While Walker County children, teachers, and parents ready themselves for another school year, others in the community are flinging graduation hats into the air as they celebrate hard-earned achievements — in prison.
More than 30 graduation hats flew into the air in a packed room you will not see in a high school graduation ceremony. Yet, the achievement accomplished by these graduates was just as important to them and the prison officials tasked with their rehabilitation as a young adult's graduation is to their proud parents, with one prison speaker during the recent July ceremony stating:
"Congratulations graduates on your landmark achievement!"
This graduation comes at a personal cost of two years of the inmate's time and attention, according to the prison, which they could otherwise spend a myriad of other legitimate ways, even from inside their prison walls.
Instead, this graduating
all-male participant group at Walker State Prison choose to spend their time in faithand character-based training instead of just marking time, lending credence to the Georgia Department of Corrections commissioner's words:
"The Faith and Character Based Program serves as a model for positive change that allows offenders to be in an environment that promotes alternatives to criminal thinking and behavior through character development."
Lest anyone assume this is a one-denominational faith-based program, it is not.
According to Walker State Prison: "The program operates on a holistic approach, secular in nature, which involves our stakeholders and community volunteers in the process of the offenders learning to change their attitudes, beliefs and behaviors."
GDOC Commissioner Timothy C. Ward also stated: "This is another example of programming that works to ensure the successful re-entry of our returning citizens."
The LaFayette City Council approved a new vehicle purchase for the police department during its last meeting.
Chief Bengie Clift picked up the vehicle from the outof-state dealership in mid-July. The car was purchased by the city from Courtesy Automotive Group in La-Fayette, Louisiana, due to an inability to find a more cost-effective deal locally.
Clift stated that all efforts were made locally to assist, but that in the end everyone agreed the best deal turned out to be this one, saving taxpayers money.
The purchase amount totaled $29,218, according to Mayor Arnold. This does not include the additional costs associated with equipping to make it operational for K9 use.
"We try to wait and make vehicle purchases when they can be a budgeted item," the mayor said. "But, sometimes when it is needed, you have to do it anyway. And, in this case, it was time."
Not only is this an important purchase at this time due to the need of the replacement vehicle for the city of LaFayette's police K9 unit, it is also important in light of the sheriff's office being down a K9 unit at this time, too, due to the death of K9 Rocky.
While they are two separate law enforcement entities, the citizens in the city and county both depend upon the services provided by the Walker County Sheriff's Office and the LaFayette Police Department when it comes to combating drug crime in this geographical area. Having K9 units helps in that regard.
A recent Walker County Messenger report about drug overdose and the increasing use of Narcan by emergency medical services personnel in Walker County shows an alarming growing trend toward higher potency drugs being brought into this area. This makes it even more imperative to have operational K9 units for detection purposes during traffic stops, home searches, etc.
Therefore, this 2018 Dodge Durango purchase for the LaFayette police — as soon as it can be outfitted — will expand the LaFayette law enforcement department's fleet to a total of 14 patrol vehicles, one animal control truck, and one K9 truck.
The LaFayette Police Department currently provides law enforcement patrol and safety coverage for residents and visitors within the city limits of Walker County, which is estimated to be approximately 7,200 residents and about 400 businesses based on the police department's website. Visitor numbers for the city fluctuates, contingent upon the attendance during large-scale events, such as the HoneyBee Festival held annually.
Drug dealers are playing Russian roulette with clueless drug users in Walker County, according to one local detective captain. And he hopes the users stop participating.
Detective Dave Scroggins of the Rossville Police Department says that when illicit opioid drugs like heroin are cut with other more potent opioids like fentanyl or carfentanil, overdoses are inevitable because "if the two drugs are not mixed well one customer might get zero fentanyl (a drug that increases potency by 50 to 100 times that of heroin), while another customer might get enough fentanyl (it only takes a couple of grains to kill a person), to lead to an overdose.
God forbid if the illicit user gets carfentanil in the drug mix from their supplier, since that synthetic man-made opioid is 100 times stronger
than fentanyl and a thousand times stronger than heroin. It only takes one grain of it to severely harm.
Additionally, any opioid taken by someone with a legitimate prescription, such as the opioid oxycodone, can also experience accidental overdose if they take more than prescribed or also take another opioid in addition to their prescription — whether it is legal or illicit, due to the potency of these products when combined.
That is why the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has made a concentrated effort to educate the public on this dangerous opioid medication, trying to prevent accidental overdoses by those using one or more legal opioid prescriptions.
Detective Scroggins says that this crackdown on the availability of legal and prescription opioids like hydrocodone, codeine and even legal combination opioids (acetaminophen-codeine, for example) is why the illicit opioid user is now turning to the more available (and less expensive to obtain) heroin that is hitting the streets.
"A lot of pain clinics have been closed and now legitimate doctors are no longer dispensing prescriptions for 120 opioid pills at one time to their patients, even if they are not drug users. Now, patients might get a prescription for just 10 of the pills at a time, with the ability to obtain another small quantity in 10 days, if needed," Scroggins said.
Thus, this is limiting illicit access, too, since some drug users get pills from family or friends who do not use the pain medications prescribed to them due to cancer or other serious conditions, like orthopedic problems or surgeries.
This unavailability of legitimate access is leading opioid drug users to turn to street heroin as an alternative, according to Scroggins. But the detective says that this heroin hitting the streets now is often laced (mixed) with more potent illicit opioids, like man-made fentanyl and carfentanil, making the drug a deadly cocktail that he says is setting up users to unknowingly play Russian roulette each time they buy and use these drugs.
"They never know what they are getting in that buy," the detective said, and he and his men are seeing the result of that, citing two overdose cases in one recent weekend.
In one instance, a young woman hired a taxi driver to take her to a local grocery store, but upon arrival the driver could not get her to exit the vehicle, opening the door to find her overdosed, with a needle lying next to her in the backseat.
In the other instance, a 30'ish-year-old male rode his bicycle to a female friend's home and knocked on the door. When he was allowed inside, he started to walk down the hallway and fell face-forward, overdosing seconds after arriving.
Both cases are overdoses in a very small community in just one little corner of Walker County. And Scroggins says it isn't the first time this year that opioidrelated drug overdoses have occurred there.
In another case, a boyfriend and girlfriend are believed to have shared their legitimate prescriptions with one another (he methadone from a clinic; she a Xanax prescription). It is believed that the girlfriend took the methadone with the Xanax, which Scroggins says can be a toxic mix in the first place, and now the young woman is dead.
Methadone is a synthetic opioid and Xanax is a benzodiazepine, which enhances the effects of the opioid.
Opioid and benzodiazepine combinations, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, is a prescription combination that one study showed could be 10 times more deadly for the user than if they just used the opioid.
But not all overdoses are leading to death. Instead, in the wake of the CDC educating the public about the dangers of legally-prescribed opioids — and advising of the miraculous results of Narcan, the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone — legitimate opioid users and illicit users alike are arming themselves with the nasal spray and injection drug for worst-case scenarios.
But for those who do not have such access, or who do not realize it is needed, emergency personnel stand between them and certain death. And that is where some statistical data can aid in the understanding of how bad the problem is becoming for Walker County.
Scroggins says that "for years past there was not more than a couple of heroin arrests made in our area, but that is changing. And, not only are heroinrelated arrests rising, but more overdoses are occurring due to opioid use; opioids laced with something, that is."
According to data provided by Puckett EMS, the emergency services company used by Walker County, the miracle drug Narcan had to be administered by emergency personnel (to those who overdosed in North Georgia counties) as much as 188 times in 2018. It has been used 172 times already in North Georgia counties during the period Jan. 1 through July 31 in 2019.
In other words, of the 188 administrations of Narcan given to overdose patients in 2018 in North Georgia counties, 111 of those administrations (59%) were done in Walker County.
And, of the 172 administrations of Narcan thus far in 2019 (from Jan. 1 to July 31; just six months, not 12), 94 of those administrations (55%) were done in Walker County, too.
The stats show that Walker County has a growing overdose problem that Narcan is being used to treat. It is saving lives, but not all. And, in addition, it is not a proactive way to deal with a deadly problem that seems to continue to grow.
Scroggins states that while the statistics provided by the Walker County emergency personnel are a good indicator of the growing problem, those stats just give a partial picture since there could be many more drug-related opioid overdoses that have occurred, but are not reported.
For example, individuals who have purchased their own Narcan kits from places like Walgreens and other pharmacies that sell them — and who, therefore, might not call for EMS assistance if they overdose on opioid drugs, will not be reflected in the Puckett EMS stats.
In addition, hospital emergency room statistics might show an even more alarming growth number of overdoses from opioid use (legal or illicit), too, Scroggins said, but those numbers might not be easily obtained or known outside the facility.
All of these statistics are concerning since the CDC recently stated that Georgia is one of 19 other states that have seen a "statistically significant drug overdose death rate increase from 2016 to 2017."
Additionally, the CDC stated that "overdose deaths involving prescription opioids were five times higher in 2017 than in 1999."
Unfortunately, as miraculous a drug as Narcan is proving to be, saving as many as 111 people in Walker County through its administration in 2018 and 94 others thus far in 2019, the miracle drug is not always able to save the overdosed individual.
Scroggins shares that one recent overdose individual in his jurisdiction had a Narcan nasal spray within their reach when they overdosed, but they never used it because they did not realize that they had already taken the illicit drug before accidentally taking it again, never realizing they had taken it twice.
Thus, the individual did not use the spray that could have saved their life. In that case, a piece of paper found at the scene revealed that fentanyl-laced heroin was present, and that made the double-dose even more of a threat of overdose.
In the battle of preventing opioid drug overdoses in Walker County and elsewhere, Detective Capt. Scroggins is not optimistic about the future, stating: "Where there is a demand there will be a supply."
First of 10 articles
Walker County's Sheriff Steve Wilson had a short one-page profile piece done on him by a Chattanooga newspaper decades ago. It hangs on the wall in the reception area of the jail, marking his career before taking office as a new sheriff. But since that time, in 1997, no media entity has even thought to mine the wealth of information this local law enforcement powerhouse has by writing an updated in-depth profile on him. Until now, that is. And given this lawman's decades of service, a one-page profile will just not cover it.
Sheriff Wilson, what I want to do is a 10-part series about you to run for ten consecutive weeks.
Yes, because there is no way I could cover everything about you in a two-part series.
Your law enforcement career is extensive. It spans decades of service to your country and community. And then there are all the other hats you wear around Walker.
Now, first and foremost, I want to know how you got into law enforcement since you have spent almost your entire life in it.
I started when I was 18. I was fresh out of high school trying to decide what to do. Trying to decide whether to go straight on into college, or whether to go to work.
I felt like I needed to take some time off. That fall after graduation I learned that the FBI was recruiting for clerical work, for clerical assistance at their main office in Washington, D.C., and I thought: "That sounds like something I might enjoy doing. It might be interesting work."
So I applied and months went on and months went on, and I didn't hear anything. And I thought: "This is just not gonna happen." And finally, I guess it was in early March of the following year, 1976, that I got the phone call or a letter — I know I got a letter; probably got a phone call also.
But, it (the letter) was saying that I had been accepted, and I was to report on March the 28th for work. I sent back the acceptance and here I go off to Washington, D.C. at 18 years of age. I had never been to Washington. It was a growing experience, but I always felt like I was more mature for my age.
So at 18 I felt like — and I believe I was, probably — more like 22 or 23. I always felt like I was older; more mature.
I was hired to work as a clerical employee at the J. Edgar Hoover Building at 935 Pennsylvania Avenue, in between the White House and Capitol.
According to the FBI, "From its inception in 1908 until 1975, the main offices of the FBI were housed in the Department of Justice Building. The first request for a separate FBI building occurred in 1939. Although the Public Buildings Agency initiated plans for an FBI building in 1941, America's entry into World War II required postponing all government building projects."
"FBI employees moved into the new building June 28, 1974. At that time, FBI Headquarters offices were housed in nine separate locations. By May 30, 1975, the Director, the associate director, and several divisions had moved in."
Ten months later, the future sheriff of Walker County joined them in that new building as an 18-year-old.
I lived in Virginia, but I worked there for about three years and three months ... somewhere in that neighborhood of time.
I worked in the identification division and there I learned to classify fingerprints and I still use that skill today. As a matter-of-fact, this week I had a LaFayette P.D. officer bring me a latent fingerprint down, and I put the magnifier on it and used a card print of a known offender to
see if it was "in the ballpark" or not.
And I said (to the officer): "No, you can't do anything with it. What you've got is not enough. And I don't even know if it's him. I don't believe it is — but you probably need to go further with it, but I don't believe your latent is going to be enough. And, it appears to be a palm print.
Gosh, 43 years later I still, occasionally, get asked to look at fingerprints.
So you were able to look and see manually if a latent print lifted at a crime scene matched a printed card that contained a known suspect's prints (like when they are arrested and booked)?
Yes. And I would, of course, classify the prints. It was card prints back then. Everything was on cards.
No AFIS (Automated Fingerprint Identification System)?
No AFIS, no. I'm a "before AFIS." (The sheriff laughs because he did the work old-school, before the computer age, when it was much more labor-intensive).
AFIS was beginning, though, as I was transitioning out of that position and into another position there at the FBI. I don't know if it was AFIS or not, to be honest with you, but it was a computerized system that some of us had been selected to learn.
It may have been the PreAFIS, or it could have been AFIS. I'm not sure. When I first started there in '76 it was all card. And it was the "I," the individual classifying, the individual searching for other prints and reporting back to agencies. There was no computerized systems that I know of, not at that time.
But I did that for probably 18 to 20 months, after going through the FBI school. The classification school was about a 12-week class, if memory serves me correct. I was learning all the different arches, the loops, the whorls. Learning how to classify them and those types of things. I finished that and then went out onto the floor.
According to FBI records, the Bureau began creating their own computerized scanning method to electronically start comparing fingerprints for identification purposes around the time Sheriff Wilson was employed, but not before he did it manually. By 1999 they were well on their way to AFIS use instead of manual classification of fingerprints, but the sheriff no longer worked for them.
The last job I had there (at the Bureau) was working for internal security. It was a small group of about 18 to 20 of us that worked that section. And I had the good fortune of being able to work side-by-side with the director, and the assistant director. I got to go into the director's wing.
At such a young age? In the FBI director's wing?!
Yeah, I know it. By then I was probably 20, 21, but I had a security clearance.
Did you know anyone that worked at the FBI before you went there? Someone with pull to get you that job and proximity to the director?
No, I did not. Didn't know anybody. I still communicate with some friends via Facebook that I worked with there. But, no, I didn't know anyone. And I'm thinking back now, "Would I do that again? Just drop down in the middle of a big city?"
I shared an apartment with three other guys. We just all bunked together, almost like a college dorm, to some degree.
Did they work in law enforcement, too?
They worked at the FBI also. There was a division in there that helped with housing. I don't know how many thousands of people worked there; several thousands worked there.
For new people that would be coming in, if there was a vacancy in an apartment complex they would pair you up. I was paired up with a guy from Washington State, one from Maryland and one from Kentucky.
Do you still maintain contact with them?
I do with one of them. And then later on there was another one that came in and I am still friends on Facebook with him. But the other two I have lost contact with, and I haven't been able to track them down. But that's what I did. Those were the two jobs I had while I was there that three-plus years.
That job opened a lot of other doors for me. I really don't believe that I would have this position here today had I not started there at a young age. That put the direction in my life as far as a career and as far as a vocation. And, of course, there were many other things between there and here. So, without just saying that's what I wanted to do. I found my calling, and I loved it.
That is what happened, I think. I was out of high school, and I was unsure as to what I wanted to do and that kind-of fell into my lap. And I was able to get into it. And now 43 years later I'm in this position here.
That's how it all began.
You know and I know that you didn't just "fall into it." It was a plan; God's plan.
Well, yes it was.
So, you had two different jobs at the FBI. You had the fingerprint-matching job in the identification division and...
The other was the internal security division. There were two different types of security there in the Hoover building. There was armed security with the GSA Police, I believe. They were armed law enforcement officers, sworn. And then we had another division, an internal division that I was selected to be in, and that was really a tough job to get into. They didn't just take anybody.
I guess I have to brag a little bit here, but I had such a good work record in the identification division that they told me since I was doing such good work that they looked at my work ethic along with some other things and they selected me. A lot of people applied for the position I was hired for — or, rather, transferred into. It was a promotion; more money. Another GS grade up and I had the ability to go just about everywhere in the Hoover building with my security clearance.
Like I said, I could go into the director's office unattended, the assistant director's office. And, I was more-orless an aide in the afternoon for them, because I worked the 4 p.m. to 1 a.m. shift there. So, I was kind-of-like an aide to the director and the assistant director until closing time in a couple of hours and then after that we did security checks within the building to make sure that things were as they were supposed to be.
So it was just another layer of security in case someone on the inside had done something wrong, or someone on the outside had gotten into the building. We would look for things like that and report it if we needed to. So those were the two positions I had while I was there.
After three-plus years there, I decided I needed to come back to this area here, and I went to work for the department of corrections. I worked there almost a year, here at the Walker State Prison.
What made you decide you needed to come back here (to Walker County)? Did you miss family...
Yeah, and I think it was the area. The cost of living up there was so high, even though I had been promoted one time from within, I felt like that the chance or opportunity for promotion was a long ways off.
I did not have the degree at that point that was required, and I knew that if I wanted it, I would have to try to stay there and go to night school. But I was working and knew that was going to be very difficult. I just knew that becoming a special agent was going to be a long ways off. If I wanted to go that route.
I just didn't see living there. I didn't like the big city. It's OK to visit, and I guess I wouldn't take the experience for anything, but I don't think I'd want to live there long-term. I've been back to visit one time, really twice — once with my family, and it reminded me why I moved back here to a slower pace in life.
I think a little bit of homesickness, probably. The pace of life here is really what I was more suited for, and I felt like I had maxed out in life — maxed out my potential there.
That's pretty astute of you at that age to realize that about yourself?
Yeah, it was. But it was just one of those things that I felt like was the right thing to do at that point. I've never had any second thoughts about it or regretted it. My call was really to work in the police department. I thought if I could get back here I could be hired at the city police department or here at the sheriff's office.
And I knew that I probably needed to get back to this area in order to do that. Being off somewhere made it difficult to be interviewed; difficult to be hired, so I thought if I could get back here — and I had applied at the sheriff's office, I believe, and the city police department and at the state prison.
I got a call. My dad had called me. The warden there knew my father pretty well. He said "You've got a job if you want it." And I said, "Well, OK. That will get me back to LaFayette. That will get me back with a job." And I made that decision to come back, and I went to work there.
Did you apply to the sheriff's office, police department or the department of corrections here before you went to work for the FBI?
You only applied to the FBI?
Well, I was 18 and to be in a sworn position you had to be 21 years old. So that three year period there, that was a long ways off. When you're 18 looking to 21 it seems like it takes forever, right?
And now it doesn't take that long. (Laughter)
You know what I'm talking about. We're the same age, right? (More laughter)
Anyway, I didn't apply to those agencies then because of age, but when I came back I was 21, and I knew that I was eligible to be a sworn officer at that time. So I took the first opportunity that I had (to get back to Walker) and that was at the prison. It was the first offer.
I worked there for somewhere around 10 months or so. At that point I was getting a little discouraged because I really wanted to be a police officer on the street, you know.
I enjoyed it. I worked with a lot of good people there. I'm still friends today with people that I worked with there. And a lot of them have been my supporters over the years. But, I just decided that that part of law enforcement, corrections, wasn't my calling, or not what I enjoyed, let's just put it that way.
I decided to make the move and went out into private business for a few months, still waiting for that call. I finally got it in the fall of the next year. I got called to come to the city police department for an interview. There was an opening there.
We are talking about the city of LaFayette?
Yes, the city of LaFayette.
Who was the police chief at LaFayette?
Dino Richardson. Chief Richardson. A legend at LaFayette PD. He'd only been chief a couple of years when he hired me, and he ended up serving until his death in 2006. And he was quite a character and a legend around here in the police world. And, a good friend.
But he took a chance on me there in 1980, and he hired me. Back then you could go to work without being mandated or certified. In Georgia you could work a year as a non-certified police officer before you went to the academy and, that has since changed.
I went to the Rome Regional Police Academy in Floyd County in '81. I went through mandate school there, graduated and came back, and ended up working with the city for...
As a patrol officer?
As a patrol officer, yes. I ended up working there until 1986. I was there until 1986. And I made my next move coming here in '86, and I have been here ever since.
So you left there in '86 and Dino was still the chief?
How was the transition when you left the FBI...left the department of corrections...left the city of LaFayette?
Did they handle that transition well? Were they upset that you were not going to stay in their particular organization? Were they supportive of you making the transition that was right for you?
I want to think of myself as a good employee. I would think that they were probably disappointed that I had left, but they were not upset by no means. I didn't ever receive that feeling that anybody was ever upset.
But, I would say that leaving the city was a little tough for me. I had been there fiveand-a-half, nearly six years, and that is where I got my start. It was an extremely difficult decision to leave, let me say that.
It sounds like you were pretty close to Dino?
I was. He had given me the opportunity to start there, so I was really torn about leaving because I had a good relationship there, enjoyed working with everyone there. So I remember it was a struggle to make the decision to leave there to come here.
What was the motive to leave the city for the sheriff's office?
It was probably 50 cents an hour. (Laughter) There's a joke around here and in law enforcement that people will leave one agency and go to another one for 50 cents an hour (pay raise).
And when you are young, and you are married and have three children like I did, 50 cents an hour was a lot of money. It was a little bit more money coming here.
I was going to ask you when the family (your family) entered the picture of your law enforcement career? Was that while you were working for the city?
Yes. I had three little ones there, and I was trying to make ends meet. It was tough. I don't remember exactly what my salary was, but it was about four dollars and a nickle I think when I started there, for an hour.
And we know how low the pay still is for law enforcement...
It's still a struggle when you have a family working in this business. One of the things I regret that I haven't been able to move forward on is getting the pay scale to a standard that we wouldn't have to say that. I would like to be able to say that after 22 years we were past that. We're not. We're still struggling to pay our police officers a fair wage.
And they risk their lives for us...
Yes. About every 60 hours in the United States there's a law enforcement officer that loses their life in the line of duty, protecting and serving the people of this country.
Some areas of the country pay better than others, and the South has historically been lower paid than our counterparts in the North and West.
But getting back to that, I think the biggest motivation (for my leaving the city and going to the county) was a couple of things that factored into it. A new sheriff had been elected in 1984 and took office in January of 1985. He, at that time, was doing a lot of things different here in the sheriff's office. A lot of things that were positive at the sheriff's office.
We had already seen some men leaving the city police agency of LaFayette and other men from other agencies come to the sheriff's office in late '85 and, I believe in 1986, because the pay was getting better. It might not have been much, but it was a little bit better...and some of the benefits, and the working environment was better, so...
One of my co-workers at the city was at the sheriff's office...had already left to come here and was one of the lieutenants of patrol...
So you knew someone there?
...And so he was calling and talking to us and saying "Hey, you need to come over here. Things are great over here."
And he had reached out to me and said you may want to come on over here now. Things are a little bit better, and we will pay you more on the hour. All of that type of stuff that builds you up and gets you interested in making that move.
It was the most difficult move I ever made from one job to the other, because I really liked working there, and I really liked the people there. I made a great bond with a lot of people. But I did make the decision to leave and came here in April of 1986.
I came here as a deputy sheriff and was working the entire county, which opened up the policing I guess, because I had been confined to a smaller city for five-and-a-half years or so.
A square mileage difference of how much between city and county?
I'm not sure what the square mileage for the city of LaFayette is. And it's not really small, there are other small cities, but compared to the county, which is 445 square miles, it was a big difference.
For the record, the square mileage of the city of LaFayette is approximately 8 square miles.
So that's what happened. I came on patrol and I stayed on patrol at the sheriff's office until August of 1987.
Was that less than a year, or right at a year?
About a year and four months or so.
You seemed to climb that ladder fast...
I did. (He laughs)
I mean, I'm just noticing...three years at the FBI, but not three years in one position. You had two positions there.
And then less than a year at the correctional facility. Ten months, actually.
Well, you did a little more time at the city.
Yeah, I did five or five-and-a-half years there.
You had to really, really like it.
Yeah. I did, and I worked first and third shift there, so it wasn't too terribly bad.
Did you work third shift when you started at the sheriff's office as a deputy?
Yes, as most people do. But I got off of that, finally, and went on first shift.
And we had a great shift (at the city). I talk about it, it was the best working