Md. judge swallowed the evidence, then as FBI came to arrest him over illicit images of boys, he killed himself

By Justin Fenton

BALTIMORE — An Eastern Shore judge, who had been on a leave of absence for more than a month amid an investigation into illicit images of children, took his own life Friday morning as federal agents moved in to arrest him.

Judge Jonathan G. Newell, 50, was pronounced dead at 6:43 a.m. from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, the U.S. Attorney’s Office announced. A judge since 2016 and before that Caroline County’s top prosecutor for more than a decade, he was to be taken into custody on federal charges of sexual exploitation of a child, prosecutors said.

A boy that Newell took on a hunting trip on Hoopers Island discovered a hidden camera in the bathroom on July 23, and his parents reported it to police, which The Sun reported last week. When confronted by investigators, Newell is believed to have chewed up and swallowed a camera memory card, authorities said in a criminal complaint unsealed Friday.

A neighbor of Newell posted pictures on Facebook saying the FBI was outside his Henderson, Maryland, home asking him to come out over a loudspeaker. The neighbor, Kimberly Keith, said that she heard flash bangs and what she believed to be gunshots, and later an ambulance.

The parents of two boys who Newell took on the trip had retained attorneys, who issued a “no contact” request to Newell on Aug. 4. The letter cited, “information and belief … that (Newell) engaged in criminal conduct.”

It asked that he stay away from the boys’ school and associated events, and warned that any contact will result in the parents contacting Maryland State Police for “potential witness tampering.”

The FBI interviewed several young males, who said they had been to the hunting lodge with Newell and that while in the bathroom, Newell checked their bodies for ticks, according to a criminal complaint filed Thursday in federal court and unsealed Friday following his death.

“At least two of the males stated they were naked when Newell checked them for ticks — one stated that he moved his own genitalia for Newell to look for ticks, and the other initially did not recall if Newell touched his genitalia, but later stated that Newell once or twice moved the minor’s genitalia to look for ticks,” FBI Special Agent Rachel Corn wrote in the criminal complaint.

Authorities searched Newell’s home, truck and judicial office, and located a hard drive in his den that they said contained numerous videos of young men showering. Newell can be seen on the footage setting the camera up, the FBI said. In one video clip, he can be seen searching a young man’s naked body for ticks.

When confronted by authorities, Newell denied knowledge of a camera, and asked if he could plug his phone into a charger in another room and make some calls. They saw him reach down multiple times, but believed he was holding the phone charger into an outlet. A few moments later, the investigator observed Newell’s right hand closed in a fist and saw him place his fist to his mouth.

“The investigator heard a loud, distinguishable, ‘crunch,’ sound from the area of Newell’s mouth. After another minute or two, the investigator heard the same ‘crunch’ again from Newell’s mouth, followed by Newell immediately reaching for and drinking from a cup located on his dresser,” the FBI wrote in charging documents.

They took him to a hospital and obtained a warrant to have a CT scan performed, which revealed a “foreign object” had been ingested. The SD card from the camera discovered by the boy was missing, and the FBI believes Newell chewed it up and swallowed it.

Newell was not charged at the time. Dorchester County State’s Attorney William H. Jones, whose office was one of multiple agencies involved in the case, told The Sun that investigators moved “as quickly as possible.”

“A lot of time and effort and man hours went into investigating this as quickly as possible with an attempt to bring it to resolution,” Jones said. “There was a lot of evidence, and that evidence takes time to analyze.”

Newell’s defense attorneys, Andrew Jezic and Thomas Morrow, issued a short statement, saying, “Our hearts break for Judge Newell’s family, especially for his two sons with whom he was very close.”

Joseph A. Riley, the state’s attorney for Caroline County, had previously worked with Newell and said he referred the case to Jones, his counterpart in Dorchester County, to avoid a conflict of interest. He lamented that he was unable to comment on the case while it was ongoing, and said he has asked federal authorities to facilitate counseling and other services for the victims and the community.

“This matter now leaves the investigative stage and we as a County, community, and a people begin the healing process,” Riley said in a statement. He said he was not prepared to comment on whether a review of Newell’s work as a prosecutor would take place.

Newell, a Republican, has been Caroline County’s only Circuit Court judge, earning $174,433 annually. The county, population 33,000, also has an appointed family magistrate judge, and civil case examiners.

Judges from other jurisdictions have been filling in to hear Newell’s docket, the judiciary has said. He took leave following a police raid on his home July 24, and extended the leave this week to Sept. 23. The judiciary’s communications office had refused to confirm that Newell’s office was searched as part of the investigation, and denied a public records request from The Sun for a copy of the search warrant return left at the courthouse.

Newell began his law career as a public defender in 1999, then became the deputy state’s attorney for Kent County. He held both positions for two years each. He was elected state’s attorney for Caroline County in 2003, a position he held until 2016 when Gov. Larry Hogan appointed him to be a judge. He retained that position in 2018 and was serving a 15-year term.

Keith, Newell’s neighbor, said her husband woke her up around 6:10 a.m. and noticed police cars outside the Newell home. She heard the FBI, over a loudspeaker, saying, “Jonathan, come out, put your hands up.”

She said agents approached the door, and she heard a loud bang followed by two loud bangs a few minutes later.

“Next thing I knew, they were in the house,” she said.

Keith said rumors about the ongoing investigation were “very well known around here.” Before the investigation, Keith said she found Newell’s Facebook posts to be “very odd.”

“All he ever posted on Facebook was about boys,” she said.

Before his page was deactivated following the police raid, Newell’s page contained many posts about mentoring boys. They included pictures from the campaign trail, the hunting cabin and wrestling matches.

In March 2020, he posted about bumping into a 13-year-old neighbor during the pandemic.

“Ordinarily to cheer him up I would have teased him, gave him a pat on the shoulder, mussed up his sweaty hair, maybe even sent him on his way with a little swat on the butt,” Newell wrote. “I think boys especially need physical contact: picking, poking, plucking — its part of how they communicate with one another and show affection, even if it occasionally leads to a fight.”

“Over the last two decades, I’ve helped raise a couple dozen kids, and their parents have helped raise my two boys — hauling sweaty kids back from ball fields and bass ponds, patching up skinned knees and pulling ticks out of armpits, refereeing pickup games and cranking out stacks of pancakes. They turned out to be some pretty decent human beings.”

Newell and his wife divorced last year, court records show.

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(Baltimore Sun reporter Rose Wagner contributed to this article.)

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