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When Jack Pierce retired at the end of 2000 after 37 years as a state district judge in East Texas, he was looking forward to sitting as a visiting judge and doing mediations at his new office in downtown Nacogdoches. But six weeks into 2001, Pierce is trying to get over an illness — arsenic poisoning — and Texas Rangers and agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation are investigating whether there was foul play involved. Pierce says he has no reason to suspect any connection between his service on the bench and any criminal attempts to poison him, but he says the investigators are “covering all the bases.” Because of the investigation, Pierce says he cannot talk about his illness, but says he’s still recovering and hasn’t been able to work as a visiting judge since retiring. Tom Vinger, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety, says the Texas Rangers were asked in mid-January to investigate the possible deliberate poisoning after doctors found elevated arsenic levels in Pierce’s system. They asked the FBI to assist, he says. “Whether or not there is anything to indicate any type of foul play, that’s still an open question right now. The elevated arsenic levels are under investigation,” Vinger says. “We just don’t know what we are dealing with here.” Vinger says the DPS crime lab went to Pierce’s house and removed some items from his house for testing. He says he cannot identify those items. A report on the investigation may be at least a month away, says Vinger. ON THE MEND Pierce’s daughter, Mary Elizabeth Pierce, says the judge was treated in January at a hospital in Dallas for arsenic poisoning. She says he hadn’t been feeling well for several weeks. “We’ll just have to leave it to the investigators and the doctors to determine what relationship arsenic poisoning may have to his health,” she says. “The family, we’re anxious for answers, too.” Mark Winter, a specialist in poison information at the Poison Control Center in Galveston, Texas, says arsenic poisoning is sometimes difficult to pick up because it can mimic the symptoms of many diseases. “If you get too much arsenic all at once, then the symptoms are very, very, very severe. It’s like you have cholera. The vomiting and diarrhea it can cause, most folks go into shock,” Winter says. “A low dose, it can mimic the flu where you have muscle aches and pains. If you are getting older, and you have the aching joints, you get up and say, ‘I’m just getting old.’ “ Winter says elevated levels of arsenic can result from a seafood dinner, working with pressure-treated lumber or burning the lumber in a fireplace. It’s also part of the chemical structure of some herbicides, he says. Before retiring in 2000 at age 72, Pierce was the longest-sitting judge in Texas. Former Gov. John Connally appointed him to the bench in the 145th district in 1963. Facing mandatory retirement at age 75, Pierce says he decided against seeking a 10th term as judge because he would have to step down before finishing the term.

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