Warner Robins — Mayor Donald Walker, who in 15 years helped the city stabilize its finances, double in size and get past a scandal that saw its previous mayor imprisoned, died Monday afternoon from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Walker died from a single gunshot wound to the head, Bibb County Coroner Leon Jones said.
Walker, 60, had been in failing health for some time, having battled heart problems and pain in his left foot from an injury more than 10 years ago. But, friends say, he had surgery on his foot last year, quit smoking and seemed in good spirits in recent weeks.
The mayor’s sudden death — and the circumstances surrounding it — have left many people wondering if there was something they didn’t catch that could have been wrong.
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“I can’t imagine what made him do what they’re saying,” said city Councilman John Williams, who was friends with Walker’s father, former Warner Robins Mayor Homer J. Walker Jr. “It certainly wasn’t politically motivated. I saw him Saturday. He was in the best mood that I’ve seen him in in a long time.”
The official cause of death won’t be determined until after an autopsy, scheduled for 10 a.m. today in Warner Robins. The mayor’s body was taken Monday afternoon, with a police escort, to the Houston Medical Center for the autopsy by Houston County’s medical examiner, Dr. James Quincy Whitaker.
Walker’s wife, Patricia, called 911 at 11:08 a.m. seeking an ambulance to the couple’s home. She said her husband had shot himself in bed, Houston County Sheriff Cullen Talton said. She was the only one at home with the mayor when he was shot, said Warner Robins Police Chief Brett Evans, who did not think she witnessed the actual shooting.
Evans said he couldn’t confirm yet what type of gun was used or whether it was Walker’s personal weapon. He said he wasn’t aware of any note. The police investigation is proceeding.
Walker initially was taken to Houston Medical Center, arriving there shortly after 11:30 a.m. He was then taken to The Medical Center of Central Georgia, where he was pronounced dead at 1:49 p.m.
Walker’s next-door neighbor, Clint Maddox, was home when police were on the scene.
“There were five or six police cars with all the lights going,” Maddox said. The yard was roped off when Maddox said he stepped outside his home Monday morning.
Maddox called Walker a “tenderhearted” man.
“He’s one of the best human beings that God ever made when it came to helping people,” Maddox said.
Walker ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 1992, but then won a 1994 special election held because the city’s mayor, Ed Martin, resigned after his involvement in a blackmail scandal involving other local political figures came to light.
Friends and longtime political followers say he enjoyed the part of being mayor that allowed him to get into the city and talk with ordinary citizens, business owners and schoolchildren.
He also enjoyed making Warner Robins one of Georgia’s premier cities, annexing about 17 square miles of land and moving the city away from near bankruptcy. He also saw that the city’s tax rate decreased every year he was in office.
“When he started, Warner Robins was just a little old town with an air base in it,” said Perry Mayor Jim Worrall, the only area mayor with more time in office than Walker. “He’s from that old-style Georgia leadership. And it was fun to watch him through the years. He had a great vision for Warner Robins, and he just had so much ability.”
In 1997, Walker won re-election handily with 85 percent of the vote. Then in 2001, state Rep. Pam Bohannon, with whom Walker already had a tense relationship, challenged him. Walker took 64 percent of the vote. He ran unopposed in 2005.
He was in the middle of the first real challenge to his mayoralty, facing three opponents who all felt change was needed to see the city continue its ascent.
The three remaining mayoral candidates all expressed shock upon learning of his death.
Pharmaceutical sales representative Chuck Shaheen, struggling through tears, said he was shocked by the morning events.
“I’m just so sorry,” Shaheen said Monday afternoon.
A statement issued later said the Shaheen campaign was saddened by the news and that the Walker family has been “a landmark in the community for many years.”
“Warner Robins has lost a son whose footprint will forever be on the heart of our great city.”
Chuck Chalk, a retired Air Force veteran and program manager at Robins Air Force Base, said Walker should be remembered for the many years of service he gave to the city. He also urged action by all affected by the tragedy.
“I encourage each pastor to attend to their congregations,” he said in a statement. “I encourage each citizen to get connected. You are not alone, and you can find a shoulder to rest your head.
“I encourage every citizen to open up and show some compassion in the days to come as we all deal with this loss in our own way.”
City Councilman Clifford Holmes, who has known Walker since he arrived in Warner Robins more than 40 years ago, said he was sitting in his campaign headquarters, in the same area as the mayor’s home, when police passed by. He immediately knew something serious was happening, but he never thought it would be related to the mayor.
“We’re all shocked and saddened that this happened to our mayor,” he said. “We’re sending our prayers to the family.”
Centerville Mayor Harold M. “Bubba” Edwards said he was driving to North Carolina when he heard the news.
“It’s a sad day for Middle Georgia,” Edwards said. “You never want to see that (ending) for someone who dedicated their life to public service.”
He said Walker had mentioned suffering from insomnia recently, but he hoped that it played no role in Mondays events.
Talton, who called Walker a friend, said he was deeply saddened by the circumstances of his death.
“I think the whole community is in shock,” Talton said. “Everybody is just really depressed and shocked.”
Talton said he talked with Walker by phone Friday and that he appeared to be upbeat. Talton said Walker told him he was excited about his re-election campaign and was planning to put up more election signs.
Telegraph staff writers Becky Purser, Liz Fabian, Jennifer Burk and Travis Fain contributed to this report.