FORT WALTON BEACH — Former Assistant State Attorney Angela Mason was sworn in as a judge in Okaloosa County on Monday, becoming the first native Destin resident to be appointed an Okaloosa County Judge.
Mason, 41, is the daughter of longtime Destin residents Sharon Dillon and Peter DiChiara. She's worked for the State Attorney’s Office for over 11 years and beat out six other people to secure the governor’s appointment in May.
She fills the seat vacated by T. Patterson Maney, who stepped down last month after 29 years on the beach.
“It’s been a lifelong dream of mine” to be a judge, Mason said Monday after her swearing-in ceremony. “I’m honored to be the first native of Destin to make it to the bench. My heritage is very important to me, and I’m honored to represent my family and am grateful for the opportunity to continue serving the people.”
The two Bibles on which Mason placed her hands when she was sworn in Monday are rich with Destin history. One of them belonged to her great-great grandfather, William Marler, one of the founders and first settlers of the city of Destin.
The other, a small, pocket-sized Bible, was owned by her great-grandfather, David Marler, a Destin fisherman. He had the bible in his pocket while he was fishing in 1926 and a hurricane blew through, knocking him overboard, according to Mason’s mother.
“My grandfather tied himself to the mast and the boat washed ashore in Pensacola,” Dillon said. “My grandmother thought he was dead until the Coast Guard brought him in, and they found the Bible on him.”
Mason’s role in the State Attorney’s Office evolved over the years to the point that she’d received the title of special prosecutor and was handling most high profile felony cases. One of her largest Destin cases was that of Judsen “Judd” Rodney Cunningham, who authorities say was piloting a stolen boat on March 18, 2016 when he crashed it into the east jetty near Destin’s East Pass in the early morning hours.
One of his passengers, 22-year-old Avery Hatchett, was killed in the crash, and another, Anna Sorokina, 22, was ejected from the boat and is presumed dead.
Cunningham’s trial is currently scheduled for June 25, but is expected to be delayed.
Chief Assistant State Attorney Bill Bishop said Mason's cases have all been reassigned. The Cunningham case will now be prosecuted by Assistant State Attorney Jack Schlechter.
“We will obviously miss her at the State Attorney’s Office,” Bishop said Monday at Mason’s swearing-in ceremony. “She’s been an integral part of the office for over 11 years, but we have individuals who have stepped up and will be able to take over the role she has had in the office.
“I’m very excited for Angela,” he continued. “I believe they’ve made an excellent choice and I hope to see her on the bench for many, many years to come.”
Mason will preside over her first courtroom Friday, where she will oversee Veteran’s Court, which her predecessor, Maney, is credited with creating. Veteran’s Court helps divert veterans into treatment or other alternative programs that allow them to avoid jail time if they can stay on track.
“I’m looking forward to taking over Judge Maney’s caseload, in part with the Veteran’s Court,” Mason said. “I think it’s a very important and vital part of our community, and I hope to keep it going strong and even growing it.”
While Mason's family and friends were thrilled about her appointment, one of her three children, 12-year-old Noah, said that though he was excited about his mom becoming a judge, there was one thing he wasn't so sure about.
"I think it means we have to follow more rules," he said with a laugh.