Public defender Tom Piper steps down from Morgan County post after 33 years
By Julie Gerke
After 33 years, attorney Tom Piper is taking down his shingle in Morgan County, but the longtime public defender will continue to represent the indigent in Greene County.
Piper retires from the Morgan County office on June 30. The next day, assistant public defender Devin Vaughn will take over the top job. Bob Bonjean III will join the office as assistant public defender, in addition to continuing his private practice.
“I wish Tom well and what the future brings for him. I have big shoes to fill,” said Vaughn, also an attorney with Bellatti Fay Bellatti & Beard in Jacksonville. “He’s certainly been a great mentor for me the last couple of years.”
Vaughn doesn’t plan any big changes to the public defender’s office. “The show goes on, so to speak. How [Piper] ran the office is how I’m going to try to keep it running as well,” he said. It should be “a pretty seamless transition.”
Vaughn will do “a terrific job,” Piper said. “He’s bright and full of energy.”
Piper and Vaughn both credit secretary Sue Thomas with keeping the Morgan County office running, and Piper likewise depends on Lois Sorrells (“She’s just a godsend for me.”) for the Greene County office.
The public defender’s office represents people who cannot afford to hire an attorney; the decision is made by a judge after reviewing a list of the defendant’s assets and liabilities. Because many public defenders in smaller counties also may have private clients, or have represented the defendant, victim or a family member in the past, conflicts of interest may mean a case is passed to the assistant, or vice versa. If conflicts exist for both attorneys, a special public defender can be appointed.
The office is funded by Morgan County, with two-thirds of the public defender’s salary reimbursed by the state.
When Piper submitted his resignation, several attorneys applied for the position. Vaughn was chosen by a vote of the sitting judges of the Illinois Seventh Judicial Circuit.
“[Piper] has dedicated his life and passion to representing the indigent in Morgan County and throughout Central Illinois,” said Chief Circuit Judge Chris Reif of Jacksonville. “His expertise, knowledge, ethics and class are irreproachable. … I’m confident Devin Vaughn and Bobby Bonjean are more than capable of representing those whom he will be appointed to represent in Morgan County to the highest of standards which have been set by Mr. Piper.”
Vaughn graduated from Routt Catholic High School and earned a degree in business and management organization from Illinois College. He worked as a teacher while studying for a master’s degree in U.S. history and then headed for law school at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, graduating in 2 ½ years.
He joined Grosboll, Tice, Barr & Courtney in Petersburg, and learned about courtroom work from Denise Barr, public defender for Mason, Menard and Cass counties, as he worked on traffic and misdemeanor cases in Mason County. “I shadowed her pretty religiously,” he said.
So when Reif reached out in March 2021, asking if Vaughn would be interested in the assistant public defender job in Morgan County, “I took it right away,” he said. With the move to Jacksonville, Vaughn joined Bellatti, Fay, Bellatti & Beard. He and his wife, Madalyn, a speech therapist at Illinois School for the Deaf, have two sons.
“You’re dealing with people who are in the very worst situation they possibly could be in,” Vaughn said about defense work. “I take my work very seriously, keep an open mind and listen to the client. … It’s challenging and very rewarding, helping people who are facing that serious possibility of jail time or incarceration that would restrict their freedom.”
Piper, a graduate of North Greene High School and Western Illinois University, got his start in 1977 when then-attorney (later judge) Jim Day of White Hall hired Piper after he graduated from Saint Louis University School of Law. At Day’s suggestion, he “learned so much” by just watching cases in the Greene County courtroom, seeing “what worked and what didn’t.”
“I knew I wanted to be in court,” Piper said. “I didn’t want to be a lawyer who sat in an office all day.”
He was appointed assistant public defender for Morgan County in 1990, taking the full title in 2005. He has continued to hold the same job in Greene County, commuting several times a week between Jacksonville and his hometown of White Hall.
In focusing solely on Greene County, Piper is looking forward to having more time to hone his golf game, enjoy property he owns at Lake of the Ozarks, and return to a hobby of building model airplanes. He’ll also have more time for family: Piper’s daughter and son-in-law are parents to his granddaughter; he also has two stepgrandchildren.
“It was a privilege and honor to provide legal services for the people of Morgan County,” Piper said. “I was a little shy boy from White Hall. I had no idea ever that I’d end up doing what I do.
“The past and present judges, circuit clerk’s office, probation office, the bailiffs, sheriff’s department and correctional officers … I have been treated so well by the court system of Morgan County. There’s no way to repay those people.”