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Gary Lancaster, Chief U.S. Judge for Western Pa., dead at 63

| Wednesday, April 24, 2013, 8:33 p.m.
Chief U.S. District Judge Gary L. Lancaster

Chief U.S. District Judge Gary L. Lancaster, who had a reputation among jurists as being a judge who could handle any case, died at his home Wednesday evening.

Pittsburgh paramedics were called at 6:50 p.m. to Lancaster's home in Stanton Heights after his son found him unresponsive in his bedroom, emergency dispatchers were told.

There was no immediate word on a cause of death, but a spokesman for the Allegheny County Medical Examiner's Office said preliminary indications are that Lancaster, 63, died of natural causes.

Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning said Lancaster had a reputation of being able to handle any case.

“I was pleased whenever Gary Lancaster had a case of significance because I knew he would do a great job. Judges watch what other judges do and he was fair and decent and he treated people with respect,” Manning said. “He was the Walter Payton of the federal bench — he was tough but he was a sweet guy.”

Lancaster, a native of Brownsville, was appointed to federal court by President Clinton in December 1993. He became chief judge of the Western District of Pennsylvania in September 2009.

Senior District Judge Donetta Ambrose, Lancaster's predecessor as chief judge, said it was hard to talk about him because they became close friends after being appointed federal judges at the same time.

“He was a wonderful friend. He was so bright and had such a wonderful sense of humor,” Ambrose said. “Personally and professionally, it's a terrible loss.”

Lancaster, who earned his bachelor's degree from what was then Slippery Rock College in 1971 and his law degree from the University of Pittsburgh in 1974, served as regional counsel for the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission and assistant district attorney in Allegheny County until 1978. After several years in private practice, he was appointed as U.S. Magistrate Judge in October 1987.

“I think he was never very excited about the federal (sentencing) guidelines,” defense attorney Patrick Thomassey said. ”He was an old-school guy, and I think he thought of himself as an old-time judge in that ‘I can do with a defendant what I want, not what Congress tells me to.' He was just a good man.”

Michael Hasch and Bobby Kerlik are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Staff writer Brian Bowling contributed to this report.

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