Liz Whipple.
Liz Whipple. (Photo: John Disney/ALM)

Liz Whipple, a guiding force in the Atlanta Volunteer Lawyers Foundation’s domestic violence program for five years, died unexpectedly on Friday at age 41.

“Everyone who knew her is heartsick,” said AVLF’s executive director, Marty Ellin. “Everybody who ever works for AVLF is family, but Liz was right in the middle of the family. She was creative and playful and quirky—she lit up wherever she went.”

Whipple, who moved to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in 2015 to head the University of Alabama Law School’s domestic violence law clinic, was found dead in Lake Tuscaloosa early Saturday morning along with her friend and co-worker, Shelly Darling, 34, in what is believed to be an accident.

Whipple and Darling, a clinic staff attorney, were reported missing to the Tuscaloosa Police Department by family members Friday evening when they did not return from a day of sunbathing at Darling’s family lake house, said Tuscaloosa County Metro Homicide Unit Captain Kip Hart. Divers from the homicide unit found their bodies in the lake at around 4:30 a.m. on Saturday.

The deaths are being investigated as possible cases of electrocution from the metal boat dock or surrounding water, Hart said, adding that his unit is waiting on a complete autopsy report from the medical examiner’s office.

Those close to Whipple in the Atlanta legal community remembered her vibrancy, combined with an irreverent, infectious sense of humor and a no-nonsense ability to get things done.

“She was the most alive person we knew,” said Jessica Caldas, who assisted Whipple as project coordinator for AVLF’s domestic violence program from 2011 to 2014. “She was always doing some crazy adventure over the weekend.”

“Even though she was doing such hard work, she was so upbeat and positive. It never seemed to dim her. We laughed every day in the office,” said Caldas, adding that Whipple became a mentor and a friend.

‘Depth of Connection’ to Atlanta

Whipple arrived in Atlanta in 2007 after earning a law degree from the University of Alabama. She first worked as a staff attorney for the Georgia Law Center for the Homeless and then joined AVLF in 2010 as the director of its domestic violence and guardian ad litem programs, which included running the Safe Families Office at the Fulton County Courthouse. Co-staffed by AVLF and the Partnership Against Domestic Violence, the walk-in office provides victims of intimate partner violence with lawyers to procure temporary protective orders, as well as assistance for them and their children.

Caldas, a well-known Atlanta artist, said Whipple “changed the way I live my life in a lot of ways,” explaining that before she worked with Whipple at AVLF, her art dealt abstractly with relationships and was not concretely focused on social issues.

“I didn’t know much about domestic violence as an issue. The work I did with Liz changed all that,” Caldas said, adding that her work now addresses gender-based violence.

Caldas still volunteers at the Safe Families Office, and she visited Whipple every semester at the University of Alabama with AVLF staff attorney Nilu Abdi-Tabari, who also worked at the Safe Families Office, to help train Whipple’s students at the domestic violence clinic she ran.

“It is amazing the depth of connection that Liz had in this community, through AVLF, Georgia Law Center for the Homeless, the Georgia Justice Project, the pro bono legal community and the family law community,” said Tamara Caldas, the pro bono partner at Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton who sends volunteer lawyers to the Safe Families Office.

“She touched and connected so many people. All of those people are in total shock,” said Caldas, who worked with Whipple for several years in her previous job as AVLF’s deputy director. She is also Jessica Caldas’ step-mother.

“Liz was such an amazing combination of being quite a brilliant lawyer and serious advocate—with a raucous and fun-loving sense of humor,” Tamara Caldas said.

“You did not want to be on the other side of her in a protective order hearing,” she added.

“When you do domestic violence work, where you’re meeting clients all day every day, it really takes a special kind of person with that combination of skill and humor and confidence and passion,” Caldas said. “Liz was a great model for the law students and young lawyers she supervised—that you can do this work and fight really hard for people and still laugh and play.”