BALTIMORE — Before their son went on his first hunting trip with Caroline County Judge Jonathan G. Newell, his parents sat him down and came up with a safe word.
“I said, ‘I know you like Judge Newell, and you think he’s a great guy, and we have no reason to think otherwise, but … we want to make sure that you are aware of what to look for — what to know is acceptable versus unacceptable,’” the boy’s mother recalled.
He never reported any problems to his parents until July 23, when he discovered a hidden camera in the bathroom.
“Please tell me what this thing is,” the boy texted his mother that morning. “It has a camera in it and it’s plinking on and off pointed at the shower I was in.”
Newell, a circuit court judge for five years and before that Caroline County’s top prosecutor for more than a decade, took his life Friday morning as the FBI moved in to arrest him on federal charges of sexual exploitation of a child.
After the discovery of the camera, authorities say Newell chewed up and swallowed a memory card for a camera, but investigators were able to recover a hard drive with videos Newell took of boys showering as well as him checking their bodies for ticks.
For the parents of the boy who found the camera, the past seven weeks have a brought a range of emotions, including betrayal over the broken trust and frustration at the length of time the investigation was taking to play out.
His mother felt sadness after learning of Newell’s death.
“I didn’t want him to do that. … That’s a terrible thing for anyone to have to come into,” she said. “And now there’s no closure. I wish we had a chance to have that closure, that face-to-face, ‘what the hell were you thinking?’”
The Sun is not naming the parents or their child since he is the victim of a sexual crime.
His mother said she did not know Newell before he made a friend request to her two years ago, out of the blue, on Facebook. Newell already knew boys who her son was friends with, and saw him tagged on their posts.
She accepted the request, and Newell began liking and making light-hearted comments on pictures of her son. She exchanged messages with him — nothing too personal.
In hindsight, “he kind of groomed me to get to my son,” she said.
Then Newell asked if her son wanted to go on a hunting trip.
“I was like, ‘Well I don’t really know you, would your wife and kids like to come over for dinner first?’” she recalled.
That’s when he confided that he was going through a divorce, she said. Newell and his wife divorced last year, court records show. Instead, he came by the house and they talked in the driveway.
The woman’s husband, who also hunts, said the destination on Hoopers Island was a “phenomenal hunting property, the best of the best.”
“I’ve taken kids hunting before — it’s what you do,” he said. “I blame myself a little bit for letting him go, in hindsight, but if you can’t trust your kid with a judge, who can you trust?”
Why not take his own kids? Newell’s sons were either away or uninterested, he told them.
Newell took their son infrequently — one or two hunting trips per year, with a couple of fishing trips as well when Newell said he was going to cut the grass at the Hoopers Island property, the boy’s parents said. They’d grab something to eat at Old Salty’s, a restaurant on the narrow chain of islands in Dorchester County. Other pairs of kids would be taken on other weekends, the parents said.
Their son never went with Newell alone. He “loved going and hanging out with his buddies,” his mother said. Newell checked in regularly, sending pictures to the parents and posting on Facebook, where Newell often uploaded posts about mentoring boys from the community.
“Everything was fine, until it wasn’t fine,” the boy’s mother said.
When the text message came on the morning of July 23, the boy’s parents contacted the parents of the other boy who also was on the trip. That boy’s father has law enforcement experience, and he advised them not to head straight to the hunting lodge but to arrive with police. It’s all got to be done by the book, that father explained, and they went to a police station in Denton.
As the parents arrived at the hunting lodge, “the cops came right up behind us, seven cars all at once,” recalled the father of the boy who found the camera.
“You could tell from his (Newell’s) expressions and body language that someone took the wind out of his sails,” he said.
The father said he is relieved that his son had a cellphone, not only so he could notify them what was going on but take a picture of the camera where it was found, so it could be provided to the police.
“I was one of them parents who says, ‘Why does a kid need a cellphone?’” he said. “This whole scenario right here, it’s worth every penny that we paid for.”
Their son is relieved that he won’t have to go to court, but his parents say the breach of trust will linger.
“My son looked up to Jonathan as a mentor — thought he was wonderful — and I’m pretty sure he’s not going to trust many people,” his father said. “It’s going to be hard.”