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Marshal’s widow on mourning this Christmas

Hazlehurst optometrist Channing Wells is 31, with a stylish curled afro and knee-high boots that peek out from under her white lab coat. Her dark eyes keep a steady gaze, even when she describes her worst day — the day she greeted a U.S. Marshal outside her examination room.    

It was March 10, 2015, and that morning Channing’s husband, Deputy U.S. Marshal Josie Wells, was part of a task force attempting to arrest double-murder suspect Jamie Croom. Croom was staying at the Elm Grove Motel, an aging roadside motor court in North Baton Rouge.

The Elm Grove is still a good hideout. It’s set in a tangle of oaks and enclosed by a crumbling fence. When I visited the spot last month, a cat was hanging out in front of the door to Room 9. There were no signs of the shootout between the marshals and Croom, but Wells was the third law enforcement officer through that door four years ago. A bullet found a space between his helmet and vest.

After being rushed to Baton Rouge, Channing Wells learned about her husband’s ride to the hospital, that he asked his fellow marshals to pray with him. Officials gave her his broken phone.

“He says, ‘I love you, too. We’ll talk tonight.’ And that was my last text message around 11,” she recalls. “They presented him dead upon arrival at 12:01. So, my life literally turned upside down within a matter of seconds.”

Wells was four months pregnant with the couple’s first child. She determined to focus on the baby’s wellbeing, and she says that helped her get through the funeral. She even managed to listen dry-eyed as U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder gave a eulogy.

Focusing on her son helped her that first Christmas, too. She could have gotten bogged down, thinking of Dec. 25 a year before, when a pregnancy test revealed the couple was expecting.

“2014 was the best gift that I could give my husband, especially after two-and-a-half long years of trying to conceive and different fertility treatments. 2015 was the Christmas I got to hold that Christmas gift that I wanted to give to my husband. So it was bittersweet.”

Wells’ twin sister and their mother moved in after the baby was born and helped around the clock. But she’s on her own now with an active 4-year-old who likes dinosaurs and his mother’s chess set.

“It’s hard raising your child by yourself. Some nights in the beginning I was angry with my husband because he left,” she admits.

Wells says she’s learned to trust in God to take care of her: “When I married my husband, I thought he was my lifetime partner. He’s my soul mate. But obviously God saw fit for me to have a second chapter to my story.”    

Wells went to Washington, D.C., to receive her husband’s Purple Heart. She displays it in a special room at her Raymond home. The space is covered floor-to-ceiling with plaques and mementos from Josie’s career.

Her favorite photo in the room is just left of the doorway. It’s from Josie’s graduation, and she and Josie are all smiles, posing in front of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial. Wells didn’t know she’d return there. Alone.

“He was actually standing in front of the wall that his name was put on three short years later,” she points out. “I remember that day like it was yesterday.” 

Even though Wells now shares her story as a motivational speaker, she says grief still comes in waves. Her husband laid a foundation in their family that helps — prayer.

“Every morning he would wake me up at 4 a.m. before he left to get on the road, and we would say what we called the watchword — ‘May the Lord watch between me and thee while we’re absent one from another.’”

Wells still has Josie’s horse, a Tennessee Walker named BeBe. She keeps her in a fenced pasture beside her driveway. And this Christmas, she’ll keep his favorite holiday foods — Oreos, ice cream and his mother’s pound cake — on the table. That’s the approach she and the extended family chose their first Christmas without Josie.

“Everything that he loved, that’s what we indulged in. And we spent more time laughing at the memories versus crying for his absence.”

Wells says relatives and friends should encourage that kind of joyful remembering this season: “It’s a blessing to have such an impact on this world that your family loves you so much that they can mourn you, but you would do more benefit for your loved ones by celebrating the good times. You know, celebrate life. Celebrate them.”

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