As we were finishing our trip out west, we began to hear the news that a Hall County deputy sheriff had been killed in the line of duty. Later that day, we learned that there had been arrests in the case.
When I turned on the car radio late Monday night in Atlanta, I heard that those arrested were four 17-year-old boys. Don’t take that to mean anything derogatory. A 17-year-old male is not a man.
Their victim was only 11 years older. He was the father of a 3-month-old son who will never really know him. He will never have his daddy teach him how to bait a fishing hook, tie his shoes or catch a ball. He will only know him from pictures and other memories. An older son, just 9, may have a few more memories, but not many.
For the eight years of Gov. Nathan Deal’s administration, I attended the funerals of those public safety professionals who were killed in the line of duty. I have been in venues ranging from mega-churches to basketball gymnasiums to mourn the needless loss of those who wear the badge.
I have said many times, it was both the best and worst thing I ever did. I have mourned with family members and the deceased’s fellow officers.
If you’ve never been to a law enforcement funeral, it is something to see. There will be marked police vehicles from little towns and big cities in Georgia. You are likely to see officers from cities like New York or Chicago there as well.
On occasion, our neighbors from North Carolina provide a horse drawn caisson to carry the flag-draped coffin to its final resting place.
Then there is Dan Bray. Dan is not a law enforcement officer, but he represents the Georgia State Patrol as its bagpiper. He is likely to play a version of “Amazing Grace” that will put a lump in your throat. I saw Dan at funerals all over this state. He also played at a number of official events, such as the graduation of a new class of state troopers. I always was glad to see him at events other than funerals.
When I look at the boyish face of Blane Dixon, I see a young man who was just getting started in law enforcement. Young and enthusiastic, now he’s gone.
Why does it happen to those who are so young?
One of the early funerals I attended was for Detective Shane Wilson of the Doraville Police Department. He was just 27. His department’s dispatchers called him out and while en route to a call he was struck by a wrong-way drunken driver. His killer, a 41-year old man, was sentenced to 12 years for vehicular homicide.
Then there was Michael Andrew Norris, 24, who responded with another deputy to a call of an armed suicidal man. The man shot both deputies, including a bullet to the head that killed Norris. I will never forget his grieving young wife at that funeral.
A few weeks later, Deputy Cruz Thomas, 26, of the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office was killed while attempting to stop a violator on Interstate 85. I remember the tears of his daddy, Sheriff Stevie Thomas, falling on my shoulder as we embraced in that tiny funeral home in Royston.
I have kept in touch will all of those families. They are my friends. I don’t hear of an in-the-line-of-duty death that I don’t think of them and about 25 others who died during those eight years.
If you get the chance, go out and see the procession from Free Chapel to Memorial Park Cemetery. You will see officers wearing their shiny brass to honor their fallen comrade.
Remind yourself that on any given day, it could be one of their family members who will get the most dreaded call of their lives.
God bless them all.
Harris Blackwood is a Gainesville resident whose regular column publishes on Sundays.