On a warm Sunday evening last fall as he was sitting down to supper at his mother’s house, Jarrod Elrod’s cellphone buzzed.
The young sheriff’s deputy’s phone hadn’t rung because service is spotty there north of Macon in the forested Jones County countryside between Walnut Creek and Highway 129.
Even so, a short voicemail pinged through.
It was from his father.
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Jarrod’s folks had split up in 1993 when he was 3. Now his dad was living 30 miles away, on the outskirts of Byron.
In the message, his father’s words were chilling.
He played the message back, paying careful attention to the grim tone. His dad wasn’t kidding.
Jarrod, who after serving in the Navy had by then, at age 26, been patrolling the roads of Jones County for about a year. He knew something was wrong. His dad sounded like a man about to die. He sounded … suicidal.
It was about 5:30 p.m., and within minutes Jarrod was on the phone with an emergency dispatcher in Peach County.
“Is there something going on at 148 Hardison Road?” Jarrod asked.
“How do you know that?” the dispatcher replied.
“That’s my dad,” Jarrod said.
With that, Jarrod was out the door and in his patrol car — a lights-flashing, 90-mph streak down Interstate 75.
When he reached Byron, a pair of ambulances were motoring the other way toward Macon. Jarrod raced on, zipping west across town, out the highway to his father’s place.
He made it as far as the Church of Christ, just past Rum Road and the straightaway there before the two-lane swings toward Roberta. His dad’s house was still more than a quarter-mile away, but cop cars were everywhere. There had to have been a hundred of them.
A cavalry of law enforcement had converged. As the sun set on that first Sunday evening of November, Jarrod learned that his father was a suspect in the apparently unprovoked shootings of two Peach sheriff’s deputies.
The deputies, shot at close range and mortally wounded, had come to defuse a running feud that Jarrod’s dad had with some neighbors with penchants for roaring up and down the road on motorbikes. And, much to Jarrod’s father’s dismay, tearing across his lawn.
Yet as distraught as he may have sounded in that voicemail, he was not dead. Ralph Elrod, by then in custody and on his way to the hospital, was very much alive.
He had been shot minutes after leaving the message on Jarrod’s phone, but he survived a bullet to the stomach in a shootout with Byron police as they swooped in to help the fallen deputies.
Jarrod felt sick. How could his father — a man who had a pro-police, “Thin Blue Line” sticker on his mailbox, a man whose only son had become a cop barely a year earlier — now have law enforcement blood on his hands?
“Holy s---,” Jarrod thought, “two brothers in blue just got killed.”
Jarrod sports a military physique. He has wide blue eyes and close-cropped blond hair. Standing there that evening at his father’s place, he had on a green tactical vest and did his best to blend in with the throng of cops.
He didn’t broadcast who he was. Jarrod kept to himself. He told the district attorney, the county sheriff and the GBI about his father, the layout of his house.
Shrouded by cedars, Ralph Elrod’s tidy 3-acre spread on the western edge of Byron was a manicured testament to suburban quiet life. The nearest neighbors were 50 yards away.
He and his second wife, Rhonda, had lived there since 2012, settling in a steep-roofed ranch with dormers and a shrub-lined front porch. Neighboring tracts have open views of the former farmland that spreads out there in the shadows of a pecan grove three miles due west of the freeway.
Then came the afternoon and evening of Nov. 6. Ralph Elrod’s mother says he grilled out, or was planning to.
Accounts of what happened next vary. But one version investigators have heard is that he pulled a gun, fed up with a neighbor’s nephews riding a four-wheeler and a dirt bike near or in his yard.
After a neighbor called 911 to complain, sheriff’s deputies Daryl Smallwood and Patrick Sondron pulled up at his house. One of them told Elrod he was under arrest. Then, the authorities say, Elrod pulled a pistol from under his shirt and opened fire.
As night fell, floodlights blazed. Police scoured Ralph Elrod’s property for clues — anything to help explain the seemingly out-of-nowhere violence.
It felt surreal to Jarrod, and not until the wee hours of Monday morning, when he returned home, showered and tried to fall asleep, did it all begin sinking in — the bloodshed, the heartbreak and the anguish that he could do nothing to stop.
By then, Jarrod had shared his father’s recorded message with the GBI.
All 33 words of it.
All 13 seconds of Ralph Elrod admitting to being a killer and, knowing the law was on its way, assuming his life was about to end:
Hey, Jarrod, this is my last day on this planet. I’ve just killed two police officers from Peach County. I’m sorry, son. But, uh, this is probably it for me. Love you. Bye.
That was not all Ralph Elrod would tell his son.
In the coming weeks, they exchanged letters. And in them, Elrod sounded like a man consumed by anger.
‘Lord, what have I done?’
Deputies Smallwood and Sondron were killed during a four-month span that saw three other Middle Georgia lawmen shot dead in the line of duty.
The gunfire at Ralph Elrod’s house played out against a national backdrop of lethal tumult that had seen police gunned down in Texas and Louisiana.
Since Smallwood and Sondron died, the question has stirred: Why did Elrod shoot them?
According to people close to Elrod, the answer in his case may lie in a moment of unbridled fury. Could it be that a seething Ralph Stanley “Robin” Elrod Jr. was pushed to his limit by irksome neighbors? Had he lashed out at a perceived injustice, one that saw two sheriff’s deputies coming to arrest him and not the objects of his ire — those motorbiking neighbors from a lot that backs up to the south side of his property?
Dispatch logs show that Elrod called to complain about his neighbors just after 4 p.m. the day of the shooting, but when a deputy got there he couldn’t find Elrod.
About an hour later, a neighbor called 911 and said Elrod had pointed a rifle at one of the people who had been riding up and down the road.
Jarrod has since said his father claims the neighbors had harassed him. If that happened, Jarrod figures it may have driven his father to confront them with a shotgun, a 12-gauge that looks like an assault rifle.
“I don’t know if he pointed the shotgun at them or if they just said that. I could see him doing that, but knowing him, he probably just had it swung on his shoulder,” Jarrod said recently in an interview with The Telegraph. “I think he kind of just went out there, a show of force.”
About 5:30 p.m., someone called 911 to report a shooting. Smallwood and Sondron were on the ground bleeding.
Jarrod has since learned that his father, “white as a ghost,” went back inside his house. Elrod’s wife had locked herself in a room, Jarrod said, but she could hear her husband saying, “Lord, what have I done?”
Elrod is set to appear in court Tuesday for the first hearing in prosecutors’ death penalty case against him.
Elrod, an electrician who turned 58 in January, has a long face topped by a whitecap of hair. A matching tuft of goatee sprouts from his chin.
He grew up in Macon, the youngest of three children. He took piano lessons and was a Boy Scout. He attended Mount de Sales and Windsor academies.
His late father, Ralph Sr., an avid tennis player, sold tires for BF Goodrich. He died of Alzheimer’s disease in 2015. His mother, Joy Elrod, a homemaker, gardener and former missionary who at 83 still does her own yard work, said, “We lived the example for them.”
In 1986, Elrod married Jarrod’s mother. On Valentine’s Day in 1991, when Jarrod was still a baby, Elrod took out a personal ad in The Telegraph. In it he wrote his wife a rhyming, four-stanza love poem. He ended the ad with a line about how she “has made such a difference in my life and … given me a most priceless gift, a healthy, beautiful son.”
But two years later, in 1993, the couple, who also had a daughter, separated. The same day, Sept. 23, a Macon police report documented allegations that Elrod had aimed a cocked, sawed-off shotgun at his wife, threatening to kill her and chasing her into their children’s room.
The couple had argued earlier about Elrod having an affair with another man, according to the police report, and his wife wanted a divorce.
The night the fight happened, Elrod left the house, but not before saying he was going out to “kill some faggots,” a police officer wrote.
Cops warned patrons at a gay nightclub in downtown Macon, but they soon found Elrod at his parents’ home near Northeast High School. He was never prosecuted.
The Elrods’ divorce was final that December.
About a month later, in January 1994, Elrod was arrested after allegations that he had raped his ex-wife, according to court records in Jones County. Contacted by The Telegraph, Elrod’s ex-wife declined comment.
His ex alleged that he had threatened to kill her and take off with young Jarrod and his baby sister.
Jurors acquitted Elrod of the rape charge at trial.
Even so, Elrod had spent time in jail before the case went to court, and Jarrod says his father’s time behind bars “chapped his ass — and still does.”
He describes his dad as “a very, very, very bitter person. … He was not one to forget a situation. If you did him wrong and he wasn’t able to get you back for it at that time, he’d find a way to do it. Not necessarily by physical force.”
Elrod respected the police, but Jarrod said that if his dad had to go to jail again he probably was “not gonna go easily.”
“I never thought he would kill anybody over it,” Jarrod said. “I just figured he would put up a fight going into handcuffs.”
Jarrod Elrod has never forgotten the fights. There were nights when he woke to the shouts and screams of his parents.
He recalls how one time his father, armed with a 12-gauge shotgun, chased his mom down a hallway at their house. It’s unclear if that’s the same incident his mother reported to police.
“I still remember the shotgun,” he said in a January interview with The Telegraph. “It was brown and black.”
Now as a father himself, Jarrod said he won’t be the kind of father his dad was. Not that Ralph Elrod was physically abusive to him or an awful parent. Jarrod just wants a calmer environment for his kids.
The night his dad chased his mom with the gun, as Jarrod remembers it, Jarrod raced to his paternal grandparents’ house up the street.
“They knew my dad had a hot temper. … He was very unpredictable,” Jarrod said. “Especially at that time in his life. Still is unpredictable. … I’m not sure why he’s like that. It seems like he gets to a point in rage where he just ... forgets what he does. … It’s almost a sociopathic tendency.”
Jarrod remembers another instance when his dad held his grandparents at gunpoint after something fairly insignificant had sent Elrod into a rage.
“I know he hit his dad in the head with the butt of his rifle that night,” Jarrod said. He said his grandparents guarded him and his sister, shielding them from their father.
Jarrod was 12 when he went to live with his father west of Atlanta.
His father had a “tough love” style of parenting, he said. But while Jarrod was in high school, they both took up cycling, sometimes riding 20 miles or more.
Elrod, who in the past was a swimmer and bodybuilder, played acoustic and electric guitar in his spare time. He was into hunting, fishing. He liked classic rock — Led Zeppelin, REM, Supertramp.
He drank beer and when he drank too much, he was a “mean drunk.” He could be a bully.
“You had to be careful what you’d say to him because anything could set him off,” Jarrod said.
Jarrod recalls an argument they had a couple of years ago over some “Sesame Street” shampoo that his father and stepmother had given to Jarrod and his wife at a baby shower.
His father, obviously drunk, called later and said, “You’d better get ready when you get home. I’m gonna kill you and your wife and your unborn kid.”
After that, Jarrod and his dad didn’t talk for a long time.
Though they reconciled, theirs was more of an acquaintance relationship than father-son, Jarrod said.
“I didn’t trust him. I still wouldn’t trust him even if this wouldn’t have happened.”
‘Outside of his character’
A former Navy man like his son, Elrod took a job doing contract electrical work in the Middle East a few years ago.
Jarrod said his father never saw combat during his time overseas and wasn’t in serious danger as he installed wiring in American strongholds.
Elrod used the money he earned overseas to pay off the house he bought on Hardison Road in 2012, Jarrod said.
Jarrod doesn’t think his father’s time abroad traumatized him.
While Jarrod said his father reminds him of the Joker from Batman movies, he has never known him to have mental problems.
Mike Gantt, one of Elrod’s childhood friends, said the two lost touch as adults but reconnected recently.
Gantt said he figures his friend “had to have completely snapped” when he shot the deputies.
“Everything to do with this whole thing is so outside of his character,” he said.
Elrod had acquired a number of guns over the years, but his son said he didn’t maintain an arsenal.
Gantt said he and Elrod enjoyed “plinking,” shooting tin cans.
“I think he appreciated the tool itself,” Gantt said of Elrod’s affinity for firearms. “I think he looked at it more or less as being like a shovel … or a hoe or just a chainsaw — just a tool that has a use.”
In the year or so that Jarrod has been a sheriff’s deputy, he and his father talked about the dangers of police work. Elrod had said how it was “f---ed up that all these cops are getting killed.”
He told his son to be careful and that he was proud of him.
When he was in his early 30s, Elrod penned a 1990 letter to the editor at The Telegraph, complaining about federal furloughs and praising the military and “the men and women on the local police force who protect us at home.”
When Byron police arrived after Smallwood and Sondron had been shot, Elrod stepped out of his garage armed and wearing a bulletproof vest.
When Jarrod thinks about his father’s motivation that day, he said, “I don’t know what he intended when he put on that body armor and that rifle. I think he was just trying to get them to kill him.”
Jarrod wonders if his dad, toting an AR-15 with a scope and firing it, intended to make himself a target — to look like a threat that had to be stopped.
“I know him as a person, what kind of shot he is, and he didn’t hit anybody else,” Jarrod said. “You’ve just killed two cops with a pistol, … you didn’t kill nobody else with that rifle? I think he was just shooting trying to get them to kill him.”
‘Just raising hell’
The long-simmering tension between Elrod and his neighbors was so toxic that Joy Elrod said her son was planning to sell his house.
“There’s going to be some trouble if we don’t move, and I don’t want any,” Elrod told his mother.
The Telegraph talked with Elrod’s neighbors, Arthur and Morgan Jordan, about two weeks after the deputies were shot.
On the day of the shooting, the Jordans had gotten together with family and friends to grill out after a death. Their two nephews, both 20, went out riding a dirt bike and four-wheeler.
The Jordans contend that Elrod, a man they had never met, put a gun to a nephew’s head and the nephew, his hands in the air, pleaded, “please don’t kill me.”
After a few minutes, Elrod went back into his house and the Jordans’ nephews rode home. That’s when Morgan Jordan called 911.
Arthur Jordan said many of the people who live in the area ride dirt bikes and four-wheelers in the neighborhood on the way to a power line right of way.
A sheriff’s report from July 2016 documents Elrod’s claim that a neighbor had poured motor oil along the property line he shares with the Jordans. His mother said it killed two of Elrod’s trees.
Arthur Jordan told The Telegraph in November that his children poured the oil and that it happened on the Jordans’ property.
There was another occasion when Joy Elrod said her son saw the neighbors urinating in view of his back porch.
Jarrod said he had been at his father’s place months before the shooting and had even called Peach County deputies himself to complain about the neighbors riding up and down the road.
They were “just raising hell, aggravating,” Jarrod said.
He also visited his father on the Sunday before the shooting. Jarrod noticed that Elrod had installed security cameras, afraid the neighbors might damage his stuff.
“It wasn’t paranoia,” Jarrod said. “He was just taking steps like any concerned homeowner would.”
The house recently sold for $187,000.
Joy Elrod, a devout Christian who is fond of dollar stores but almost never shops anywhere on Sundays, visits her son each weekend at the Bibb County jail.
“He’s my son. I love him,” she said, adding that he isn’t a violent man, but “he can be provoked. Anyone can be. … He’s not a saint and he’s not a bad person. He’s a person. He’s got his good points. He’s got his weak points. … I’m not trying to make him out a saint.”
In their visits, Joy Elrod said he has told her that he is ashamed of what he’s done, but that he does not remember it.
“Mama,” he has told her, “I cry all the time. ... I pray all the time. I cannot believe it. I would give my soul to bring those two people back.”
“Well, son,” she has replied, “you know, you can’t. You can’t. What you’ve got to do is get down and ask forgiveness.”
‘Not making excuses’
Two days before Christmas, Elrod wrote his son a three-page letter on jailhouse notebook paper.
“Never in a million years,” he began, “would I believe I’d be sitting here under these charges. And if you’d have told me what was going to happen when I walked out the door, I would have told you that you were insane.”
Elrod mentioned calling 911 twice the day the deputies were shot “to get my neighbor under control for our sake and the neighborhood’s sake.”
He seemed, at least in part, to blame the sheriff’s department in Peach County, writing that if the department had “done their job that day and the months prior with respect to my neighbor, it wouldn’t have happened.”
Then he went on for a few sentences, responding to part of a letter Jarrod had sent him:
I’m not making excuses, but there is way more to this than you know! When you tell people I have to pay for what I did, you make it sound like I did this intentionally, and nothing could be further from the truth. Do you know what it feels like to take a human life? Of course you don’t. I hope you never have to! But being in law enforcement, you’d probably get a free pass. … I did take your advice about my neighbor and let law enforcement handle it. Epic fail!
In one bitter passage, Elrod was critical, belittling even, of the Peach sheriff’s department. He complained that his neighbors had not been arrested for harassing him. He griped that since his arrest the sheriff’s department had been hounding his wife by phone.
“Doesn’t say much for their professionalism, does it?” he wrote.
He went on to write that before the confrontation with deputies that day, all he had been doing was “trying to chill and enjoy the day and not bother anyone. … Now all these lives have been turned end over end, and my name has been dragged through the mud.”
In a final flourish, he wrote:
If I had been drinking and driving a car and I crossed the centerline and hit these officers’ vehicle head-on and killed them … the public opinion would be different. Why? All the variables are the same except the weapon was a G.U.N. that weighed 25 ounces instead of 2,500 pounds. Both scenarios end the same in tragedy. I never intended to hurt anyone that day. If I did, it would have been my neighbor. I could have, but I didn’t. If I had, I would be in less trouble.
In another letter, Jarrod said, his father wrote that he intended to plead guilty. That was before prosecutors announced they were seeking the death penalty. But judging by the tone of a later letter, he may go to trial and, if convicted, could be sentenced to death.
A whispered promise
Three nights after Patrick Sondron was killed, Jarrod Elrod walked into Southside Baptist Church to pay his respects.
Sondron’s family was there for the slain deputy’s funeral visitation.
Instead of his brown patrol uniform, Jarrod had on a suit and tie. He hoped to blend in, not draw attention to himself.
But there was something he felt he needed to do.
He eased down an aisle toward Sondron’s casket.
“It was,” he would later say, “definitely hard to look at.”
Jarrod saw Sondron’s widow, Melissa.
He took a few deep breaths, made his way over and told her who he was.
Melissa hugged him tight, the hardest he had ever been hugged.
Jarrod whispered something.
Something only she could hear.
He told her he would make sure his father paid for what he did.