‘Really a severe blow,’ Georgia Sheriff of the Year says of fallen deputies

The hardest thing Peach County Sheriff Terry Deese has ever done is face the media the night two of his deputies were fatally shot.

“There’s just no way one individual — doesn’t matter how big you are, how strong you are, how smart you are — can deal with that kind of pressure, that kind of stress. But when you turn around and there’s all these people behind you ... that’s how you deal with tragedies,” Deese told his colleagues Thursday.

Lawmen from across the state gave a standing ovation to their 2017 Sheriff of the Year during the fifth annual Salute to Georgia Sheriffs hosted by Jones County Sheriff Butch Reece at the Walnut Creek Shooting Preserve.

In September 1986, Deese first discovered the strength of the thin blue line that bonds the brotherhood of law enforcement.

Bullets struck his partner and his predecessor, Sheriff Johnnie Becham, as they were driving away in a caravan after confiscating marijuana plants.

“I remember that ‘poof-poof’ and glass starting shattering and seeing sparks everywhere. This guy was shooting at us,” he said. “Within a manner of minutes, we were covered with law enforcement. I bet there’s still cocaine out there on that interstate where people were dumping it out ‘cause they topped that hill and saw all the blue lights.”

It was that experience that “just kind of reeled me on in,” Deese said of his career.

Although the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association selected Deese for its top honor, none of his colleagues would want to be in his shoes.

Last year, Deese buried those two deputies wounded in the line of duty on Nov. 6.

Deese, a 35-year law enforcement veteran spoke at both funerals for Deputy Daryl Smallwood and Sgt. Patrick Sondron.

Both men’s pictures were shown during a moment of silence for Georgia law enforcement officers killed over the past year.

During a video tribute to Deese, his officers spoke of that night that shook them all to the core.

Smallwood and Sondron were responding to a neighborhood dispute, never imagining it would be their last call.

Peach sheriff’s Capt. Tony Trice remembers seeing the shaken sheriff at the home of accused killer Ralph Stanley Elrod Jr.

“The great man that he is, he took charge and made things happen,” Trice said of Deese.

Capt. John Edwards said it was Deese that held the force together.

“A lot of officers were second-guessing their career choices and he was there to step up to the plate and let them know he was there for us,” Edwards said in the video.

Georgia Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle spoke of the respect he has for Deese.

“I know the tears in the man’s eyes by having to do what he had to do, but that is what his duty is,” Cagle said. “I love a man who always leads with his heart.”

Not only did Deese rally his deputies, but he comforted the Sondron and Smallwood families, Cagle said.

The Peach County deputies were two killed in what Deese called a “very bad year for law enforcement.”

“In the state of Georgia, we lost nine good men for no reason,” Deese said.

In months and years to come, Deese will be grappling with continual death penalty court hearings for the deputies’ accused killer Ralph Stanley Elrod Jr.

The collateral damage of that night also hit Reece’s department.

Elrod’s son, Jarrod is a Jones County deputy.

As Deese’s family was invited to be the first to go through the sprawling buffet of barbecue pork, chicken, cole slaw, potato salad and dozens of cakes baked by Sheriff Reece’s wife, Deputy Jarrod Elrod stood at attention in front of them.

In his honor guard dress uniform, he escorted them to the food.

“He volunteered to do that,” Reece said.

Liz Fabian: 478-744-4303, @liz_lines