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Mark Cipolla, former Spokane County chief criminal deputy prosecutor, dies at 62

Cipolla  (Hennessey Valley Funeral Home)
Cipolla (Hennessey Valley Funeral Home)

Mark Cipolla, the former chief criminal deputy prosecutor for the Spokane County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, died Friday. He was 62.

Cipolla worked for the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office from 1995 as a deputy prosecutor until his retirement in late February. Cipolla led the office’s gang unit for much of that span, Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell said.

Haskell said Cipolla exhibited “amazing energy and amazing dedication” in his work. He said Cipolla developed relationships with organizations the office works with, such as law enforcement agencies and victim advocates.

Cipolla was known to turn up at major crime scenes to work directly with investigators.

“It made Mark a better prosecutor because of the fact that he knew what their needs were and he understood what their role was,” Haskell said, “and it made him more effective in terms of everything that we do, from a basic hearing in a courtroom to the most significant trial you can imagine.”

Among the notable cases Cipolla prosecuted included that of Shellye Stark, who was convicted of first-degree murder in 2009 – and again in 2012, after the initial conviction was overturned – for the 2007 shooting death of her estranged husband Dale Stark. Another defendant, Brian L. Moore, later pleaded guilty to second-degree murder for his role in helping to plan the shooting.

Cipolla also prosecuted the 2008 murder case of Cole K. Strandberg, who pleaded guilty to shooting and killing 22-year-old Jennifer Bergeron with a crossbow.

Defense attorney Chris Bugbee, who represented Strandberg in that case, said it was his first day as a lawyer working in the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office when he met Cipolla.

Bugbee regarded Cipolla as one of his best friends – a relationship, he said, that did not affect their positions in the courtroom.

“Both of us had enough respect for each other that we knew we were both doing our jobs, and so that’s what we did,” Bugbee said. “We’d come into court each day, do our job, put on our cases, cross-examine each other’s witnesses and then, in the end, we each made our arguments. Win or lose, it was all about doing the job.”

Bugbee, who worked in the prosecutor’s office from 1996 to 2002, described Cipolla as a private person who liked to spend time with family and ride his horses. Cipolla was married with three children.

Bugbee said he and Cipolla often went to lunch at the Elk Public House in Browne’s Addition. Later in his career, Cipolla appeared to take younger prosecutors under his wing, Bugbee said.

“He did it with a lot of passion, a lot of skill and a true desire to protect the people in Spokane,” Bugbee said.

“He had a reputation among those who knew what was happening in Spokane as basically being a soldier.”

The impression Cipolla left during his career will impact the lawyering out of the prosecutor’s office and, as a result, “the safety of this community for many years to come,” Bugbee said.

“Mark’s going to be talked about for a very long time with envy and respect and awe,” he said. “Maybe awe more than anything else.”

Bugbee and Haskell said Cipolla dealt with what started as prostate cancer for about a decade.

When Haskell combined the office’s gangs and major crimes units in 2014, he put Cipolla in charge of the newly combined unit as chief of major crimes. Around 2018, Haskell moved Cipolla to the position of chief criminal deputy prosecutor to replace Jack Driscoll, who became chief civil deputy prosecutor after the retirement of Jim Emacio.

“When you would work with him even in the most difficult of circumstances, he would find a way to lighten it with a joke or some kind of tangential tale that he might tell,” Haskell said. “He had a way of just having a sixth sense about tension and anxiety and that sort of thing. It’s stressful work, as you can imagine. Mark had a way of breaking that, setting you down a bit and letting you relax a little.”

Cipolla was recently recognized with the Distinguished Service Award from the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, Haskell said. He went to Gonzaga University and Gonzaga’s School of Law for his postsecondary education.

“I told him when he retired that for years, because I’m the face of the office, people are going to remember my name one way or another, but what they won’t know is the Mark Cipollas that work here,” he said.

“The people that do all the really hard work here that never get a headline and don’t necessarily get the credit for what they do. The citizens of this community were safer and better off because of the efforts of Mark Cipolla.

“I could work here a dozen more years and there will never be another like him.”

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