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A year later, no arrests in judge's overdose death

The High Point Enterprise, N.C. — Paul B. Johnson The High Point Enterprise, N.C.

Aug. 01-- Aug. 1--HIGH POINT -- It's a mystery that remains unanswered a year after longtime Guilford County District Court Judge Tom Jarrell was found dead in his High Point home.

Where did the narcotics come from that caused Jarrell's death at the age of 56?

The High Point Police Department considers the case closed. No one was arrested or charged in the death investigation.

"Tom Jarrell's death was ruled an accidental overdose," said police Lt. Matt Truitt.

Investigators consider the case closed unless more information comes forward, Truitt told The High Point Enterprise.

"At this time there has been no evidence that has been discovered to determine probable cause," the lieutenant said.

The Jarrell case was closed in early March, Truitt said.

When Jarrell died, some friends and associates initially thought he had suffered a massive heart attack or severe stroke while alone in his house. The case was investigated as an "unattended death," police said at the time.

Jarrell was found unresponsive on a bedroom floor of his residence, according to the autopsy report.

Jarrell's death stunned the community, as the judge not only had a long career on the bench but as a supporter of charitable and civic causes. At the time of his death, Jarrell was serving as chief District Court judge for Guilford County and had been on the bench for 20 years.

Prior to becoming a judge, Jarrell had a career as a local attorney.

Jarrell made a difference in his hometown of High Point and across the area and state.

Two years ago, he received the Excellence in Judicial Service Award from the state chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Jarrell was recognized for a campaign he began in 2016 to reduce the backlog of drunken driving cases in the court system.

Jarrell served as a key backer of the effort to establish the Guilford County Family Justice Center in High Point, which opened in the fall of 2018 in the courthouse downtown. The judge was a featured guest at the opening ceremony for the center, which provides a central location where victims of domestic violence and elder abuse can receive help from a variety of government agencies and nonprofits.

His widow, Cindy Jarrell, said her husband made contributions of many levels during his life.

"First, he was an amazing father, son and husband. His family always came first," Cindy Jarrell told The Enterprise. "Second, his contributions to the judicial system in North Carolina, and especially in Guilford County, are well-known. He was always trying to find resources and focus attention on improving the court system. And, finally, his philosophy of inclusiveness as a leader made everyone he came into contact with -- defendants, attorneys, staff, even judges -- feel valued."

As a reflection of his stature and reach, thousands of people attended Jarrell's funeral on Aug. 8, 2019, at The Summit Church. The keynote memorial address was given by Gov. Roy Cooper, a former North Carolina attorney general and longtime friend of Jarrell.

"We're still shaken to have lost Tom so young, but oh my, during the time we were able to have him, what a difference he made in our great state," the governor said to an overflow crowd of mourners.

The tenor of Jarrell's death took an unexpected and sobering turn 2 1/2 months after his passing when the N.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner issued the toxicology report on the autopsy. Jarrell died from a heroin and fentanyl overdose, the medical examiners found in a report released Oct. 11, 2019.

The analysis of Jarrell's body found a substance in his blood called 6-Monoacetylmorphine, which is consistent with evidence of heroin use. The medical examiner also found evidence of a possible needle puncture with dried blood on his right arm.

"Law enforcement found a plastic baggie with a powder substance in his pocket. In the bathroom were a pocket knife and a piece of paper containing a powder substance," the autopsy report indicated.

Just as friends and associates were stunned by Jarrell's unexpected death, so were they shocked to learn he died of an overdose. No one interviewed this past fall by The Enterprise said they had any notion that Jarrell might be using narcotics.

In October, Police Chief Ken Shultz said Jarrell's death reflected an agonizing reality about the pervasiveness of drug use.

Jarrell's death was a "reminder that there is a lot of work left to do on this societal issue," said Shultz, who retired as police chief effective this past Saturday.

Cindy Jarrell told The Enterprise that the family realizes there remain unresolved questions about her husband's death. When the judge died, his family hoped the police investigation would lead to an arrest, "but without adequate evidence, charges cannot be made."

Cindy Jarrell said her family has "come to live with the idea that we may never know much more and we are starting to make peace with that." -- 336-888-3528 -- @HPEpaul


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