Wounded deputy still counting blessings

Published 8:00 pm Thursday, February 7, 2013

They’ve always asked him one question more than any other: “Have you ever been shot?”

Lt. Byron Catchings would smile and tell them no. He’s taught the anti-drug abuse DARE program in local schools since 2007 and come to expect the question. The answer was easy. After all, in his 12 years with the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office, he’d never known any officer that was shot.

But a Friday evening nearly two weeks ago means he’ll never give that answer again.

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“A split second changed everything,” said Catchings Wednesday afternoon, still recuperating and still carrying a bullet in his back.

At approximately 8 p.m. Jan. 25, Catchings, a lieutenant and investigator with the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department, was driving down Union Street when a gunshot from a Union Street residence pierced the driver’s side door of his white, unmarked Doge Charger and entered Catchings’ body on the left side.

One gunshot jolted an unremarkable Friday evening into a manic collection of memories: the initial tumult of the shooting, the discovery of his wounds, the bumpy oscillation of an ambulance ride to the University of Mississippi Medical Center and an early morning return home.

Since that Friday, his life has been much quieter and Catchings, 37, has primarily been confined to his house. Smiling, he notes the many hours of inactivity may be wearing on him more than anything else.

“That’s something I’m not used to,” he said. “I’m used to going. Usually my day begins 4:30, 5 a.m.”

Get-well cards line a windowsill in his home. A balloon is tied to a well-wisher’s basket. The phone calls, Facebook messages and personal visits have been continuous.

Former and current DARE students, teachers, friends, co-workers – they’ve all communicated to Catchings that their thoughts and prayers are with him.

“I’m glad to know the community does think of me like that,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of company. There really hasn’t been a dull moment. I really am thankful for that.”

But in the quiet moments that do find him, that Friday night stays lodged in his mind as definitively as the bullet that remains about two inches from his spine.

“It’ll be something I never forget,” he said, his usually constant smile tightening and fading a little.

He’d been on duty that day since 2 p.m. and had just gassed up his vehicle at the Highway 51 Texaco station and gotten something to eat.

There were only two hours left in his working day. At 10 p.m., he could go.

Then he cut down Union Street. There isn’t really a reason why.

“I wasn’t headed anywhere,” Catchings said.

He remembers a loud pop. Initially, he didn’t realize what had occurred. He continued to drive, but at the point where Union Street becomes Church Street, near the old Serenity House, a burning sensation began to broadcast loudly to Catchings that something was wrong.

“It dawned on me I might have been hit,” he said.

He traveled to Advance Auto Parts on West Monticello Street. Catchings opened his door, waved over the manager and asked the man to check for wounds. Catchings’ recalls the response word for word.

“He told me, ‘just be still,'” Catchings said.

The bullet entered Catchings’ body on his left side just above the waist, traveled upward through his back and stopped several inches to the right side of his spine.

The news of his shooting traveled quickly over phone lines and postings on social media.

“It was a shock to hear he got shot,” said Dustin Bairfield, a former captain with the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office and now the county’s circuit clerk. “Your heart drops. It’s something – “

Bairfield hesitated, only removed from his career in law enforcement by about two months.

“You fear the worst outcome,” he continued.

For Catchings’ minister, the Rev. Larry Jointer, of St. James Missionary Baptist Church, the call he received invoked tragic memories.

“I’ve been through that before with the loss of another friend of mine that was a police officer,” Jointer said. “I was really devastated that it had happened.”

He felt a resurgence of old feelings for Catchings, an associate minister at the church.

“I really had a deep, heart-sickening feeling,” Jointer said. “The concerns I have run deep.”

Doctors, though, determined Catchings sustained no significant damage to his body, even though the bullet crossed over his spine.

For now, the bullet remains. If Catchings pulls his shirt tight, a small, raised knot is visible where the piece of metal sits inside, right below the skin.

After a doctor’s visit next week, Catchings hopes to know more about when the bullet can be removed.

Through everything, the fear of that Friday night and the amazement of his doctors, Catchings’ faith remains constant.

“The doctors in Jackson kept telling me, ‘you’re lucky, you’re lucky,'” he said. “I had to tell them, I’m not lucky, I’m blessed.”