Richard Daniels had just made an overnight security check at Reece Funeral Home when he headed east down U.S. 80 to do to the same at some churches.
While most of Twiggs County was sleeping about 1:30 a.m. Tuesday, Daniels was out patrolling streets and protecting property on what would be his last night on the job.
On a dark, lonely stretch of road that time of morning, he apparently never saw what hit him. A huge oak toppled over at mile marker 6. The impact on the 55 mph highway killed him instantly and tore the roof off his patrol car. It kept going another 271 feet after clipping the tree trunk that was suspended off the ground.
The site is now marked with a white cross decorated with law enforcement colors of black and blue ribbon stretched along the horizontal plank.
Investigators aren’t sure whether the towering tree was already in the road or if it crashed down as he passed by. There are no skid marks on the pavement as it descends down to Turkey Creek.
“It’s just a freak thing,” said Twiggs County Coroner Harold Reece Jr., who pronounced the 27-year-old man dead from head injuries about 2:15 a.m.
Sheriff Darren Mitchum dreaded answering the phone as it rang.
“It just scares the daylights out of you because you’re afraid you’ll get that kind of call,” he said.
Daniels wasn’t just an employee, but Mitchum’s friend. The two had worked together at the Bleckley County Sheriff’s Office. Daniels came looking for a job soon after Mitchum was elected Twiggs County sheriff in 2005.
“He was a big-hearted guy,” Mitchum said. “He liked to have fun.”
Daniels was a true public servant who enjoyed his work, the sheriff said. The tall, brawny man also served on the Twiggs Fire and Rescue unit.
Asked to describe Daniels, his colleagues referred to him as a big, “cornbread-fed” man who loved to hunt, fish and farm his Bleckley County land.
“He sure could eat some cornbread,” one deputy said as the officers put a small crack in the somber mood as they remembered happier times over the three years Daniels worked there.
Flags were lowered to half-staff at the sheriff’s office and Twiggs County Courthouse as dozens of law enforcement officers from surrounding counties called to pay their respects to Mitchum and his department.
Already, there are plenty of offers for support. Temporary staff from other agencies will protect the county and guard the jail during the funeral.
“It’s all in the family down here, so it’s tough,” said Chief Deputy Billy Boney, who wore a black strap across his badge.
Daniels leaves behind a wife and 1-year-old daughter, who is seen posing with him for his profile picture on Facebook.
As news spread across the community, the curious came out to drive slowly past the accident scene as if to try to understand how such a strong man could succumb to such a horrible twist of fate.
State of Georgia arborist Ronald Harris inspected the tree Tuesday afternoon for the Georgia Department of Transportation investigation. It was a healthy oak above ground with some rotted roots that likely broke while the tree rocked in recent strong winds, Harris concluded.
“To me it looks like he had no warning,” he said.
With the shoulder of the road sloping up to the woods, the trunk of the tree was hanging up to about 5 feet off the asphalt. If the tree was already down, Daniels might not have been able to see it in his headlights.
“It’s just an act of God,” Harris said. “It’s something you can’t predict, like a tornado dropping out of the sky.”
Mitchum and his men see it a little differently. Daniels’ unwitting sacrifice may have saved someone else’s life.
“If it wasn’t him, it would have been someone else,” one deputy explained to a concerned caller.
As is customary for officers killed in the line of duty, Daniels will have an honor guard and a full law-enforcement tribute during his funeral, which is being planned for sometime Friday. Reece Funeral Home has charge of arrangements.
To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303.