The Georgia sheriff stood along a two-lane highway in the evening sun and eyeballed a yellow clapboard farmhouse that overlooks the Duck River.
The fugitive duo he had come for was by then in jail. The sheriff, a blond-mustached man with the build of a snub-nose revolver, was building his case. He hoped to send two men to death row. Or, as he put it, two hoodlums to hell.
At the farmhouse, he had spent an hour with the retired couple who live there. Now as he gazed up at their place in the wide, green countryside, something clicked in his mind.
Four days earlier the couple had dialed 911 after being bound with cut-up bedsheets and held hostage by a pair of men who told them they were escapees from down in Georgia. The men threatened to kill them and boasted of their callousness. One claimed to have killed a child. That wasn’t true, but one thing was. They had pistols.
Never miss a local story.
The morning of June 13, as their prison bus was bound for the state pen in Jackson, they burst through a metal gate and attacked the two guards on board. As the bus passed south of Lake Oconee in Putnam County, where the sheriff is from, the two guards were shot dead with pistols. The guns were in a compartment where the guards, a driver and a watchman, sat separated from the prisoners.
The other 31 inmates on the bus stayed put after the killings, but the two attackers kicked out a window in the bus door, squeezed through, then hijacked a passing car and disappeared. Until, that is, two afternoons later at the couple’s house on the south side of Shelbyville, 50 or so miles southeast of Nashville.
The place lies 14 miles up the road from Lynchburg, home of the Jack Daniel’s distillery. One of the fugitives, 43-year-old Donnie Rowe, whose nickname is “Whiskey,” hailed from the area there north and west of Chattanooga. He was serving life without parole for a 2002 conviction in a string of armed stickups and assaults, including a robbery at a Macon motel.
His accomplice, Ricky Dubose, a north Georgian with devil horns tattooed to his hairline, turned 24 last month. He was pulling a 20-year stretch for robbery, aggravated assault and stealing in 2014.
After taking a pickup truck from a quarry near Madison, Georgia, in the hours after the killings, the two are thought to have abandoned the truck near Lynchburg. Then they stole a car and soon ditched it along the rural highway below Shelbyville, down that hill from the couple’s house.
It wouldn’t be long before the police found it. Even though it was covered with grass to hide it, it was hard to miss there in a gravel patch beside the highway.
Now on the Monday after, that Georgia sheriff stood there taking in the scene. He made a mental picture of the farmhouse in clear view 250 yards away. He could see the couple’s kitchen window where the fugitives might well have watched the police find the car and leave. They might have thought the coast was clear then, that it was safe to steal the couple’s Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk and take off.
The woman at the house had fed them and bandaged one of the men’s feet.
“That’s why they’re still alive,” the sheriff said.
It was the only reason he could fathom. The couple had been savvy enough to cooperate and pray for the best.
When the bad guys left, the husband and wife in the farmhouse cut themselves loose. The husband called 911. A lookout was posted and, within minutes, a police chase ensued. The fugitives, at least one of them anyway, fired more than half a dozen shots at the chasing cops. The bullets pierced the hoods and flattened tires on two police cars.
But this time the escapees didn’t escape. They crashed and ran into the woods not too far from Interstate 24, leaving their pistols — which may have been out of ammunition — in the Jeep.
Before long, they saw a man at a house and lay down in his driveway, giving up. Within minutes, the police closed in and arrested them.
Three mornings earlier, the Georgia sheriff had told reporters who were covering the massive manhunt, “I would suggest that they surrender before we find them.”
And that — gunless, shirtless and spent — is what they had done.
Now Sheriff Howard Sills had come for them.
‘Their blood on my shoes’
Lookouts and all-points bulletins have intrigued Americans since the advent of wanted posters.
Manhunts for the armed and desperate, for accused killers on the loose, are sagas that tend to play out live on television newscasts, in newspapers and on the internet. The most-wanted become the most-watched. The bad guys could be anywhere. And in the social media cocoon where so many people keep tabs on the world around them, reality screams to life.
Folks who might not otherwise ever have brushes with crime or its unsavory elements are faced with the prospect of chance encounters. Though the odds of actually crossing paths with such villains are long, the mere possibility can frighten. Sightings pour in, even if the vast majority prove false.
The search for Rowe and Dubose was no different. False sightings were plentiful. A Ford Taurus was pulled over in west Georgia after word mistakenly got out that it matched a car the escapees were in. They weren’t and never were.
Rowe, whose rap sheet stretches from Florida to Georgia to Tennessee and Arkansas, appears to have spent much of his time in the free world in middle Tennessee. So it was no surprise that while on the lam he ventured that way.
After he was locked up for good on Halloween 2001 at age 27, Rowe — whose last night of freedom included a six-pack of Smirnoff Ice and a visit to the renowned Cheetah strip club in Atlanta — said his wife had just given birth in Tennessee.
The morning of June 13 when Rowe and Dubose allegedly shot their way to freedom at a seemingly random place on a state highway near Texas Chapel Road — 13 miles due south of Interstate 20 between Atlanta and Augusta — they could not have chosen a worse locale.
In his four-decade career as a cop, Sills, who has been a sheriff since 1996, has helped send five killers to death row. He has made a name for himself both in law enforcement circles and with the public as a sincere and sometimes surly straight shooter. He can cite criminal code and quote Shakespeare, and he despises hardened criminals as much as he does the politicians whose policies grant them early parole.
Within hours of the prison bus attack, Sills was on live TV pleading for the public’s help.
As he faced the assembled news crews that set up camp outside his office, Sills all but choked up as he told of finding the guards dead. “I have their blood on my shoes.”
‘That’s the dude’
His emotion and sincerity that day was no act.
The Saturday after the shootings, Sills attended the funeral for slain corrections officer Curtis Billue.
On Monday morning, four days after Rowe and Dubose were captured, Sills pulled out of Eatonton in his black Chevy Suburban bound for Tennessee.
He stopped for breakfast at a QuikTrip convenience store off I-20 in Conyers. Another customer, a man wearing a construction safety vest, recognized Sills.
“That’s the dude,” the customer said to him. “I’m glad y’all caught them dudes.”
Outside, another man headed in from the fuel pumps saw Sills and said, “I’m happy for y’all.”
After a meeting at the state Capitol in Atlanta, Sills ate lunch at a Cracker Barrel near Cartersville. A man in the dining room thought Sills looked familiar.
“You the sheriff that was on TV?” the man said, patting Sills on the back. “Thank you, brother.”
Sills received a letter four or five days after the guards were killed. It was from San Jose, California, and addressed to “A.K.A. Fat Pig” in “Eatin’ a Ton, GA.”
The typed missive began:
“Dear Fat Pig: We got a good laugh at you making an ass of yourself on the news. To many of us, Donnie Russell Rowe and Ricky Dubose are HEROES and if the blessing arises, we will help them remain free.”
Sills found it hilarious. The dig at him anyway.
Rowe and Dubose, meanwhile, were no longer on the run.
They were locked up in Tennessee, and he was on his way to get them.
‘They never said a word’
On Tuesday, the sheriff’s second day in Tennessee, Sills talked to the man who lives at the house where the escapees surrendered.
After they spoke, Sills said he thought the fugitives, who had bolted from the wrecked Jeep unarmed, perhaps saw the man’s driveway as a safe haven, a place where the police who were closing in would be less inclined to shoot the two if someone else was there watching.
Patrick Hale, whose driveway Rowe and Dubose lay down in, was armed but never pulled his gun. His 3-year-old daughter was at his side.
“They never said a word. They were looking right at me,” Hale told The Telegraph the other day by phone. “I have played it through in my mind so many ways.”
He has since heard some saying they would have shot the convicts “then and there.” Hale, though, said the two men didn’t show “any kind of aggression” and that he wouldn’t change a thing he did.
He has wondered about divine intervention. Hale hoped to ask the fugitives a question if he could: “What was it that made you want to surrender to me in my driveway?”
On Tuesday afternoon, Sills went to the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office in Murfreesboro, where Rowe and Dubose were in isolation cells.
Sills spoke to a few dozen deputies assembled in a squad roll-call room. Many of them had a hand in tracking down the escapees, including the two whose patrol cars were shot up.
Sills thanked them and apologized for “letting our trash get out.”
“We’re taking them back,” he said, referring to Rowe and Dubose.
“We’re gonna try to go for the death penalty. We’re pretty good at that where I’m from,” Sills said.
He added, “Maybe you’ll never have to see them again.”
‘They ain’t afraid’
It was after midnight when Sills and his men rolled up at the jail in Murfreesboro.
They had come, 10 of them in all, in a caravan of five SUVs.
Sills’ black Suburban brought up the rear.
Rutherford sheriff’s deputies, some with rifles, had set up a perimeter at the 958-bed lockup just east of I-24.
“You’d think bin Laden was getting transferred,” Sills said.
But the show of force was warranted considering what Rowe and Dubose had done, how they had somehow shed their handcuffs on the prison bus and pounced. Rowe and Dubose were believed to have gang ties. There had been threats in Tennessee and talk that there might be trouble. Sills was prepared.
“These sons of bitches,” he said, “have demonstrated that they ain’t afraid to take on the police.”
For the trip home, he wanted Rowe and Dubose “chained up like Hannibal Lecter,” the character from “Silence of the Lambs.”
His deputies brought reinforced cuffs and leg shackles with chains to bind the prisoners’ hands and feet so they couldn’t so much as raise their arms.
For the ride back to Georgia, Sill made it clear that he meant business.
“I want them,” he said, “to understand.”
At 1:37 a.m. Georgia time, Dubose, with a Putnam deputy at his side, shuffled into an enclosed garage, a sally port, at the jail. Hands at his waist, the gaunt Dubose slow-walked 31 steps to a waiting Chevy Tahoe with a prisoner cage inside it.
There would be no stops, no bathroom breaks, on the four-hour ride to Eatonton. So before Dubose sat down, a deputy spread a plastic trash bag on the seat in case Dubose couldn’t hold it.
Rowe came next, his hands clamped together the same as Dubose’s. As he was led to another Tahoe, he looked like he had been roused from sleep. A deputy would later speak of his “cold eyes.”
Five minutes later, at 1:48 a.m., the sally port doors cranked open and the train of SUVs swooped onto I-24. Rowe and Dubose were in the second and third vehicles. Sills rode shotgun in the fifth, the trail car, flicking on his blue lights at times to alert traffic up ahead.
West of Chattanooga about 3 a.m., as “Coal Miner’s Daughter” faded in and out on the radio, Sills kidded about the caravan and how people in other cars and trucks “probably think it’s Mike Pence or some lesser Yankee official.”
The SUVs, their blue lights off so as not to attract attention, cruised along between 75 and 85 mph — sometimes faster. The speed wasn’t so they would get back faster. It was to give the lawmen extra time to react in case a car with some of Rowe’s or Dubose’s buddies tried to pull alongside and spring them.
“There’s so many nuts out there,” Sills would say.
As they neared Chattanooga, something caught the sheriff’s eye.
A car coming behind them was closing fast.
Sills adjusted the M16 in his lap and flicked on his blue lights.
The car, by then all but tailgating the police procession, got the message and backed off.
About 3:15, the SUVs crossed the Georgia line.
Up ahead of the sheriff, Rowe and Dubose had yet to say a word. Nor would they.
“I’m confident,” Sills said, “they didn’t know we were coming tonight.”
When the caravan wheeled up at the Putnam County jail at 5:38 a.m., a picture of a man in Army dress blues was perched in the seat behind Sills.
The photo was on the front of a funeral program. Sills had left it there four days earlier.
The program had been in a pile of paperwork and somehow, by sheer luck, it was propped up, as if on display.
Corrections officer Curtis Billue’s picture faced straight ahead.
It hadn’t moved the whole way home.