In one year five lawmen were shot to death — all within 70 miles of Macon

Rain water drips from Fulton County sheriff’s honor guard member Sgt. Randell Lattimore’s campaign hat as he stands at attention at the graveside service for Eastman police officer Tim Smith in August.
Rain water drips from Fulton County sheriff’s honor guard member Sgt. Randell Lattimore’s campaign hat as he stands at attention at the graveside service for Eastman police officer Tim Smith in August. wmarshall@macon.com

The town police chief and the county sheriff will say the same thing when they tell you about the night Eastman policeman Timothy Kevin Smith died.

It was, as they both put it now, four and a half months later, “just another Saturday night.”

Just another August eve in the small-town South. Temperatures hung in the mid-to-low 80s.

Folks from the neighboring countryside were no doubt just heading home after a bite at the Pizza Hut. Others were maybe taking in a late show at the movie house up on the Cochran Highway. Some were surely making after-hours jaunts to the Wal-Mart Supercenter down below the county hospital. Still others were swinging in for treats at the Dairy Queen. Meanwhile, a handful just passing through had probably wheeled in off the Golden Isles Parkway and called it a day at the Sunshine Inn.

It was a little after 9 o’clock on Aug. 13.

Just another Saturday night.

The Dodge County sheriff had just cruised back into town from a birthday party for his sister up in Warner Robins. Becky Sheffield, the police chief there in Eastman — home to about 5,000 people and where a dozen sworn officers patrol the 5 or so square miles within the city limits — was home watching TV.

Sheffield, who has been with the department for 39 years, the last seven as chief, had her police radio switched on. She half-heard some commotion in the background but didn’t quite catch it. Then her phone rang. It was the assistant chief.

“Tim’s been shot,” he said.

And just like that, Sheffield was at the hospital.

It was there that a nurse’s voice told her how bad it was.

“Y’all really need to pray,” the nurse said.

Officer Smith, who was 30, had been shot in his upper chest. He was answering a call about someone with a gun on the east side of the railroad tracks, which split the town. Smith cruised up a few blocks south of City Hall, not far behind the Chic-King restaurant. At first Smith didn’t notice anyone. Then he turned his car around, and when he did his headlights caught a glimpse of a guy walking along a road that parallels the tracks.

Smith wheeled toward him and said, “Hey, buddy. Come over here. I need to talk to you.”

The man on the street ambled toward the driver’s door of Smith’s cruiser, disappearing from view of the camera that points over the car’s hood. Smith told the guy to get his hands out of his pockets. Smith opened his door. Bang. Gunfire. The shooter ran off. Smith didn’t survive the night.

“It was awful,” the chief says.

Eastman police officer Tim Smith's community is heartbroken after he was shot and killed while answering a call Aug. 13, 2016.

‘Even the criminals liked him’

In the 116 days that followed, four more Middle Georgia law enforcement officers would be shot dead in the line of duty — all within a 70-mile radius of Macon.

The next two slain were Peach County sheriff’s deputies.

Deputies Daryl Smallwood and Patrick Sondron were gunned down in early November at a house on the outskirts of Byron — on a Sunday afternoon.

Word of their deaths, mere months after officer Smith’s deadly encounter, further shook the region.

What, folks wondered, is going on?

Why, unprovoked, would someone open fire on the police?

Answers will likely never come. Trying to cull sense from the senseless is often a fool’s errand.

But there is something to consider, to contemplate. And it is no small thing.

Officer Smith and deputies Smallwood and Sondron gave their lives in the hours and on days when so many of us are taking it easy. On weekends. On relaxing Saturday nights. On lazy Sunday afternoons. They were out there on watch, breaching the often quiet unknown where unseen danger lurked. Where the world seemed safe enough until it wasn’t. Until someone dead set on doing bad went and, in a flash, did it.

It is literally an attack on the fabric of society.

Monroe County Sheriff John Cary Bittick

That, in part, is why today The Telegraph salutes not just the fallen, but also their brothers and sisters in blue and brown — the ones out patrolling on ordinary Saturday nights and easy Sundays and the oft-perilous stretches in between — as our Middle Georgians of the Year.

Perhaps the reason it hurts us so much when those who wear the badge die in the line of duty is that they are us. They are law and order, and they walk the wall between peace and mayhem, between the good guys and the bad guys.

Some of us were maybe just waking up, still sipping coffee the December morning in Americus when two police officers there, Nicholas Smarr and Jody Smith, were shot to death as they ran after an armed man at an apartment complex.

Jody Smith’s father, Johnny, was once the sheriff of Telfair County. Jody Smith’s middle name, Carl, comes from his grandfather, Carlton, a pioneering chicken farmer down around McRae. Jody Smith and officer Smarr, who were both 25 years old and best friends, cut their policing teeth as Telfair sheriff’s deputies.

Johnny Smith says, “My son had the best heart you ever saw. He was just good. Even the criminals liked him.”

Americus police Chief Mark Scott says the friendship between Americus police officer Nicholas Ryan Smarr and Georgia Southwestern State University campus police officer Jody Smith dated back to their time in high school. Minguell Lembrick, 32, was

Jody Smith was a Georgia Southwestern State University police officer. He was not, as his father says, some smart aleck, some uniformed tough guy, but rather a young fellow who wanted to make the world a better, safer place.

Johnny Smith had tried to talk his son into another career. Anything but police work.

“Please,” the father, who is now 60, had asked, “do something you can make money at.”

Jody Smith wouldn’t hear of it. He had grown up hearing of his dad’s exploits, stories from his father’s two decades as a cop.

“Daddy,” Jody had said, “it’s your fault.”

Johnny Smith, as he thinks back on his slain son’s life, says, “I couldn’t deny that.”

He thinks it will take more people like his boy to turn America around.

“It’s not gonna work out until the good people stand up,” he says, “and say this is enough of this silly mess.”

‘Your life matters’

One local sheriff can’t go anywhere without folks asking what on earth is going on here, what with all the police getting shot and shot at.

Monroe County Sheriff John Cary Bittick and his department are still coping with the death of a deputy killed in 2014.

Deputy Michael Norris was shot dead and deputy Jeff Wilson was seriously wounded in a gun battle near Bolingbroke. That fatal episode also played out on one of those otherwise laid-back weekend days. It happened on a Saturday evening in mid-September, when much of the region had turned its attention to the diversion of sports and the University of Georgia’s nationally televised football game against South Carolina.

Bittick thinks the recent lashing out at law enforcement officers has come at a time when “personal responsibility is not at an all-time high.” And the violence aimed at the police, he says, is not merely an assault on the cops.

“It is literally,” the sheriff says, “an attack on the fabric of society.”

And the pain will no doubt linger down the years.

Last January, the father of a Laurens County sheriff’s deputy named Kyle Dinkheller, who was killed in a shootout after pulling over a speeder on Jan. 12, 1998, went on Facebook and posted a photo. The picture was of a roadside memorial along Interstate 16, a shrine at the scene of his murdered son’s death.

“18 years,” Kirk Dinkheller wrote beneath it. “It feels like yesterday.”

In Eastman, the ache of Timothy Smith’s death is still fresh.

The other day, a woman stepped into the lobby of the police station there to talk to someone at the front desk. You could hear the concern in her voice when she told of dropping by earlier and finding the front door locked. The city, it seemed, had been hosting its holiday luncheon. The woman noticed all the squad cars parked out front and wondered who was minding the city. “Hope nothing don’t happen,” she’d thought.

The police department there has been flooded with well-wishes. Cards and letters by the thousands along with plaques of every shape and description, commemorative key chains, personalized Christmas ornaments, along with police patches from Los Angeles, Chicago and New York City, have been mailed in honor of officer Smith.

Someone even sent an oil painting, a portrait of Smith. Someone else sent a $6,500 check. The children at Lolly’s nursery made a hand-print collage on a canvas that bears a red heart and a blue badge and reads, “Your life matters.”

Folks at the Antioch Baptist Church up toward the Pulaski County line sent the city’s police officers new Bibles.

“It was such a blow,” Sheffield, the police chief, says of Smith’s slaying.

“All of this, right here in Middle Georgia. ... Every time this happened, we relived what happened here.”

The chief, who is 63, will soon have 40 years of police work under her belt. She has the bearing of a friendly-enough high school principal who could, if the need arose, bark and snap even the most unruly knucklehead to attention. Folks there mostly call her “Miss Becky.”

After Smith was killed, she wondered if some officers might turn in their badges. But no one has.

We have got to stop this. That’s our job — to get out there and protect.

Eastman Police Chief Becky Sheffield

Even after her young grandchildren asked her, “Beck-Beck, are you gonna die?” she hasn’t considered quitting.

“It’s never crossed my mind,” Sheffield says. “We have got to stop this. That’s our job — to get out there and protect.”

She was at her desk a few days before Christmas, sifting through some of the condolences for Smith, when she recalled something about him that makes her laugh.

He wore stark-white sunglasses. And, Lord, they were ugly.

Smith wore the shades everywhere. When he was on duty, he sometimes propped them on the brim of his cap. Their milky frames and bluish, mirrored lenses stood out like strobes on an unmarked police car.

Smith had been deer hunting one day when he sauntered into Sheffield’s office in full camo. He was sporting his tacky shades. Sheffield ribbed him: “Do y’all not have mirrors at your house?”

“Chief,” Smith replied, “you know I look good in these.”

Sheffield could only stare at those gaudy glasses and shake her head.

“One day,” Smith went on, “I’m gonna be famous. And you’re gonna be glad you knew me.”

The night he was killed, Sheffield found those white shades in Smith’s squad car.

She took them to the funeral home.

The day they buried Smith, when the casket shut, those white sunglasses were on top of his head.

They sat sentry on his navy patrol cap. They were perched on the bill in front of the hat’s embroidered badge, forever shielding sewn-on lettering and the name of the peacekeeping family that will never forget him: “Eastman Police Dept.”

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