Ralph Stanley “Robin” Elrod Jr., a Navy veteran and electrician whose life was more or less an ordinary, middle-aged suburban existence until, inexplicably, it erupted in unprovoked gunfire of his own making on a fall evening nearly two years ago, pleaded guilty here Thursday to murdering two Peach County sheriff’s deputies.
In pleading guilty to shooting and mortally wounding deputies Daryl Smallwood and Patrick Sondron on Nov. 6, 2016, Elrod avoided a potential death penalty trial and was sentenced to two life in prison without parole terms plus 100 years.
The plea, which came during a two-hour proceeding before a courtroom packed with 200 or so spectators — at least 50 of them uniformed police officers — was not unexpected. Word of its likelihood emerged publicly on social media in recent weeks after one of Sondron’s adopted sons, upon learning that prosecutors had decided not to pursue the death penalty against Elrod, posted remarks critical of District Attorney David Cooke.
“We are not OK with this,” the son, Jacob Sondron, 23, told The Telegraph at the time. “If this case doesn’t get the death penalty, what are the requirements to receive the death penalty?”
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But after a relative of one of the slain deputies approached Cooke about accepting a guilty plea for Elrod, some family members of the fallen officers, including both deputies’ parents, agreed to the measure.
The high-profile case had seemed bound for trial sometime next year. The slayings of Sondron, who was 41, and Smallwood, 37, came amid a four-month stretch in which three other Middle Georgia law enforcement officers were gunned down in the line of duty.
At a hearing earlier this year before Superior Court Judge Edgar W. Ennis Jr., lawyers for the 59-year-old Elrod told the court their client was willing to plead guilty. The lawyers’ aim in Elrod’s defense was geared more toward sparing him from execution than it was building a case for acquittal.
The evidence against Elrod was strong, if not insurmountable. It included video footage recorded by the slain officers’ own in-car cameras as well as Elrod’s statements and words to relatives in the aftermath of the shootings.
In a voicemail that Elrod left for his son in the moments following the fatal gunfire, he apologized for his actions.
As a cavalry of cops raced to the scene to help Smallwood and Sondron and apprehend their attacker, Elrod, in the phone message, told his son, Jarrod, who until earlier this year was himself a sheriff’s deputy in Jones County: “Hey, Jarrod, this is my last day on this planet. I’ve just killed two police officers from Peach County. I’m sorry, son. But, uh, this is probably it for me. Love you. Bye.”
Elrod had shot the deputies when they’d answered a call about Elrod pointing a gun at a neighbor’s nephews. Elrod claimed he had trouble for some time with neighbors motorbiking up and down Hardison Road in front of his house and on parts of his lawn, which lies on the edge of Byron in a countryside neighborhood along Ga. 42, about three miles west of Interstate 75.
While no meaningful explanation for what compelled Elrod to open fire on the deputies may ever emerge, in the weeks that followed, Jarrod Elrod told The Telegraph that he and his father sometimes had harsh falling outs over the years. He painted his father as a “very unpredictable” man who, consumed by anger and a fiery temper, may have finally snapped.
When Sondron and Smallwood showed up at the senior Elrod’s house and told him he was under arrest for pointing a shotgun at his neighbor’s nephews, Elrod pulled a concealed pistol and shot the deputies.
“His manner and method were so practiced that neither deputy had a moment to defend themselves,” Cooke said at Thursday’s hearing.
After shooting the officers, Cooke said Elrod went into his house, donned a bulletproof vest and other police gear and walked back into his driveway with an assault rifle and a shotgun. Elrod then fired more shots at Byron police officers who’d rushed to the scene.
Elrod was shot by one of the cops and arrested, and while Elrod waited to be taken to a hospital, Cooke said Elrod repeatedly told the officers, “Just kill me, I don’t want to go to jail.”
The DA added that Elrod later told investigators he had shot the deputies because he “did not want to go to jail.”
The killings, on their face at least, seemed to fit the bill for a capital punishment prosecution. The victims were lawmen slain in the line of duty, which is one of the statutory qualifiers for the death penalty. In a climate strong on punishment for such offenders, it was widely expected that the district attorney’s office would try to send Elrod to death row.
In January of last year, two months after the deadly shootings, Cooke announced he would, in fact, seek death.
“Those who intentionally take the lives of law enforcement officers who are peaceably and lawfully carrying out their sworn duty to protect the public should expect to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and to face the ultimate penalty,” Cooke said at the time.
Death uncommon for cop killers in recent years
But cop killers don’t receive the death penalty as frequently as one might expect.
A Telegraph examination of the slayings of Georgia police and corrections officers, those whose deaths resulted in murder charges, found that such killings in the past 10 years have resulted in no death sentences. Six cases are still pending.
Since January 2008, the slayings of 26 cops and corrections officers have led to murder charges against 24 suspects.
Of those 24 suspects, five were shot and killed by the police during the crimes, three committed suicide and one was a juvenile — 17 years old and ineligible for the death penalty.
As for the 15 remaining suspects, 14 of them, including Elrod, have at some point faced — or are still facing — death penalty prosecution. (The lone suspect among those 15 who did not face capital punishment proceedings was charged with and convicted of murdering Montgomery County Sheriff Ladson O’Connor in June 2015 after the sheriff died in a high-speed chase led by the suspect.)
Of the 14 suspects left, six of them, excluding Elrod now, still face death penalty prosecutions.
The remaining seven have already been through the system. Four have gone to trial and all four have been sentenced to life without parole. Three have pleaded guilty and been sentenced to life without parole.
‘The bad man’
An hour or so into Thursday’s proceeding, relatives of the murdered deputies had their say.
A statement from Smallwood’s mother, Rebecca Foster, was read by a court officer.
In it, Foster wrote how “my life will never be the same. ... It feels like it was all just yesterday.”
Foster added that the only reason she agreed to Elrod pleading guilty was “that I could not sit in court listening to the testimony and seeing the pictures of how this man killed my son. I cry every day. I do not need anymore information about this murder in my head. I just pray that it will all be over now.”
A statement from Sondron’s wife, Melissa Sondron, was also read. She described her husband as “the most incredible, honorable, compassionate” man she knew. She wrote that she missed his laughter, his patrol car in their driveway, the sound of his police radio and the clomp of his boots on their hardwood floors.
Melissa Sondron said, as others would, too, that she can’t bring herself to say the name of her husband’s killer.
Jacob Sondron, deputy Sondron’s son, said his dad was a hero who “gave his life fighting for the community.” Jacob Sondron also voiced his disagreement with Elrod’s plea.
“This is not justice. This is rolling over, giving in,” he said.
Perhaps the most powerful remarks came from Renee Smallwood, a former wife of Smallwood’s who is also the mother of his young son. The son, Wyatt, was 3 when his father was killed.
Through sobs she said the boy has trouble sleeping at night, that he still asks her if “the bad man” is still in jail.
“My child’s heart,” she said, “is still burdened with things that no child should ever have to endure.”
She said her son fears what will happen “if the bad man” kills her, and that Wyatt has asked that she take him to jail to make sure his father’s killer is safely locked away.
“Just last week,” Renee Smallwood said, her son “asked me if policemen went to sleep at night and (wondered) who is protecting us while they sleep. I had to explain to him several times that policemen take turns sleeping so that we are always being protected.”
She forgave Elrod, she said, not for him but so that she herself and her son could go on living, letting go as best they can of “anger and hatred.”
“I pray this man never walks free again,” she said. “I want to be able to say to my child with confidence that ‘the bad man’ will spend forever in prison — until he meets Jesus for his real judgment.”
Meanwhile, the snowy-haired Elrod, in a graphite-gray sport coat, sat silent.
Seated 15 feet behind him in the courtroom gallery, his widowed 84-year-old mother, Joy Elrod, would later break down in tears.
But other than answering yes-or-no questions from the judge, Ralph Elrod hardly spoke a word. He didn’t so much as say he was sorry.
And maybe that was best.
As one of his lawyers, Franklin J. Hogue, explained to a reporter Thursday evening, Elrod had planned to say a few things but when the time came Elrod seemed to think better of it, sensing perhaps that his remarks would ring hollow. And that it was better to let Sondron and Smallwood’s loved ones have the last say, to let the occasion end with the sorrow already expressed.
To say without saying, as Hogue put it, “No one here needs to hear me speak.”