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Alan Leonard, a 'prosecutor’s prosecutor,' dies at age 72

Prosecutor Alan Leonard is shown in a courtroom. Prosecutor Alan Leonard is shown in a courtroom.

Alan Leonard, a widely respected attorney who served as prosecutor for the judicial district that includes Henderson, Polk and Transylvania counties from 1982 to 1994, died Thursday at age 72.

The go-to prosecutor for many of Western North Carolina’s highest-profile cases, Leonard could be called on to bring peerless courtroom skills and a passion for victims to win convictions in the sorts of crimes that destroy families, shatter a community’s sense of safety and generate nationwide headlines.
“He was a prosecutor’s prosecutor,” said District Attorney Ashley Hornsby Welch, who oversees the seven westernmost counties, or the 43rd Prosecutorial District. “Whenever I’ve not known what to do, I’ve called him. He taught me how to try a case. He was my mentor.”
A native of Henderson County, Welch was assigned at age 13 to shadow a defense lawyer, who represented a client in a case involving a dead child. She watched, mesmerized, as then District Attorney Leonard prosecuted the suspect.
“I remember saying, ‘I want to be that person. I want to do what he does –and here I am,’” Welch said. “The whole reason I’m a prosecutor is because of Alan Leonard, and he continued to counsel me from when I was 13 years old, until now."
Instead of continuing to shadow the defense attorney, she switched and shadowed the district attorney’s office. Leonard paired her with Assistant District Attorney Jill Rose, now a federal prosecutor for the Western District of North Carolina.
“He wanted me to have a strong female role model,” Welch said. “She is formidable as a prosecutor.”
As was Leonard, who one newspaper lauded for “impassioned closing arguments that can stir juries to tears and capture the attention of the most jaded courtroom workers.”
Among Leonard’s career highlights:
• He successfully prosecuted Jimmy Jaynes in the 1990 shooting death of a Polk County cattle farmer. The victim, Paul Acker, was a millionaire who had left New York to escape the crime and traffic and live his lifelong dream of raising cattle in a small town.
• He successfully prosecuted Phillip Lee Ingle, a man in Rutherford County who said he enjoyed watching people die in agony and, in 1991, beat to death four elderly people he described as “demons with red eyes, horns and tails.”
• He successfully prosecuted in Jackson County, in 1994, seven people, dubbed the “Sylva Seven,” for the death of Tony Cecil Queen, who investigators say endured a week of savage beatings and other torture before he suffocated while bound and gagged in the narrow closet of a mobile home.
• He helped prosecute Charles Roach and Chris Lippard, who in 1999 in Haywood County, gunned down five members of the Phillips family after they returned from the county fair. The men stopped randomly along I-40 at the family’s house to steal a car.
A native of Tryon, Leonard earned undergraduate and law degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He entered the Air Force in 1970 and retired in 1998 as a lieutenant colonel in the Air National Guard.
Leonard served four terms as the elected district attorney for the 29th District, from 1982-1994, overseeing prosecutions in Henderson, Polk and Transylvania counties. After an election loss in 1994, he joined the then 30th District (now the 43rd) as an assistant district attorney. District Attorney Charles Hipps died in February 2003, and Leonard served about three months as interim district attorney. From 2005-2009, he served as attorney for Henderson County Sheriff’s Office, then joined Smith Rodgers law firm, which specializes in providing legal advice to law enforcement.
“He was the best trial attorney I’ve ever seen,” said Bill Jones, a Waynesville lawyer and former assistant district attorney who served with Leonard. “When he would argue in front of a jury, he was just brilliant. ... He treated people with respect, wasn’t mean and wasn’t disrespectful. He always cared about getting to the truth."
He recollected how a well-known superior court judge once told him, “If anyone ever hurts my family, I want Alan to prosecute.”
In a 2005 newspaper article, Leonard offered advice to his fellow prosecutors. “Adopt humility and avoid arrogance, which will destroy you," he said, "because, in the end, the District Attorney’s Office works for the people.”