George Dentes ’76, the former Tompkins County District Attorney who spent his college years as a Cornell football star, died yesterday. He was 52.
Dentes died of a heart attack in Albany, where he was working for the New York Prosecutors Training Institute. He reportedly collapsed outside his office and could not be revived.
A lifelong Cornellian, Dentes graduated with a Bachelor of Science in 1976 before moving on to Cornell Law School. He left in 1979 after graduating Cum Laude and soon found a job as the Assistant District Attorney in New York County.
Dentes would later return to Ithaca in 1989, when he was elected to his first term as District Attorney of Tompkins County. He held the position until last year, when he lost his seat to Democrat Gwen Wilkinson.
An ardent football fan, Dentes spent much of his time as a Cornell undergrad on the gridiron. He played varsity football until his senior year, when he joined the sprint football squad. A father of three, he passed his love of the game on to his two sons, Scott ’07 and Zak ’09, both members of the Cornell sprint football team. Dentes was a regular sight at their competitions. His daughter Tess ’05 also attended Cornell.
One of the few elected Republicans in a traditionally liberal county, he drew significant criticism after lending support to New York State’s Rockefeller drug laws, legislation that mandates specific prison sentences for convicted drug offenders. Under Rockefeller, judges would not be allowed to amend a prison sentence.
Wilkinson worked under Dentes as the Assistant District Attorney in Tompkins County from 1991-96. She remembered her predecessor as a major force in the county, and as an important figure for members of the DA’s office.
“On behalf of the office, we’re shocked and deeply saddened by the news of George’s passing,” Wilkinson said. “He was an excellent prosecutor, and a great mentor to everyone in this office.”
Bob Romanowski, a former Common Council member who helped run Dentes’ political campaigns, had similar things to say.
“George’s loss is going to be felt by a tremendous number of people in this community,” he said in an interview with the Ithaca Journal.
After losing his seat in 2005, Dentes found his way to Albany, where he used his legal experience to train the next generation of New York state prosecutors. He was also working to update CrimeTime, a software designed to calculate sentencing possibilities for crimes committed in New York.
Dentes, an electrical engineering student while at Cornell, created the software while in office to improve the New York state sentencing system. The program, which takes the defendant’s age, criminal history, and other factors into account, is widely used by judges across the state.
Dentes met his wife, Elise Dentes ’77, while the two were still in high school, and the couple went on to attend Cornell together. Yesterday, Dentes was remembered as a passionate prosecutor and a devoted family man.
“George Dentes was a person of class and integrity,” said Tompkins County Sheriff Peter Meskill in an interview with the Ithaca Journal, “who gave everything he encountered everything he had.”
Funeral services for Dentes are scheduled for 11 a.m. on Saturday at St. Catherine Greek Orthodox Church, 120 W. Seneca St.