Baumgartner Embodied Opioid Crisis in Knoxville; May He Now Rest in Peace
I know I wasn’t alone in feeling an overwhelming sadness at the death of Richard Baumgartner.
We weren't close, but we’d crossed paths several times through the years. He was part of my 2004 Leadership Knoxville class, and it was a measure of the respect that others had for him that he was selected class representative after graduation. I was in his courtroom a time or two, as well. In 2009, I faced his intimidating presence on the bench when defense attorneys in the Christian-Newsom murder trials asked him to order Knoxnews.com to stop posting anonymous comments. Comments were a big deal back then, and that horrendous case drew thousands.Baumgartner grilled our attorney, Richard Hollow, and he called me out at one point on the question of whether the newspaper made money from the traffic on its website. We did, I acknowledged."If there is a profit, there is a responsibility that goes with it,” Baumgartner instructed.
Still, when the ruling came down, the opinion made a strong case for freedom of the press and refused to muzzle comments. Generally, the judge was a supporter of openness. He championed allowing cameras in courtrooms back in 1995.But he and the newspaper tangled on the issue in 1998, when he ordered the News Sentinel not to publish leaked information in the case of Thomas "Zoo Man" Huskey. Viewers of "The Post" will know that newspapers don't take well to prior restraint. My predecessor, Harry Moskos, knew Baumgartner's order was unconstitutional and published anyway.A more recent legal fight wasn’t before Baumgartner. It was about him.In 2011, a TBI investigation had prompted his resignation and disbarment but, otherwise, remained secret. Special Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood saw the investigative file and was so alarmed that he turned it over to the defendants in the Christian-Newsom case as a basis for appeal.The News Sentinel moved to unseal the TBI report. Blackwood denied the motion but made 155 pages public anyway. The documents detailed a shocking descent into addiction that finally saw the judge use a graduate of the Drug Court he'd established to obtain pain pills.I ran into Baumgartner just after those gruesome facts appeared on the front page. We both were shopping in the Bearden Kroger and our paths brought us awkwardly face-to-face. He looked ravaged.“How are you?” I asked stupidly.“How do you think?” he answered.I actually did think often about how he was doing after that. I know he threw himself into volunteer work at Second Harvest, whose director, Elaine Streno, was part of that Leadership Knoxville class he once led.I hoped his soul was healing.No one in Knoxville embodied the devastation of the opioid crisis more than Richard Baumgartner. I don't know how he died, but I pray it was in peace.