Thursday, April 22, 2021

J.J. Stambaugh has lived in Knoxville or surrounding communities all his life. He’s been a professional journalist for 30 years, and he’s built a reputation as one of the region’s best investigative reporters as well as an authority on police corruption and organized crime. 

J.J. is the son of the late Jim W. Stambaugh, a onetime scientist at ORNL who went on to become a criminal defense attorney and a judge in the Morristown-Newport area. His mother is Nickye Jarnagin, a third-generation Knoxvillian who met his father while she was working as a social worker in Hamblen and  Cocke counties. J.J.’s younger brother, Wayne R. Stambaugh, is an attorney who took over their father’s practice and now lives in Morristown.

The boys’ parents divorced in 1977, which had the consequence that J.J.’s childhood was split between time spent with his father in Upper East Tennessee and his mother, who moved back to her Fountain City home.  J.J. went to school in Knoxville but the education he received in his father’s law office over the summer months was perhaps more important than any classroom, as it was there that he learned firsthand the criminal underworld that he would one day play a role in exposing.

J.J. attended Gresham Middle School and then Central High School in North Knoxville, at least until a cigarette and too many fistfights got him kicked out of the latter. He was lucky enough to be accepted at Laurel High School, a private alternative school located on the edge of the University of Tennessee campus, and that’s where J.J. discovered journalism. A reporter for The Knoxville Journal (at the time, one of two daily newspapers in town) did a feature on the school and invited J.J. to take part in a special section written by teens. He took to journalism like the proverbial fish to water and upon graduation was hired full-time as a reporter and copy clerk.

The Knoxville Journal closed at the end of 1991 and J.J. eventually went on to study philosophy at the University of Tennessee until the world of journalism drew him back in. The Courier-News in Clinton gave him a job in 1997, The Daily Times in Maryville lured him away in 1998, and then The News Sentinel came calling the following year.

J.J. spent 11 years at The News Sentinel, covering numerous beats that took him across East Tennessee, and he returned to Laurel High School as a part-time faculty member. He was forced to leave both in 2010 due to health issues.

J.J. has covered almost every beat in the newspaper business over the course of his career but always felt that he was called to cover the criminal justice system. He has been involved in precedent-setting legal battles for public records access and press independence, his work was once featured in a front page story in the Los Angeles Times, and he has received numerous awards and honors from his peers. 

He is perhaps best known for a years-long investigation into police corruption and organized crime in Cocke County that led to the resignation of the sheriff and saw the convictions of numerous cops on federal corruption charges, the closing of several organized crime rings that had operated for generations, and further criminal charges against more than two hundred people. 

J.J.’s professional commendations include ten first-place awards for investigative and breaking news reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Tennessee Press Association, and the Tennessee Associated Press Managing Editors. His most prestigious award came in 2006 when he won the SPJ’s Golden Press Card for a series on homelessness that had required him to spend both nights and days on the streets with Knoxville’s most vulnerable population.

J.J. has been married to his wife, Knox County Schools teacher Jennifer Stambaugh, since 2004. He and Jennifer have a teenage daughter and J.J. also has an adult son from a previous marriage. They live in the Fountain City neighborhood of Knoxville and are members of St. James Episcopal Church.