Breckinridge L. Willcox, a retired Washington lawyer who served as Maryland's top federal prosecutor from 1986 to 1991, died yesterday morning at his wife's ranch in southern California after a battle with cancer. The Bethesda resident was 62.
Former colleagues praised Mr. Willcox for his transformative impact on the U.S. attorney's office headquartered in Baltimore. They noted his creation of a cadre of career prosecutors inside the office while roughly doubling the size of his staff and extending its reach into the prosecution of savings-and-loan institutions as well as large-scale illegal drug organizations.
Born in La Jolla, Calif., and raised in Chevy Chase, Mr. Willcox came from a privileged background. Family vacations included pricey and pristine places like Hawaii and Nantucket Island, Mass., where he developed what would become a lifelong interest in marine biology. Among his ancestors were John C. Breckinridge, who was a vice president and senator, as well as the U.S. ambassador to Italy, his grandfather, Breckinridge Long.
He became known in Baltimore for his unusual style - brightly hued shirts and preppy bow ties - and his good-natured reaction to the ribbing junior prosecutors traditionally heaped on their bosses.
Friends and fellow lawyers said he never wore his blue-blood background on his sleeve, Instead, they said, he fashioned a Renaissance life outside the law, one filled with ecological passions as diverse as serving on the board of a reef conservation foundation in Fiji and amassing a large personal collection of exotic seashells.
At St. Albans School in Washington, he played on the varsity basketball team with future Vice President Al Gore. He graduated from Yale University, where he golfed competitively and joined the fishing club. He was a graduate of the Duke University School of Law, and later served on its board of visitors.
Public service consumed most of his professional life. After a stint in the Marine Corps, Mr. Willcox worked for then-U.S. Sen. Charles McC. Mathias, a Maryland Republican, before joining the federal Department of Justice.
His selection by President Reagan to serve as U.S. attorney in 1986 jolted the local bar accustomed to watching lawyers elevated to the post from their own ranks. One defense lawyer later described him as a stickler for the rules, which sometimes made deal-making difficult.
But Mr. Willcox quickly won over colleagues for his hardy work ethic, including trying high-profile cases himself and his nontraditional hiring of lawyers from prominent Washington firms as well as state prosecutors.
"He was relatively hands-off. He believed you try to hire good people and you give them advice as needed. He certainly wasn't a micro-manager," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Jefferson M. Gray, whom Mr. Wilcox hired from a Washington law firm in 1989.
Among Mr. Wilcox's top priorities was white-collar crime, and he said in a June 1986 interview with The Sun that he wanted the office "to get back in the business that has taken a back seat in the last three or four years."
In that vein, he brought several major cases arising out of the S&L; crisis of the late 1980s. He also weathered the criticism that usually accompanies public corruption cases, including the indictment and conviction of brothers Clarence M. Mitchell III and Michael B. Mitchell for accepting a bribe to obstruct a congressional investigation of the Wedtech Corp.
After leaving the U.S. attorney's office in 1991, he became a partner in the Washington law firm of Arent Fox, staying until his retirement in 2002.
His wife of four years, the former Lynn Braitman, said Mr. Willcox "was not driven by materialism. ... He was interested in his family history but he wasn't influenced by the status of it."
Friends and colleagues remembered Mr. Willcox's dedication to the rule of law, saying it never wavered over time. In February 2001, he wrote in The Washington Post on his dismay about the presidential pardon of a former Navy intelligence analyst. Mr. Willcox had prosecuted him for stealing classified information to curry favor with a potential employer. "President Clinton did more than simply ignore the interests of law enforcement in this case; he affirmatively thwarted them," he wrote.
So strong was his interest in the political scene that a copy of the Post was the only thing he asked his former law partner Alan Reider to bring to California last week as he lay dying from cancer. He said he wanted to catch up on the election coverage.
"He faced death with great courage and great dignity," said U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett, who succeeded Mr. Willcox as U.S. attorney and lunched with him at his Bethesda home about a month ago. "There was a quiet acknowledgment of what was going to happen, but he had no self-pity."
In addition to his wife, survivors include two sons, Blair Willcox, a student at the University of Michigan, and Christopher Willcox at Washington University; his mother, Christine Long Willcox of Palm Beach, Fla., and Nantucket; a sister, Christine Spencer of Dallas; and his wife's two grown children, Laurel Braitman and Jake Braitman. His marriage to Laura Henderson ended in divorce.
Plans for a memorial service in Washington are incomplete.