ST. GEORGE – For more than a week, people living in and around this small town have struggled to understand the New Years Day murder of a highly regarded former attorney while he was sleeping in his home. Even more puzzling to them is who, according to the police, shot him: his son.
Jim Bell, 76, was a local boy who practiced law in Dorchester County for over 48 years and became a sought-after source of political and legal advice in that community, about 50 miles northwest of Charleston.
He was generous in and out of the courtroom, someone who stood in for a person for free or wrote checks to help others in need. This kindness also extended to his friends, who remembered beach trips, hunting trips, and home cooked meals with Bell and his 53 year old wife. The couple had two children together.
With these sons, Bell faced challenges. Both went to jail, a fact that, according to close friends and former coworkers, didn’t stop Bell from loving her.
“He tried to do what he could to help them,” said John Witherspoon, a lawyer who was Bell’s former legal partner. “It’s just a very tragic situation.”
In one example of this support, a son, Jason Bell, lived with his parents. On the morning of January 1, St. George police said 48-year-old Jason Bell had shot his father twice in the head. He later confessed and said it was a mercy killing due to his father’s deteriorating health, according to Brett Camp, St. George police chief.
“I think there’s a lot more to it than that,” said Camp.
Whatever the reason, those who knew Jim Bell were appalled at the violent end to his distinguished life.
“Town of Friendly People” airs on Thursday, January 7, 2021 in downtown St. George. Andrew J. Whitaker / Staff
A constant presence
Bell was born in Summerville and made a name for himself by having a permanent presence in St. George, a community of fewer than 2,500 people near Interstates 95 and 26.
He opened an office in the city in 1970 after graduating from the University of South Carolina law school last year.
Summerville councilor Walter Bailey said he remembered meeting Bell at the Dorchester County Courthouse shortly after Bailey graduated from law school in 1972. There were only a dozen or so lawyers in Summerville and St. George at the time, and Bell was eager to help the new lawyer get off to a good start, Bailey recalled.
Bailey and Bell continued to meet in the courthouse and sometimes faced each other in front of judges. Bailey became an attorney for the 1st Judicial Circuit, which covers the Calhoun, Dorchester and Orangeburg districts. Even in controversial cases, Bailey said Bell was someone he could trust.
“He was honest as the day was long,” said Bailey. “If he said something, you could take it to the bank.”
Bell served as a Dorchester County attorney from 1971 to 1987. He helped lead the area through a period of growth and advised his leaders on proposals to consolidate schools and plans to improve water and judicial services. His tenure ended when he was fired after the county’s center of influence shifted from rural St. George, his seat, to Summerville, the booming suburb.
Wayne Reeves, who was on the county council at the time, said Bell’s dismissal had nothing to do with his job performance.
“It was just time for a change,” Reeves said.
Bell stayed in St. George and served the lawyers as a mentor and father-like figure. That included those who worked with him at his law firm on Parler Avenue, a north-south brick-built thoroughfare that crosses US Route 78 in the city.
Over the years he has been known to give his staff Friday afternoons off, cook meals together, and give advice.
“He really showed commitment to the community,” said Robby Robbins, a commissioner for the State Department of Transportation. Robbins began his legal career at Bell and was later his partner. He stayed with Bell for 10 years before moving to Bell’s 1st Circuit Solicitor’s Office in 1997.
Bell was an influential figure in Dorchester County politics, Robbins said. People would seek his advice before deciding on an upcoming election.
The vacant former St. George office of Jim Bell, 76, a retired attorney who was killed in his home on January 1, 2021. Andrew J. Whitaker / Staff
He kept his law firm on Parler Avenue even after a massive fire in 2005 devoured his office and contained 100 firefighters from four counties.
“It just makes us work harder,” he told The Post and Courier at the time.
Problems at home
Bell’s law firm, which was occupied a few years ago before her retirement, is now vacant.
When not working there or in the courthouse, he often spent his time outside, going fishing trips to Florida and enjoying Edisto Beach. Dorchester councilor George Bailey said Bell also held pigeon hunts on a regular basis, which would attract 100 people.
“I’d take any chance I got,” said Bailey, who also served in the state’s House of Representatives. The two were friends for 47 years, he said.
More recently, Bell’s health has deteriorated and he spent more time at home dealing with a respiratory disease. He was on oxygen therapy. But he was known to remain optimistic even during difficult times in his life. Some of them concerned his sons.
Many people close to Bell declined to be quoted to speak about his children, but court and law enforcement records paint a picture of problems in their lives.
One son, James Bell Jr., pleaded guilty to possessing child pornography in 2006, a crime that landed him in federal prison and listed him on the state sex offender registry. He passed away in 2018.
Jason Bell, 48, is being held in Dorchester County Jail. Andrew J. Whitaker / staff
Jason Bell, the younger of the two, went to jail after being arrested in February 2016 for an attempted home invasion in Warren County, NC, near the Virginia border.
He was charged with breaking into a man’s home, pointing a 357-caliber revolver at him and, according to court records, threatening to kill him. He was also charged with damaging four vehicles in the house.
Jason Bell was shot twice in the upper body during the incident, according to a report in The Warren Record newspaper. He did not plead against an attempted first-degree break-in, as court records show.
After 20 months in detention, he was released in May 2018, according to the North Carolina Department of Public Safety. He later returned to South Carolina, where he completed probation the following year, according to Anita Dantzler, a spokeswoman for the SC Department of Probation, Probation, and Pardon.
Eventually Jason Bell returned to his parents’ house. He was living with them at the time of his father’s death, although court records list his address about 25 miles northeast of St. George near Lake Marion.
On January 1, Jim Bell was shot dead between 12:01 p.m. and 2 a.m., according to Dorchester County coroner Paul Brouthers, who refused to elaborate.
At some point during that two hour period, St. George police said, Jason Bell came downstairs and shot his father sleeping in an armchair in the living room of the house. He returned upstairs after the shooting, police said. The officers weren’t called until around 8 a.m. when Jim Bell’s wife discovered that her husband was unresponsive in the chair.
Jason Bell was later interviewed at the city police station where he “openly admitted” the crime, according to the arrest warrant. Officials had previously been home over disputes with Jason Bell and his parents, but nothing that resulted in an arrest, said Camp, the police chief.
Jason Bell was sent to Dorchester County Jail, where he is being held without bail for murder. Court records don’t show he has a lawyer, and prosecutors said they were unaware of any legal representation for Bell.
Jim Bell attended St. George United Methodist Church in downtown St. George. Andrew J. Whitaker / staff
“A life worth imitating”
On a final afternoon there was no outward sign of police activity in the neighborhood around the Bell House. The narrow, tree-lined streets were largely unused by vehicle traffic. Golf carts are a popular form of transportation.
The Rev. Theron Smith of St. George United Methodist Church lives a short walk from the Bell House. He remembered Jim Bell as a generous parishioner who often gave private money to help others.
“He’s lived a life worth emulating,” said Smith. “He was easy to love.”
Bell loved to sing in the Methodist Church just a few blocks south of his former law firm. Railroad tracks are also nearby, as is the headquarters of the World Grits Festival, an annual event in the city.
Together with the common faith on Sunday at 11 a.m., the two broke bread together and sometimes feasted on Bell’s characteristic ribs.
Smith said he never got around to asking Bell what made his ribs so good.
Instead of looking forward to another New Year’s dinner, Smith prepared to preside over Bell’s funeral and took inspiration from John 14 in the Bible. It begins: “Don’t let your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe in me too.”
Smith said he wished he could be in the audience for the private service at another Methodist church so he could cry, mourn, and reflect on his friend’s life. But he calmed down, he would make it.
“I’m fine,” Smith said before pausing and repeating it over and over.
Jim Bell was buried in the Bethel United Methodist Church cemetery outside St. George. Andrew J. Whitaker / staff