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Investigator worked both sides of the courtroom

By ANDREW MEACHAM, Times Staff Writer
Published December 11, 2007


As a St. Petersburg police officer, John Duncan busted crooks. As an investigator for the Public Defender's Office, he worked to free some of the same people he had arrested.

In either role, he used his street sense to gather information on some of the biggest cases of his day.

"Deep down, John was always a cop," said Susan Schaeffer, 65, who used Mr. Duncan as a lead investigator when both worked for the Public Defender's Office. "If he thought somebody was lying to him, he would push them and try to get the truth out of them."

He was "ridiculously honest," said his son, Robert Duncan, 46. So much so, Robert Duncan said, that his father refused to pocket coins left in a pay phone.

"He said they were not his," said Robert Duncan, 46.

Mr. Duncan, who suffered a stroke earlier this year, died Wednesday. He was 82.

He spent 24 years as a police officer, retiring in 1970 as a detective lieutenant. During that time he solved homicides and robberies and found one missing baby, his family said.

After retirement, he joined the Public Defender's Office as an investigator, where he remained until 1988. He worked just as hard at helping the defense in high-profile murder cases as he had putting criminals away.

"If you asked him to do something, you could be sure it would be done thoroughly and it would be done completely," said Schaeffer, who is now a retired judge. "And when he was through, he would come back with the results.

"He told you what you needed to hear," she added, "not necessarily the results you wanted."

With Mr. Duncan investigating, Schaeffer defended Raymond Robert Clark, who was charged with the 1977 abduction and murder of Treasure Island businessman David Drake. Drake was convicted and eventually executed for his crime, but it took the jury 12 hours to reach its verdict - a partial result, Schaeffer said, of Mr. Duncan's meticulous work.

"No one ever suggested he had ineffective assistance of counsel," Schaeffer said.

Mr. Duncan's no-nonsense demeanor masked a wry sense of humor, said his former boss at the Public Defender's Office, Robert Jagger, who accompanied Mr. Duncan and his wife, Diana, on pleasure junkets to San Francisco, Las Vegas, and Branson, Mo.

He seldom brought his work home, said Robert Duncan, who remembers going fishing with his father. Afterward, they would stop off for a cheeseburger and root beer at Ted Peters Famous Smoked Fish, chopped pork at Big Tim's Bar B Que, or hot dogs at the Coney Island Sandwich Shop.

Once, at Central Plaza, Robert Duncan noticed his father's eyes trained on a shopper. When the man exited the store, Mr. Duncan wrestled him to the sidewalk. The man fled, but left behind a stolen shirt.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at 813 661-2431 or


John S. Duncan

Born: March 19, 1925

Died: Dec. 5, 2007

Survivors: wife of 57 years, Diana; daughter, Darlene Bistritz; son, Robert Duncan (Gina); three grandchildren and a nephew.

b10 a.m. today, Anderson-McQueen Funeral Home, 2201 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. N, St. Petersburg.

[Last modified December 10, 2007, 22:06:49]

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