Heart attack suspected in deputy’s accident death

Published 6:48 pm Monday, April 19, 2010

A Lawrence County sheriff’s deputy who passed away in the earlyhours of Saturday morning may have died of a heart condition ratherthan a car accident, officials said Saturday.

Tommy Kirkland, 53, of 115 Walt McNease Rd., his wife MichelleKirkland, and family friend Shea Shilling were on the way home fromBrookhaven when officials said he slumped over the wheel. Thevehicle lost control and wrecked in front of Sheriff Joel Thames’house at 231 Forest Grove Rd. around 12:25 a.m. Saturday.

“They were within a quarter of a mile of the home of the lady theywere going to drop off, and he called his wife’s name and heslumped over the seat, then the passenger grabbed hold of him,”Thames said. “Evidently he must have hit the gas and sped up,because they ran off the road and went airborne, then hit a culvertthat threw them up in the air and went into my pond. It was a badsituation.”

Thames said Michelle Kirkland and Shilling were able to get tosafety and went across the street to call 911. Both women weretransported to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries, butLawrence County Coroner Sidney Fortenberry said Tommy Kirkland waspronounced dead at the scene.

“He was sent to Jackson for an autopsy, and preliminary reportsindicate that there’s a possibility of a heart attack before thewreck,” said Fortenberry. “I haven’t got the report in my hand, butI did have the pathologist read it to me.”

Thames said Kirkland, who was the head correctional officer at theLawrence County Jail but also served as a transport officer, wasnot only his employee, but his friend.

“Tommy and I were classmates pretty much all through grade schooland high school and played football together,” Thames said. “He wasa small man, but he had a pretty powerful punch to him on thefootball field, and he didn’t back up from anyone. He was a superguy.”

Kirkland was in law enforcement since the 1970s, Thames said,adding that it was a testament to his personality and dedicationthat he had worked for several sheriffs.

“Tommy was very unique, I can say without a doubt he was the mostdedicated employee I had. There’s no way I’ll be able to replacehim,” Thames said. “I told my wife this morning, I can’t think ofanyone I could bring in to do the job he did.”

Officials said Saturday was Kirkland’s 53rd birthday.

Kirkland’s arrangements are being handled by Wilson Funeral Homeand are pending, Fortenberry said.