After dealing with the good and bad for more than 28 years, Chief Deputy Gene Harrell will retire from the Edgecombe County Sheriff’s Office on Dec. 1.
Harrell, who has served under three sheriffs and worked his way up through the chain of command, was promoted to chief deputy in May 2017.
“It’s bittersweet,” the Tarboro native said about retiring. “It will be a huge stress reliever, and I’ll actually get to have something of a normal life.”
Harrell reported for work as a deputy under Sheriff Phil Ellis on Sept. 1, 1994, and spent most of his career under Sheriff James Knight.
In September 1999, he was promoted to corporal and served as a field training officer until August 2001. That August, he was promoted to detective and served as a member of the special response team. He held that rank until April 2004 and during that period, he was named Law Enforcement Officer of the Year in 2002.
From April 2004 to March 2011, he held the rank of detective sergeant. He earned the rank of detective lieutenant in March 2011 and held that until January 2015.
He served as special operations captain from January 2015 until May 2017, when he was named chief deputy under Sheriff Clee Atkinson.
Harrell, who earned his Basic Law Enforcement Certification from the Coastal Plain Law Enforcement Training Center in Wilson in April 1994, earned his Advanced Law Enforcement Certification in 2015.
Harrell said that growing up, his father owned J.P. Harrell’s Exxon in Brentwood and that several law enforcement officers lived in the neighborhood and frequented the station, which is now home to JTG Professional Window Tinting and Detailing at 3610 N. Main St. in Tarboro.
“Donnie Davis, Donnie Briley, Charlie Spann and Tony Bradshaw ... all of them came into the station — and seeing how they acted made me want to be like them,” he said.
When Harrell started law enforcement training in January 1994, he and Ross Ellis — now Lt. Ross Ellis — commuted to Wilson for training.
“Every day, back and forth,” Harrell recalled. “We studied together every Sunday because the tests were on Monday.”
Harrell said they grew close and developed a bond, one that remains today.
Ellis said he and Harrell knew of each other, living in Tarboro, and that in going back and forth to law enforcement training, they learned more about each other.
“We developed a bond and friendship,” Ellis said. “We went through the hardships of BLET together.”
Harrell went to work for sheriff’s office and Ellis went to work in Wilson County.
“Back then, law enforcement jobs were not very abundant and there was one here and I got it,” he said. “(Ellis) went to work in Wilson County and started here in 1997 after Sheriff (James) Knight was appointed.”
Ellis calls Harrell “extremely dedicated.”
“He always has been. He’s an honest, no-nonsense person and if you do things the way they’re supposed to be done, you’ll have no better friend. If you do it wrong, he’s probably the worst.”
Ellis said Harrell “protects our certifications” and makes sure things are done by the book.
“He’s a strong liaison with Sheriff Atkinson and I give Sheriff Atkinson props for always asking his opinion,” he said.
Harrell said the job of a law enforcement officer has its ups and downs — and has changed over the years.
“(It’s gone) from being loved and respected to being hated and disrespected … not by everyone, but by a lot of those (lawbreakers) we’re dealing with,” he said. “You can tell it’s slowly starting to come back around from 2020, when (disrespect) was probably at its peak. Thank goodness the people here had some sense about them.”
Harrell reflected on the summer of 2020 and the riots that gripped America as well as eastern North Carolina.
“All of our people were on standby to go wherever we were needed, even though we didn’t have the proper equipment or training. That Sunday night, we had riots in Greenville, threats of riots in Rocky Mount and threats of violence at Walmart,” he said. “We were lucky.”
Harrell recalled that on the next day, Atkinson went before county commissioners and told them just how close the powder keg had come to Edgecombe County and how they lacked proper equipment.
“He got the funding,” Harrell said. “He has fought for his people every step of the way.”
He said that before Atkinson, training was minimal.
“We are required to have a certain level of mandatory training and prior to Sheriff Atkinson, that was about all we were getting,” he said. “Now, we go well above and beyond what is mandatory.”
He said that through the years, there have probably been more bad moments than good ones.
“As one of the first deployed teams after (Hurricane) Floyd, my area was Speed,” he said. “We could leave Tarboro to go to Speed, but everything was flooded. The military truck we were in ran off the road ... I think we were fortunate just to get back to Tarboro.”
Harrell remembered the utter devastation.
“Just the destruction. All those people homeless and people lost everything they had worked all their lives for. It was terrible.”
Harrell said he worked on child abuse cases during his first three years.
“There is so much out there, it will harden you,” he said.
He also recollected the murders of eight prostitutes in eastern Rocky Mount, a case in which he said law enforcement spent “countless hours” hunting for the killer.
“I would have to say that the most satisfying and proud moment of my career was when that Bertie County jury found Antwan Pittman guilty for the murder of Taraha Nicholson,” he said. “Those cases will haunt me the rest of my life.”
And the day he recalled as being the worst experience of his career was March 11, 2018, when Deputy David Manning was killed in the line of duty.
“He was a young man that was extremely proud of what he had become, only to live for four months after he was sworn in. I recall accompanying Sheriff Atkinson and Chaplain Dickens to notify the family of his death,” he said. “I had given many death notifications before, but none like this. Of course, the family was devastated, but what sticks out to me was his little girl, Bella, sitting with her mother, clueless as to what was going on.
“I would have to rank this as one of the worse days of my life,” he said.
But Harrell continued.
“They say that something good comes out of every experience, and I can honestly say that is true. I acted as the benefits liaison for Bella and her mother, Jasmine, after David’s death. They feel like part of my family now,” he said. “It has been a pleasure watching Bella grow and attending functions that we know her Daddy wouldn’t have missed. I will always cherish our relationship.”
Harrell lives with his wife, Bobbie, and her daughter, Bella. He has a son, Tucker, who lives north of Leggett.
“I’ve had a very good career for these last five-and-a-half-years. I could not have retired in a more enjoyable position,” Harrell said.