When Brad Stetson is riding a wave, it’s about as close to flying as he can imagine.
And that puts him as close to his father, his hero, as he can be.
The man who taught Stetson the value of having something in his life to be passionate about that gets his adrenaline pumping.
For his father, that was being a Navy jet fighter pilot with more than 1,000 aircraft landings.
For Stetson, it was his legal career as a judge and trial attorney, especially the 11 years he worked for the revered Ed Austin.
Stetson enjoyed his 24 years as a judge, but loved his time with Austin in the State Attorney’s Office even more.
Stetson, 65, retired as a circuit judge at the end of last year.
Since then, he’s broken his finger while surfing in California.
Driven cross-country with his second-oldest daughter.
And done his version of home renovation, which means hiring two guys who let him hit one or two nails before they took over redoing a bathroom.
“I hit one thing to break some plaster out and I ended up cutting myself,” Stetson laughed. “They said, ‘Get out.’”
Becoming a lawyer was a decision Stetson made toward the end of the six years it took to get his undergraduate degree. And it came after his father died at age 46, leaving behind a broken-hearted 18-year-old Stetson and his three siblings.
Years before, though, as Stetson argued with his father as a kid, the elder Stetson would use a prophetic description for his son: a sea lawyer.
“I don’t think that was a term of endearment,” he laughed.
Losing his hero, finding himself
Because of his father’s military career, Stetson’s family lived all over the country and in Puerto Rico.
Despite the elder Stetson often being gone for months at a time on Navy cruises, the two were incredibly close.
Stetson started his college career at the University of Florida, which was the first of four schools in three states he attended for undergraduate studies.
“I changed my major about a dozen times,” he said.
That’s also the time they learned his father’s cancer had returned. He died while Stetson was a college freshman.
Even 47 years later, Stetson struggles as he talks about his father. He pauses for long periods as he fights back tears, losing that battle more than once.
When he’s able to talk, his voice begins in almost a whisper. “So when I grew up with him,” he starts, “he was a great dad.”
Then comes another pause.
“And he was my hero,” he eventually says.
After a year at UF, Stetson transferred to the University of New Mexico on an ROTC scholarship so he could become a pilot.
Weak inner ear issues killed the dream of chasing his father’s career.
Unsure what he wanted to do, Stetson said he worked “every kind of odd job you could imagine” while he was in his 20s. He was a tree surgeon, worked in a laundry and at a gas station, and did door-to-door sales.
He did construction work, including work high above the ground setting trusses, which he enjoyed because of that adrenaline gene he inherited.
He also started playing in a rock ’n’ roll band and still enjoys playing today.
After attending another California school, Stetson eventually graduated from San Diego State University.
After opening himself up to God “and praying a little bit,” he decided to do something with his life and become a lawyer like his grandfather and his uncle.
His mother, who was from Jacksonville, convinced her son to return to Florida and attend Stetson University College of Law. She told him he wouldn’t have to pay tuition because the school’s bylaws allowed all Stetson children to go there for free.
Turns out, that wasn’t true.
“The dean said, ‘show me that bylaw,’” Stetson laughed.
It worked out well for him, though, because a fellow law student introduced Stetson to his wife, Kathy, who was living in the area at the time.
They have four children (Meaghan, Nancy, Jack and Alisa Marie Faith) and two grandchildren (Charlotte and Park) with another on the way.
Putting away bad guys
Stetson looks back at his 11 years working for Austin as beyond gratifying. He tried more than 100 cases, including first-degree murders, rapes and robberies.
As an intern in the office, he helped prosecute a man named Steven Storch, whom he described as being like Ted Bundy. A nice looking, blonde-haired, blue-eyed man who preyed on topless dancers.
After Storch was convicted of attacking a dancer with a hammer, he didn’t get that much time but received a long probation.
Years later, when Stetson was a full-time prosecutor, he prosecuted Storch for attacking another topless dancer. He took her to the woods, raped her and was trying to kill her with a tire iron. For some reason, when a car pulled up, Storch decided to let her live and drove her back to town and dropped her off somewhere.
Stetson still has a 1983 handwritten letter from that victim thanking him for his work.
Getting Storch convicted again “was one of the greatest things to be part of,” Stetson said.
Stetson also recalls the murder convictions of John Freeman, who was interrupted as he broke into the homes of two men during the daytime.
“He could have just gone out the back door,” Stetson said.
Instead, he killed them both.
Life as a prosecutor eventually became tiresome.
“After 11 years of fighting that battle and waking up in the middle of the night to give my closing argument before the mirror, I decided I had done that enough,” Stetson said.
He wanted to become a judge, but it wasn’t easy.
Setting records on the bench
The weekend before his interview before the Judicial Qualifications Commission to fill a vacancy, Stetson was playing law league flag football.
He and his teammate, Mike Weinstein, both were focused on grabbing an opponent’s flags when they violently collided. Stetson’s face smashed into Weinstein’s forehead, a battle a forehead will win nearly every time.
Stetson said he needed 18 stitches to close a gash by his orbital bone under his eye and had 22 stitches in his lip “where my tooth tried to come through.”
To make matters worse, he was the first interview of the day and, despite the interviews rarely being covered by media, a television reporter and camera crew were there that day.
“I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’” he laughed.
He didn’t get that judgeship, or several others he sought afterward, but was elected as a judge in 1991.
He split time between criminal court, family law and civil court during his time as a judge. He enjoyed repeat felony offender court, partly because he had helped Austin’s fight in Tallahassee to not let career criminals be released until they served 85 percent of their time.
During his first stint in repeat offender court, Stetson set a record for having 323 jury trials in five years.
He sentenced 550 people to an average term of 16 years during that period, he said.
The second time he was in repeat offender court, Stetson said he was “a little more compassionate” and encouraged more plea agreements. Still, his average sentence for the 400 defendants was 13-14 years.
Sending someone to prison is a heavy responsibility, he said, yet it needs to be done.
He appreciated the appellate courts, who are there to correct a judge if a mistake is made.
One example he gave is a case where a man was convicted by a jury in an armed robbery where his co-defendant was killed by police.
On the day of sentencing, the man denied being involved.
At the time, Stetson hadn’t been in criminal court for a while and was covering for another judge on the case. He was operating under old law, which allowed a judge to use lack of remorse as a reason to give a tougher sentence.
He gave the man life but several months later, started feeling badly about the decision. It was too late for him to do anything to change it.
Ultimately, the appellate court ordered a new sentencing for the man and Stetson said he gave him about 24 years.
Stetson could have served another term before being facing mandatory retirement at age 70, but he was tired of giving the same plea instructions or the same jury instructions over and over.
Plus, he joked, “Mike Sharrit drove me crazy asking me when I was going to retire until I finally surrendered.”
Sharrit was elected in August to replace Stetson.
Enjoying retirement and the fun that goes with it
There is no question Stetson enjoys being retired.
He can surf anytime he wants, work in the yard and assist (very little) with renovations around his home.
It also gave him the time to drive with his daughter, Nancy, from San Diego, where she had been living for the past five years.
Before leaving California, he injured one of his fingers while surfing. He thought it was sprained, but found out when they stopped in Tucson, Ariz., that he had broken it. Doctors wrapped it and said to keep it elevated and chill it.
Stetson’s solution: Elevate the hand by holding it outside the sunroof and letting the cold air chill it.
The cross-country trip gave the two a lot of time to talk, eat the world’s best fajitas in Texas and sing a little harmony to a Chicago song.
Nancy said her father liked to stop frequently “because he was insane about wiping bugs off” the windshield. At first, she didn’t care about the bugs, she said, but his obsession rubbed off on her and she became OCD about it.
She enjoyed the day they stopped in the middle of nowhere in Texas, stumbled upon an old gas station with a diner inside, split a burger and ate it in the car. After they cleaned off the windshield.
The only disagreement came over Stetson’s desire to put the windows down and turn the music up while barreling down the highway.
To Nancy, it made no sense. “You can’t even hear anything,” she said.
Stetson got his way on the drive from Slidell, La., to Jacksonville because he had dropped Nancy off to see her boyfriend there. It was music up, windows down all the way home.
He had surgery on his hand in February and was told not to surf for six weeks.
“I interpreted that to mean four weeks,” Stetson said.
Keeping him out of the water too long would be impossible.
It’s what he loves to do and it makes him feel like he’s flying, just like his father.