Family finds closure more than 6 years after son's death

Mar. 17—LENOIR — A local family has finally found closure more than six years after a beloved son was shot and killed.

In September 2016, Jaron Odell Soots, 26, of Lenoir, was accidentally shot in the head by his friend, Matthew Phillips, while Phillips was handling a loaded gun. The two of them, along with Jaron's twin brother, Jake, were hanging out together and drinking alcohol at Phillips's house. Jaron was airlifted to Johnson City Medical Center in Tennessee, but he later succumbed to his injuries.

Jaron's family has waited the last six years for this case to finally be resolved and for justice to be served. On Tuesday, March 14, Phillips took a plea deal and was convicted of felony involuntary manslaughter. He was sentenced to 24 months probation and 26 hours of community service, because Jaron was 26 years old when he died, the judge said.

Detective Shelly Hartley of the sheriff's office was the on-call detective at the time of the shooting.

"They were all best friends. Nothing was uncovered in the investigation that showed that it was not an accident," she said.

Jaron was a graduate of West Caldwell High School. He loved fishing, hunting and tinkering on his cars. He was employed by Cajah's Mountain Quick Lube at the time of his death. According to his father, Steven Odell Soots, and stepmother, Lee Ann Soots, Jaron loved his job and would take the skills he learned in the trade to improve his own and his brother's vehicles.

After Jaron died, Cajah's Mountain Quick Lube framed his work shirt with a program from his funeral and hung it in their lobby. A few years ago, while the building was undergoing renovations, staff decided to gift the framed shirt to Jaron's family.

Steven and Lee Ann remember Jaron as a kind-hearted young man with a smile that could light up the room.

"He was a laid back, good ol' country boy," said Lee Ann. "Honest as the day is long, and sweet-hearted as you can get."

During the court case on Tuesday, the judge allowed Lee Ann to read a statement prepared by the family. She said it felt good for them to be able to share their side of the story.

"[Jaron] was a loyal, trustworthy, dependable friend and coworker that would give you the shirt off his back or the last dollar in his wallet," the statement read. "He was always there to lend a hand to his sister, Katie, and he was the softer, quieter half of his twin brother, Jake."

Jaron left behind the love of his life, Brittany, who he called "his greatest catch." According to Lee Ann, the two were inseparable. Brittany is married with children of her own, now, but she still keeps in touch with Jaron's family.

Lee Ann and Steven said they feel relieved that this ordeal is finally over.

"We both feel like it should have happened six and a half years ago," said Lee Ann. "It didn't have to be this way. When you do something wrong, you need to be held accountable for it, and you need to take responsibility for your actions. I feel like, had [Phillips] done that initially, things would have been a whole lot different for everybody ... He could have moved on with his life, and we could have, too, without this cloud hanging over us all the time."

Lee Ann and Steven hope that their family's tragic loss can be a lesson for people to take firearm safety seriously.

"Under no circumstances ever do drinking and firearms go together," said Lee Ann. "That's the biggest issue, and people really need to think about it. We have good ol' boys here, we like to play with our guns, have a little beer, and there's nothing wrong with that, but it can be deadly when mixed together. You don't drink and play with firearms at the same time."

Jaron's brother, Jake, and older sister, Katie, are both married. Katie has two children, and her eldest child has the same initials as her uncle, J.O.S.

"The world doesn't stop," said Steven. "We keep moving on. So many great moments and then it hits you, he's not here to see it. It just never goes away, and it will never go away, I'm sure. The hardest thing is seeing all these big changes and events and he's not here to see them."