Mourners salute slain Peach County deputies at vigil: ‘They’ll be looking down on us’

Hundreds mourn Peach deputies at somber vigil

Hundreds of mourners gathered at North Peach Park for candlelight vigil for Peach County sheriff Sgt. Patrick Sondron and deputy Daryl Smallwood Tuesday night.
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Hundreds of mourners gathered at North Peach Park for candlelight vigil for Peach County sheriff Sgt. Patrick Sondron and deputy Daryl Smallwood Tuesday night.

As the sun went down Tuesday over a field lined with pecan trees on the south side of town, fall’s first chilly night set in and mourners by the hundreds clutched white candles and braced against the bad news.

A second lawman had died.

The vigil at a county park there where White Road crosses Interstate 75 lies maybe 3 miles from the scene of a Sunday shooting that now, 48 hours later, had brought the mourners together.

Two Peach County sheriff’s deputies had answered a call about a fuss between neighbors on the west side of town. When the two arrived there on Hardison Road, investigators have since said that a 57-year-old electrical contractor named Ralph Stanley Elrod Jr. walked up and, unprovoked, opened fire on the deputies with a pistol.

Peach sheriff’s Sgt. Patrick Sondron, 41, died of his wounds that night. Tuesday afternoon, as vigil organizers prepared a stage in the park and lined it with six dozen red chrysanthemums, word came that Deputy Daryl Smallwood, 37, also had died.

Elrod, who has since been charged with murder, was shot and wounded by a Byron police officer who’d rushed to Smallwood and Sondron’s aid.

As locals made their way to the stage Tuesday evening and lit their candles and listened to pastors and public safety officials tell of the heartbreaking loss, no one seemed to notice a tiny handwritten message among the many that schoolchildren had penned for the families of the fallen.

The notes, on banners tacked to the stage, were from the Westfield School, from Perry Middle School and from Byron Elementary, where pupils had scribbled notes of thanks to the deputies on sheets of paper with police badges on them.

One of the notes stood out from the rest, its words wise beyond their young author’s years. But like the other notes, it was almost too small for anyone to read as the sun faded and darkness fell. Besides, no one stood close enough to the stage to see it.

But there it was, hidden among hundreds of thank-yous, as the county’s fire chief, Jeff Doles, addressed the crowd.

Doles, sounding like he was on the verge of tears, spoke of the “terrible, awful situation.”

Doles knew both deputies. He was friends with Sondron and he said Smallwood was “a fine fellow.”

“It hasn’t sunk in yet,” Doles said. “I can’t wrap my brain around it. … I know that they’ll be looking down on us from upstairs.”

Byron Police Chief Wesley Cannon spoke next and talked of “how good a human being Patrick Sondron truly was.”

Cannon said Smallwood was “the biggest badge-wearing teddy bear I ever met.”

Cannon had been asked over and over since Sunday by anyone he has met, “What can we do to help?”

“This,” Cannon said, gazing out over the sea of flickering candles beneath a cloud-shrouded moon, “this is all we need. … This is why (they) did the job that they did.”

To protect, the chief said, to take care of people.

Cannon described the slaying of a law enforcement officer as “every sheriff or police chief’s nightmare.”

Then, comforting the crowd and telling how he and his brethren would remain on watch, he said, “We won’t waver. We’re gonna continue doing our job.”

When it was over, that Byron Elementary pupil’s message was still there on the stage. Still unnoticed.

Sure, the vigil’s speakers had all touched on some of its essence when they spoke of duty and goodness and law and order and keeping the peace.

But none put it so simply as a fourth-grader named Brantly.

“Thank you,” the child wrote, “for arresting the bad guy.”

Joe Kovac Jr.: 478-744-4397, @joekovacjr