Hale Co. short of lawmen, funds

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 19, 2004

PLEASANT VALLEY – Not much happens in this quiet northern Hale County community where everybody knows their neighbors and are generally eager to lend one another a hand.

Quiet, that is, until crime comes to town.

Last week, local store owner Randy Adams was awakened shortly after 1 a.m. by the sound of someone trying to break in the door to his Pleasant Valley Grocery on Alabama Highway 25. Adams and his wife live above the store.

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In the process of responding to that inquiry, Adams shot at three individuals, wounding two, said Hale County Sheriff Larry Johnson. To date, no charges have been filed in the case, although Adams went before the Hale County Grand Jury on Wednesday.

Johnson said the names of the other individuals involved in the incident were not released because they are not charged at this time.

“The whole matter is going to the grand jury for them to decide,” Johnson said.

Still, the incident has rekindled a fire among residents, many of who are quick to defend Adam’s actions and are critical of the county’s ability to provide adequate protection across the county.

“I’ve lived here all my life and I’ve never seen as much go on as it has lately – in the past three or four years,” said Eva Laffitte. “We’ve never had a problem like what we have now.”

Laffitte lives about a mile from Adams’ store and isn’t alone in her thoughts.

“It’s not going to stop unless they know something bad is going to happen,” said Lisa Wyatt, who helps in the store. “The county can’t be everywhere, so the people have to do something themselves.”

Wyatt, like Laffitte, said in the past the sheriff’s department took an hour or more to even respond to a call from the community, about 15 miles north of Greensboro.

“We don’t have any law enforcement in Hale County outside the city of Greensboro,” she said.

Laffitte said she didn’t fault Johnson entirely for that problem.

“I don’t push anything on our sheriff because he has a lot to do,” she said, “but they don’t come unless something happens, then they take down a report and that’s that.”

“There’s no arrests, no questioning,” Wyatt added.

Johnson admits there’s more work than his department can do with just five deputies working two shifts – and nobody on a 24-hour basis, unless you count him.

When he started in 1973, Johnson had four deputies.

“It’s been as high as six, but right now we’re down to five,” he said.

He plans to ask county commissioners to fund two new deputy positions.

“I was going to ask them in this budget, but they never passed one,” he said.

Manpower isn’t the only need in his department, either. Equipment as basic as walkie-talkies are needed, not to mention more sophisticated law enforcement equipment.

“I don’t know if we have the money available to buy it, but the commission asked that I keep spending down and that’s what I try to do,” he said.

Pleasant Valley residents don’t see the same picture as Johnson. They see a flush department with a new jail.

Larry Wyatt, an older gentleman who’s a regular coffee drinker at the Adams’ store, has helped Randy Adams repair damage from the attempted break in, just as he has on previous occasions.

“Every door on this building has been busted in the last few years,” he said.

He said a steel garbage can was used to knock out the store’s security glassed front door in last week’s attempt.

“We’ve had special taxes twice for a new jail,” he said.

In fact, the new jail, completed in 2000, is fully staffed and does fall under the sheriff’s budget, but Johnson points out the operational costs are about five times as high.

“A major thing that cuts into our budget is the new jail we went into in 2000. We went from $75,000 – $80,000 per year to $400,000 in the new jail,” he said. “We had to hire new employees to staff it. I was not going to open it until it was properly staffed.”

With two deputies per shift to cover some 660 square miles and budget constraints, Johnson has to prioritize his patrol duties.

“I wish we had enough people to respond, but I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to do that,” he said.

As a result, he has to deal with problem areas rather than patrolling, and serve process in a piecemeal manner.

“The Valley area really doesn’t have as many problems – they don’t have as much as say Sawyerville,” he said. “Then you have to add to the time the fact that booking requires a deputy to fill out arrest reports and incident/offense reports and that takes a chunk of time away from responding to calls.”

The few county patrols in the Valley area leave residents with the idea that they must be on the front lines of crime deterrence.

“If you can’t defend your own home, our country is in sad shape,” said Wallace Fondren. “[Adams] was defending his business and home.”

“Someone breaking into your home means business and you’ve got to mean business, too,” he said.

Fondren believes in cases like Adams’, the law is working against innocent people and protecting the criminals.

“It’s a shame that our law will protect someone who’s trying to break in. Now, this man [Adams] has to worry whether or not he’s in trouble,” he emphasized.

Wallace said he’s worried about his widowed mother’s safety.

“My mother lives just up the road [from the store], it could have been her and there wouldn’t be anyone she could call, except me,” he said.

Adams’ actions were justified he said, and should send a clear message to other would-be criminals looking at the Valley area.

“Respect and fear go hand-in-hand,” he said. “I guarantee they’ll know that Randy will do what is necessary to protect his home and business. All that was keeping them out was that steel bar across the door,” Wallace said.

Lisa Wyatt said the word would get out – at least about the Adams’ place – that people in the Valley community will take up for themselves.

“At least they’ll know that something will happen if they come back to this store,” she said.

Johnson, however, said that the best deterrent was prevention.

“People have the right to protect themselves the way I read the law, but they have to feel like their life is in danger,” he said.

In Adams’ case, it happened that Adams caught the individuals in the act of the crime – a situation that doesn’t happen all that often.

“Usually people discover the crime after it’s happened,” Johnson said.

“The only deterrent is to take every precaution to keep property secure,” he said. “So many people leave their property out – at least make every effort to be secure.”