Family, friends remember slain sheriff

Published 5:00 am Tuesday, September 29, 2009

It was 27 years ago Tuesday that Franklin County Sheriff JamesPosey traded his life for those of a woman and three children, andyet his heroic act is one that still resonates today, not only inthe people who were affected, but in his memory.

Posey was killed Sept. 29, 1982, after voluntarily taking theplace of four hostages in a situation that began in Franklin Countyand culminated on West Lincoln Road. It is unclear what transpiredbetween Posey and the hostage-taker, Derald Coghlan, but Posey wasshot. When he slumped out the door of the vehicle where the two mensat, officers fired on the assailant, killing him on the spot aswell.

In spite of rescue efforts by fellow officers on the way to thehospital, Posey died that day.

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The event drew national attention, including a phone call fromPresident Ronald Regan to the grieving family, in which he read tothem John 15:13, which says, “Greater love hath no man than this,that he would lay his own life down for his friends.”

Melissa Posey was 17 when her father was killed. She said thepresident’s words gave the family hope in the early part of whatwould be tough days ahead.

“It made a huge difference with all of us. Being young like wewere, it gave us a little bit of courage or encouragement to knowthat someone of his magnitude and position would care to call aboutold country boy James Posey,” she said. “I think the answer to thatwould be that it gave us courage to get through it.”

Posey was a man who worked hard for his family. When notperforming his duties as sheriff of Franklin County, he worked oncars to make extra money to feed the mouths at home. And when itcame to dealing with other people, Posey, by all accounts, was abrave man who never let societal standards get in the way of lovingother people.

Melissa Posey said that’s what she’s carried with her to thisday.

“He tried to live and treat people like he would want to betreated, I think he tried to love people in his own way like Jesusteaches us to love people,” she said. “He loved everyone – black orwhite, it didn’t matter, he respected everyone. It gave him troublea lot of times, too, but he respected everybody the same.”

And the day of his death, it was that steady compassion that wasthe last thing his friends and contemporaries saw of him. FormerMcComb Police Chief Billie Hughes, was a captain with theMississippi Highway Patrol at the time, and had helped cut off thefleeing hostage taker when he entered Lincoln County. A standoffensued, and Hughes said the last thing Posey said to him were wordsof encouragement.

“He talked them into letting him exchange himself for thehostage. He just walked over and handed me his pistol and said ‘Ican handle it,'” Hughes said. “The last thing he said to me, heturned his head over his shoulder and said, ‘Billie, back off. Ican handle it.'”

Hughes said what Posey did is something that will always set himapart from other men, much like President Regan told hisfamily.

“He bet his life on it, and he certainly did a very heroicthing,” Hughes said. “I do know they gave him posthumously thehighest award for valor that the state could give out.”

Ironically, in addition to Hughes, sources say current CopiahCounty Sheriff Harold Jones was also on the scene with MHP, andcurrent Franklin County Sheriff James Newman was there as well.Charles “Sonny” Welch, one of the hostages, became a sheriff’sdeputy later in life.

And Lincoln County Sheriff Steve Rushing was 8 years old at thetime of the incident, which took place just down the road from hishouse.

Rushing said he saw the patrol cars driving up and down theroad, and after he heard the shots fired, he saw one highway patrolcar flying toward town. He said he doesn’t know how much of theincident affected his career path, but that he has often thoughtabout that day since.

“It’s something you don’t forget. I’m not going to say that wasthe sole cause of my being here, but as a kid I was alwaysinterested in law enforcement,” he said. “And circumstances everyday make you think about things like that in this job.”

Hughes said in the path he’s taken since Posey’s death, he’sthought about the situation often. He had seen plenty of death bythat time, he said, but it made more of a mark in his life becauseit was someone he knew and cared about.

“But there was no different way to handle the situation thanwhat we did,” he said. “When you put on the badge, you’ve sworn toprotect and serve, and you’ve got to take chances to help otherpeople. Anyone who can’t do that needs to look for another line ofwork.”

But the biggest impact, naturally, has been on Posey’s ownfamily. Melissa was 17 when her father died, and her brother Mikewas 14.

“We’ve had healing over the years, and we know for sure that youhave to forgive no matter what,” she said. “You have to look deeperthan just a split-second decision. My brother and I would like totell everyone even though this happened, a lot of good has come outof it … The main thing for us to do as people in this life is toforgive. To love one another. No matter what happened.”

And Melissa said she’s pretty sure her dad would agree.

“If my dad could say something right now, he would say that hewould do it again,” she said. “And he would say to people, ‘Y’alljust need to love one another.” I heard him say it a million times.It holds so true. It all comes back to that.”