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An April afternoon in 1994

This month marks 24 years since a bold eight-letter headline — SHOOT-OUT — stretched across the front page of The Daily Leader. Most locals recall the details, but if they can’t, it’s easy enough to Google. The events of that April afternoon in Brookhaven are immortalized on YouTube and a “Real Stories of the Highway Patrol” episode.

It was a Thursday afternoon, and after signing off from his shift, Mississippi Trooper John Wayne Leggett headed to his Bogue Chitto home. That’s when he noticed a Ford Bronco with an out-of-state tag. There was nothing really suspicious about the vehicle, but the officer just had a gut feeling something wasn’t right.

And it’s good he did. Leggett was tailing a pair of fugitives.

Days earlier, Richard Eugene Hamilton had walked away from his job outside the gates of Carteret Correctional Center in North Carolina, and Anthony Floyd Wainwright had jumped the fence. Together, they managed to make it to Lake City, Florida. In need of a different car, they spotted a woman coming out of a convenience store and began to follow her. They brutally raped and murdered the owner of the Bronco, 23-year-old Carmen Gayheart.

Without knowing any of this background information, Leggett parked his car and waited for Hamilton and Floyd to exit a loop in a Brookhaven neighborhood. When they did, he fell in behind their vehicle. Within moments, the fugitives fired shots from the back of the Bronco. The windshield of Leggett’s patrol car was eventually peppered with shotgun holes — more than 40 of them.

It was five minutes out of his 27-year career that Leggett says he’ll never forget: “No one had ever pointed a gun at me. When I realized what was happening, I thought, ‘This may be the end of it.’”

Leggett followed the pair down a dead-end street to a nearby school. He parked, retrieved his shotgun, and prepared for the coming encounter. As the fugitives turned and drove the stolen Bronco towards Leggett, he fired, hitting the passenger in the face and the driver in the shoulder. They wrecked, and both suspects were apprehended and placed into custody.

Leggett walked away with a minor eye injury. Later, he was named statewide “Trooper of the Year” and awarded the Highway Patrol’s Medal of Valor. He also received Congressional recognition and was tapped as the National Association of Police Organizations’ 1994 “Top Cop.”

The following year, Broward County, Florida’s Sun Sentinel reported that both Hamilton and Wainwright were tried and given the death penalty for Gayheart’s murder. The article tells of Gayheart’s mourning husband and the two children she left behind. Trial proceedings filled in other details, like how she begged in vain for her life and quivered when the killers strangled her with a towel.

Throughout the trial, neither Hamilton nor Wainwright showed remorse, and Hamilton sometimes even smirked and blew kisses. The circuit court judge called the two men’s actions “conscienceless, pitiless.”

They ended up on death row.

Three years later, the pair were back in court on the first of a string of appeals. Gayheart’s father, 66-year-old Richard Tortora, told reporters, “I’ll be dead before they will.”

That was more than two decades ago. Hamilton’s latest appeal was filed with the Florida Supreme Court just seven weeks ago, on Feb. 8.   

And while the wheels of justice have turned painfully slow for the Gayheart family, Trooper Leggett’s swift and responsive actions spared other families potential harm right here, right at home. With real heroes so hard to come by, it seems only fitting to acknowledge (again) one in our midst. It’s also a good reminder: You never know what an April afternoon might hold. 

Kim Henderson is a freelance writer. Contact her at kimhenderson319@gmail.com.