CORPUS CHRISTI — State District Judge Tom Greenwell was found dead from a gunshot wound Monday night in his chambers, Nueces County Sheriff Jim Kaelin confirmed.
Corpus Christi police, medics and Nueces County Sheriff's Office deputies responded about 7 p.m. to the courthouse after a report that a man was found with a gunshot wound to the head.
The courthouse closed at 5 p.m. It was not clear whether the gun passed through the security checkpoint, which includes a metal detector. Attorneys, judges, and some media representatives who have courthouse identification badges typically aren't required to pass through the security checkpoint.
Judges who have concealed handgun licenses are allowed to bring firearms with them to the courthouse.
Corpus Christi police said the Nueces County Sheriff's Office would be the lead investigating agency, given it is a county building. Police were relied upon heavily for security and forensics. A police crime scene investigation van and officers were at the courthouse until nearly 10 p.m.
When the call first came in, the response seemed to follow protocol for an active shooter.
But within 30 minutes police left and county workers calmly walked to their cars, saying they had not been ordered to leave the premises and security personnel guarding the building seemed calm when talking to news reporters.
As he oversaw the investigation, Kaelin was not available to answer questions after confirming Greenwell's identity. It was unknown if a weapon was found, if a note was left or whether foul play was suspected.
At least two lawyers with offices nearby came to find out if the person found shot was Greenwell, a man attorney Rene Flores considered an excellent judge.
"He was the epitome of a good judge, he seemed very calm and peaceful; it's just really shocking," Flores said.
He added that Greenwell was scheduled to be on vacation this week, and that he had been gearing up for a big murder trial, the case of Jenna Hernandez, 16, who was killed in Aransas Pass last year. Flores said a cleaning crew member found the man and then was asked to describe him to a court manager, who then told Kaelin she believed it was Greenwell.
Greenwell first was elected judge of the 319th District Court in Nueces County in 2001, becoming the first Republican ever to win a county wide judicial race in Nueces County. He was re-elected in 2006 and ran unopposed in 2010. He was serving his third term.
In November, he lost a bid for the 13th Court of Appeals Judge for Place 2 to attorney Nora Longoria, a Democrat.
Republican judges had been appointed before in Nueces County but Greenwell was the first to be elected, marking a turning point for the Nueces County Republican Party, Nueces County Judge Loyd Neal said.
"Tom was a fine district judge and he set the bar for all those who followed him," Neal said.
Greenwell was a hard worker, often the first to arrive and the last to leave the courthouse.
"He will be missed," Neal said. "He was just a great person who got along with everyone. This is hard to understand."
State District Judge Jose Longoria said he considered Greenwell a good friend. The two often arrived at the courthouse early and sat in the hallway together talking.
"It's a terrible, terrible loss," Longoria said. "I can't imagine why something like that would happen. It's a very sad situation for the courthouse and everybody involved feels the same way … He's a fantastic judge. That's all there is to it."
District Attorney Mark Skurka said Greenwell was a fair and honest judge.
"He ruled according to the law and not according to politics, party affiliation, etcera and just tried to do the right thing in the courtroom," Skurka said.
People who had been in his courtroom went to the courthouse after hearing the news. Stunned neighbors were watching over Greenwell's darkened home in Flour Bluff, saying he had no family in the area. They took in his pet cat, Shadow.
Many others also were in disbelief at the loss.
"I just can't believe what has happened," said former 105th District Judge J. Manuel Bañales, who presided over Greenwell's swearing-in in 2002. "It hasn't sunk in despite all the calls and emails. It's hard to take. It's hard to understand."
Bañales said Greenwell was a dedicated lawyer and a caring judge.
"He was firm, he was tough to those who did awful things," Bañales said. "He was also equally passionate and merciful to those who showed remorse and who there was hope for rehabilitation."
Greenwell graduated with honors from The University of Texas Law School in 1981. He started as staff attorney on the 13th Court of Appeals in 1981 and was chief of the court's legal staff from 1991 to 1996. He was in private practice from 1997 until his election to the district court bench.
Along with presiding over the 319th District Court, he also presided over Nueces County's newly created Veterans Court.
The court already was seeing success. In three years, the number of participants grew from two or three to 45, the court's capacity, Skurka said. It was doing so well, there was talk of expanding the court's capacity, Neal said.
"We were beginning to see results," he said.
Greenwell volunteered to preside over the court because he cared, Neal said.
"He felt very passionate about the veterans and giving back," Neal said.
Staff writer Mark Collette contributed to this report