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Fresno stunned by slayings of
prominent lawyer and her client

The Fresno County legal community was in shock last month, reeling over the shooting death of one of their own. Divorce attorney Judith Soley, 65, and her client were gunned down at a Bass Lake restaurant Feb. 6 by the client’s husband, who later turned the gun on himself. The shooting happened during a break in the couple’s divorce proceedings.

“Judy was fearless, but not irresponsible,” said Kimberly Nystrom-Geist, the family law presiding judge of the Fresno County Superior Court and Soley’s former law partner. “She was a very successful advocate. I never once saw her fight for someone or something she didn’t believe in. She always believed in her client and their causes.”

Judith Soley
Judith Soley

The first woman president of the Fresno County Bar Association, Soley was active in both legal and community circles and was one of the first women to be certified as a family law specialist by the State Bar. Nystrom-Geist said Soley became a lawyer when women didn’t frequently join the profession and she built a successful practice and, as a single mother, raised her daughter, who became her law partner.

She was active in the Rotary Club and California Women Lawyers and chaired the local judicial evaluation committee for more than a decade.

“She was amazing,” Nystrom-Geist said.

Madera County sheriff’s detectives said Soley and Sandra Williamson were leaving a restaurant during a break in court proceedings when Williamson’s estranged husband, James, began beating Soley, who was in her van, and then shot her. He chased his wife into the kitchen of the restaurant, where he shot her before fleeing in a pickup. Officers later found Williamson in his home, where he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Authorities said later both women died of gunshot wounds to the head.

“Judy was just a fantastic lady with just the most beautiful smile,” said Melissa White, a senior deputy city attorney and immediate past president of the Fresno County Bar Association. She said she referred all her friends who were getting a divorce to Soley. “In my dealings with her, she was an extremely gentle, kind person. In court, she was a zealous advocate for her clients.”

White said her colleagues were shocked at the shootings, but despite the nature of Soley’s death, local lawyers considered the events highly unusual. When she worked in the district attorney’s office, White said she and many co-workers had concealed weapon permits, and she acknowledged that family law can be “a scary area when you deal with highly emotional issues.”

Nystrom-Geist said family law attorneys are “always aware” of dangers that sometimes accompany divorce and child custody cases. “We understand that people’s lives are literally falling apart,” she said.

But Prudence Hutton, another Fresno lawyer and longtime Soley friend, said she was sometimes frightened doing legal services work. “With the economy like it is, and anything contentious,” she said, violence can happen. “There are some lessons to be learned here. People need to be more on guard than they had been.”

At Soley’s memorial service, which drew hundreds of mourners, White said “no one’s talking about carrying guns” to protect themselves after Soley’s death. Instead, they talked about “what a wonderful person Judy was.”

Soley used a wheelchair all her life, but traveled the world, including visits to the Great Wall of China, Russia, England and Hawaii, as well as stints in Italy and Mexico to perfect her language skills. She graduated from UCLA and received her law degree from Boalt Hall, beginning her practice in 1971.

Speakers at her memorial service described her as a loving mother who enjoyed cooking, gardening, shoe-shopping and tennis. “She was an inspiration,” said Congressman Jim Costa, D-Fresno, “because she lived life as if there were no barriers.”