Small-town posse hunts Dodge County bandit

jkovac@macon.comNovember 15, 2013 

When a stranger tried to rob a convenience store in Rhine, GA, residents literally took up arms to subdue him.

GRANT BLANKENSHIP — gblankenship@macon.com

RHINE -- There was a stranger in town.

Dressed in black, wearing sunglasses and toting a backpack, he was hard to miss.

He slinked into this Dodge County hamlet of 400 or so along the Abbeville Highway two Thursdays ago.

He wandered in past the Rhine USA convenience store at the edge of town, where Tyson, the clerk’s German shepherd, has a nose for mischief.

The stranger eased on, ambling by houses and a yard-art sale -- concrete birdbaths, frogs, roosters, $10 cow skulls; prices negotiable -- on his path into what passes for downtown.

Outside the CB&T Bank, across U.S. 280 from Aden’s Minit Market, he tripped that most trusty of small-town warning bells.

He lingered.

And he looked ... off.

* * *

Some figured he might be a hitchhiker.

But then he didn’t seem to be bound for anywhere.

About 2:30 that afternoon, Ken Lowery parked his Dodge pickup at the bank. He caught a glimpse of the stranger outside.

“Weird looking,” Lowery thought, and went in to cash a check.

Lowery, 60, spent the better part of two decades as a corrections officer. He worked at the state prison in Abbeville, seven miles west of Rhine on the other side of the Ocmulgee River. Lowery was on a special tactical squad that once scoured the north Georgia mountains for fugitive bomber Eric Robert Rudolph.

After he left the bank, Lowery wheeled across the two-lane highway to Aden’s to buy something to drink and grab a couple of lottery cards.

Aden’s, in the shadows of an ancient water tower and a lone palm tree beside its dumpster, is situated at the town’s main crossroads. Banners saluting the Army and the Marines flutter in the roadside breeze.

Bud Light, Marlboro Lights, milk and Mountain Dew are big sellers. That and Grizzly smokeless tobacco for the outdoors types.

“We probably got people who spend as much time hunting and fishing as they do working,” manager Sharon Spillers said the other day.

The place is isolated to say the least. Just the way folks there seem to like it.

Head west 33 miles and you hit Interstate 75 at Cordele. Drive a little less than half that far east and you’re in McRae. The nearest county law enforcement comes from up Eastman way, a dozen or so miles north.

The front door at Aden’s has ads for Coca-Cola, deer feed and one that reads, “We have Ammo!”

When Lowery walked in, the clerk, who recognized him as a regular, mentioned the stranger.

“That’s a weird-looking fellow out there,” the clerk said.

Lowery agreed with her and headed toward the drink coolers.

A minute or two later, outside in his truck, Lowery realized he’d forgotten his scratch-off lottery tickets. He’d left them on the counter.

Lowery went back in and picked up his tickets.

Before he saw what was happening, he heard the clerk behind the counter.

“I’m being robbed,” she said. “He’s got a gun and I’ve gave him all the money.”

Lowery turned and noticed someone beside him, someone he hadn’t seen when he’d stepped back in.

Someone with two fistfuls of cash.

Someone, he later said, who “looked in between Michael Jackson and some Halloween ghost.”

The stranger.

* * *

The money in the stranger’s hands gave Lowery an idea.

He figured if the fellow’s hands were full, the guy wouldn’t be able to shoot him. At least maybe not before Lowery could dart out the door.

Lowery dashed to his truck, snatched up the .30-30 rifle he keeps behind the seat and loaded it.

He hid behind his pickup, and about the time he looked up the clerk was outside, the stranger on her heels.

The bandit, supposedly packing a .22-caliber pistol, sprinted up the Eastman highway.

The shaken clerk, soon to be in tears, was safe.

Lowery hustled over to the bank.

“Call 911,” he told the tellers.

But they were ahead of him.

“He’s done been over here trying to rob us,” someone said, but the safety glass at the teller stands turned him back.

Word spread.

When trouble rears its head in Rhine -- once known, according to a novelty license plate in the town drugstore, as “The Friendly City” -- they don’t dillydally.

Someone at the bank called Mayor Carter Clements, who is also the pharmacist around the corner at Rhine Drug Co. Burglaries, fires, family problems, you name it, locals turn to Clements.

“There’s a lot of unity,” he said.

Clements, 50, says most of the problems come after dark in the form of break-ins, thefts. Too often, crooks slip away in the night.

Then came the call from the bank.

There was a rascal at large.

“You sort of relish the opportunity to get hold of one during the day,” the mayor said.

* * *

Townsfolk had already gathered at Aden’s.

People couldn’t believe it. A stickup? In Rhine? In broad daylight?

Five, 10, 15 -- no one recalls exactly how many -- but a number of locals were not about to let the transgression slide.

“We need to go get him,” someone said.

And off they went, fanning out in the blocks around the store.

Three or four were armed with long guns, including Lowery with the rifle he uses to shoot wild hogs at his cattle farm on the Ocmulgee.

Lowery reckoned there was safety in gun-toting numbers. He learned a lesson from his days as a prison guard: “If you ain’t got enough help, you disengage and come back with enough help.”

Lowery marched north, in the general direction the robber ran.

He warned people along the way: “There’s a robber on the loose!”

Lowery heard someone say the bandit was over by the city cemetery. Lowery went that way and not five minutes later he spotted the fellow.

“You need to stop!” Lowery yelled. “I’m fixing to put a cap in your a-- if you don’t!”

The stranger didn’t stop.

Lowery fired.

A warning shot.

Past the guy’s feet.

“I had him in the cross hairs,” Lowery said. “I could have hit him. I ain’t that bad of a shot.”

The rifle blast spooked the robber into another gear. He bolted toward some hay bales next to the Rhine USA mart on the west side of town, near the yard-art sale.

The wrong way, it turned out.

Because there beside a patch of pecan trees at the corner of Highway 280 and Fair Haven Road stood the proprietor of Rhine USA.

His AR-15 was trained on the stranger.

* * *

The store owner, Jim Brophy, said later, “I had him. I could’ve shot him. But I didn’t want to do that.”

Brophy, an auto mechanic by trade who runs a repair shop next to his store, is 44. “Too old to be getting in gunfights.”

The bandit saw him and ducked behind the hay bales.

The posse closed in.

A couple of minutes passed and the stranger, surrounded, gave up. He sprawled face-first in the grass.

About then, Dodge sheriff’s deputies rolled up.

“We just treed him till the law got there,” Lowery said later.

With four or five townsmen packing weapons, Brophy worried the deputies might not know who the bad guy was. He ducked inside and put away his rifle.

Deputies collared the bandit and hauled him to jail.

Rhine, for the most part, returned to normal, its denizens on watch as ever.

“We stay prepared for stupid stuff,” Brophy said.

* * *

Lowery has since heard that the stranger, a 24-year-old from neighboring Wilcox County, might have had “mental issues.”

Whatever triggered the episode, Lowery said there’s no excuse, and that “the people of Rhine just ain’t gonna put up with it.”

The clerk who was held up at Aden’s was still skittish this week.

She was back at work the other day. It’d taken some persuading from her boss. The clerk, who didn’t want her name in the paper, seemed at ease enough.

She chatted up customers, dished out pizza slices and pointed patrons toward their favorite Cheetos.

She even kidded that if you show up looking for trouble, they won’t be calling the law on you.

“We’ll call the posse,” she said. “We know when somebody don’t belong in town. ... We got each other’s back.”

To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397.

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