
“Mark was very comfortable wherever he was,” Brad Ashford said. “He never, ever felt in any way superior to anyone because he was a judge. In court or out, the way he acted was the way he was.”