Fred Dixon takes a detour through Rabbittown on his way to work to sit on a bench at Memorial Park Funeral Home and talk with his son, Blane Dixon. It’s a morning ritual he has rarely missed in almost two years since his son’s death that night on Highland Avenue working as a Hall County Sheriff’s Office deputy.
These morning chats, just a few minutes before or after 6 a.m. every weekday since Fred returned to work, are just to fill Blane in on what’s happened since July 7, 2019.
His father wants Blane to know how his two sons, Caden, 11, and Colt, 2, are doing and how much he is missed.
Blane’s older brother, Zack, also honors his sibling. He remembers the birthday message he received from Blane before he was killed. Now, to mark the day, Zack raises “thin blue line” law enforcement flags over Memorial Park from sunrise July 7 until sunset July 8.
“That’s kind of how I spend the morning of my birthday and that’s how I spend the evening of the next day, and it’s really all about Blane,” Zack said. “We always go out for everybody’s birthday, but it’s different now. There’s always someone missing.”
Blane’s father has a Sheriff’s Office badge tattooed on his arm below his son’s name along with the phrase “Chase Your Dreams,” a reference to a conversation he had six months before Blane left his job with a local manufacturer to pursue a career with the Sheriff’s Office.
“That was the only thing that would come to my mind,” Fred said. “You’re young. Now’s the time to do it. Don’t get stuck in a rut. Chase your dreams while you can.”
Most of the Dixon family has followed its patriarch and gotten a tattoo honoring Blane, including a sprawling sleeve tattoo on Zack that winds around to his chest.
“Blane, more than he’ll ever know, he was a bigger part of this family than I think any of us knew while he was here,” Zack said.
The Dixons sat down with The Times a few weeks after the sentencing of three of the four men charged with felony murder in Blane’s death.
Hector Garcia-Solis and Eric Velazquez were found guilty of malice murder, while London Clements was convicted of felony murder. All three were given life sentences, though only Clements and Velazquez were granted the chance for parole.
Blane’s mother, Jada Dixon, said parts of the two-week trial were “excruciating,” an experience that no family should have to go through, reliving the tragic incident.
“We had seen all the pictures and all of the videos, but when you’re seeing it in court for the first time and you’re hearing other people’s reactions, it is one of those things that you still get emotional about it even though they’ve prepared you for it,” Zack said.
As Sgt. Charles Hewell’s and Blane’s body cam footage played again and again in the courtroom, Jada said she picked up on something different that she didn’t notice the time before, such as the muzzle flash of the gun used by the shooter, Hector Garcia-Solis.
Court officials told the family they could exit the courtroom if the proceedings proved to be too much to handle.
“It didn’t matter how bad it hurt,” Fred said. “We weren’t going to let those three guys think that they had broke us, because we are a strong family.”
While they believe Blane’s older son is aware of what’s going on, the family knows at some point he will start to ask more questions about what happened.
Zack said he has pondered reaching out to the district attorney’s office to get a copy of the body cam footage.
“When he is old enough and he wants to know what happened, you’re able to say, ‘Hey look, you can watch this, but understand this is exactly what happened,’” Zack said.
“This is the other thing: Once you see it, you can’t unsee it,” Fred said.
Though the family has keepsakes such as Blane’s patrol car and his secondary vest, there are scores of irreplaceable photos of Blane and his two sons on his phone.
Zack said it was common for Sheriff’s Office deputies to change their phone codes somewhat frequently in case their phones were lost in the field.
By the time the family found the code, the phone had been locked.
It has remained locked as the family continues to search for a way to open it.
“I contacted everybody short of Steve Jobs at Apple,” Zack said.
The family has been referred to third-party companies that claim they could possibly extract the photos, though they cannot ensure that it will work as intended.
The price tag: $6,000.
“I know (Blane’s wife Stephanie) would give anything to be able to have as many of those pictures as possible,” Zack said.
The entire foyer of Blane’s parents’ home is covered in items dedicated to Blane, spreading into their living room, dining room and china cabinet.
Caden received patches, badges and hats “from California to Canadian mounties,” Zack said, but one of the most prized possessions is a flag from Blane’s graduating class at the police academy.
Typically, the most outstanding student is presented with a flag from that class.
“Shortly after Blane was killed, the officer that got that flag, which all of them signed the flag, he sent that flag to Hall County to have that flag given to us,” Fred said.
The family has learned more about Blane.
They knew he was a storyteller. As his brother puts it, “Even if it was a short story, it was going to be a long story.”
But there were moments of Blane’s life that his family never knew until they met people in the receiving line at the funeral home.
A man ran out of gas, and Blane came back from a store with a gas can filled with a couple of gallons. Another person’s parents had a flat tire, and there was Blane to stop and help them.
After Blane had been buried and the crowd at the cemetery whittled down to just the immediate family, a man wearing a bright yellow construction shirt and dirt-covered pants arrived wanting to pay his respects.
“Blane had given this guy a ticket the week before, and this guy just showed up to pay his respects because he said Blane was one of the nicest people he had ever met. And the reason he didn’t make the funeral — he was apologizing and crying — is because he couldn’t get off of work in time,” Zack said.
The Longstreet Cafe was one of Blane’s favorite spots for breakfast after his shift, a place that Zack and his wife, Kayla, also frequented.
“It was almost a year before they would let us start paying for our meals,” Kayla said.
That hospitality shown by the Gainesville community would sometimes catch the Dixons off guard, going out to dinner with more than a dozen family members in tow.
The family would sit around waiting for a check to come, only to find out the bill was taken care of by someone who had left a while ago.
“It almost got to the point where we didn’t want to go out to eat because it made us feel bad,” Kayla said.
So the family came up with a plan to pay it forward, covering meals for other law enforcement officers.
The family had a series of black cards printed, honoring Blane and his end-of-watch date, reading: “Thank you for your service Stay safe The Dixon family”
Recently, the Dixons tried to catch a server to discreetly pay another table’s bill.
As they prepared to leave the restaurant that night, the Dixons handed the server one of the cards, only to be delivered once the family had left the restaurant.
Beyond his million-dollar smile, the thing Blane wore everywhere was a beat-up, dirty Yeti hat that family members pleaded for him to throw out.
Now, no matter the location — Yellowstone National Park, Tybee Island or Texas — the Dixon family takes the hat and a “Dixon Strong” shirt with them.
To know Blane, was to know he only had one speed when it came to games:
“You either gave it 100% or he didn’t want you to play,” Fred said.
“From golf, to Go Fish,” Zack added.
On family vacations, Blane’s brother Jeremy Dixon would team up with their father against Blane and Zack in a round of “best ball” golf for a year’s worth of bragging rights.
For a handful of years, Blane and Zack would emerge victorious, but Jeremy and Fred pulled out a win on the last two holes during their June 2019 trip.
“I remember when we were walking off the green, he came up to me and put his arm around me and he said, ‘Pop, don’t get happy with this. You know we’re going to take it back next year,’” Fred said.
It still doesn’t feel the same on the fairway without Blane, Zack said.
“I’ll be honest, even going to the driving range doesn’t feel right, because ... it just feels like there’s something missing,” he said.
The Dixon family made a commitment to make it to every hearing related to Blane’s death: every motion all the way to Friday’s sentencing for Brayan Cruz.
Cruz was sentenced to 20 years with the first 17 years behind bars.
“We made that commitment not to Blane but to each other that we weren’t going to miss a single thing,” Fred said. “Because this was important. This was for Blane. We had to be there.”
Looking over at his family following the sentence, Fred said he was proud of his boys and how his family stood strong through these past two years.
Days before Cruz’s sentencing, Fred told his son that in just a couple more days “he could finally really rest easy, because the last one would be done.”
The next time Fred visits his son at Memorial Park, he said he’ll tell him they got Blane the justice he deserved.