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Death of a deputy

On June 12th — the same day a Wendy’s parking lot in Atlanta made the news — a parking lot two states away in Mendenhall, Mississippi, got some attention as well, though on a smaller scale. It was the site of a routine prisoner transport gone bad.

Simpson County Sheriff Paul Mullins heard the call come over the radio and made it to the scene in about three minutes. And while paramedics flew Deputy James Blair to the hospital where he later died, the sheriff turned his attention to coordinating what would turn into an all-night manhunt. Some 300 officers from across the state came to assist.

“What’s really crucial in something like that is setting up a perimeter,” Mullins explained. “With that many people, you can get a tight perimeter.” Within 24 hours, authorities captured the shooting suspect in a heavily wooded area.

Many of the same officers who helped during the manhunt soon returned to pay their final respects to Deputy Blair. He had a 50-year career in law enforcement. Blair and his wife were raising three of their great-grandchildren. 

The funeral took place that Wednesday, and it drew a record crowd at Tutor Funeral Home. Later, mourners started the long drive to Deputy Blair’s freshly dug grave. For nearly 8 miles along the route, people stood beside the road, waving flags and wiping tears. Kids put their hands over their hearts.   

J. J. Smith of Vancleave rode his Harley-Davidson Electra Glide Classic as part of the procession. He’s a member of the Patriot Guard Riders, an organization that seeks to promote respect for fallen American heroes. “There’s a lot of anger that this could happen to someone like that,” he said. “It’s bad, really bad, then you see what else is going on in the world, and it draws all this attention. I listened to a local radio station coming up here, and there was no mention of it. The whole ride up here, 71 miles, and no mention of what happened to this deputy or his funeral.” 

John Griffith is a duty piper for the Meridian Police Department. He arrived early for the burial, bearing bagpipes and decked out in a Scottish kilt. Griffith plays at about 50 funerals a year: “Fallen ones are special, just like the military killed in action are special. Thankfully, there are not too many of those,” he said. Most families ask Griffith to close out services with “Amazing Grace.”

“I’ll play one verse standing about 50 feet from the grave site and then play one or two more verses as I walk off into the distance, letting the sound just fade away,” he said.

Members of the Highway Patrol’s honor guard were on site, too. Kervin Stewart waited in the shade as long as he could before suiting up in his thick dress attire, complete with a special hat and white gloves. 

“Normally we’re here probably about two hours prior,” he explained. “That way we can assess the area and run through what we’re going to do and make sure we do our part right, because it’s not about us. It’s about them, the person that’s being memorialized.”

While the honor guard practiced, they got updates on the funeral procession. When it got close,  officials blocked Highway 583 to southbound traffic. A wall of fire trucks with lights flashing formed a border at the east edge of the cemetery.  To the south, one of those thin-blue-line flags was draped across the chain link fence.

The white hearse arrived, and family members wearing black took their seats under two tents. There, the preacher told them that James Blair did not live his life in vain. He lived it serving others.

The preacher’s words were followed by a 21-gun salute from the honor guard, their spent shells clinking against a nearby tombstone. Two of the honor guard members stood at either end of the casket and folded the flag side to side, side to side, corner by corner by corner. Gov. Tate Reeves moved in close to say something for only the widow to hear.

Afterwards, I spoke with Joe Andrews, a canine officer with the Simpson County Sheriff’s Department. He knew Deputy Blair well.

“He was a good man. He loved people in general,” Andrews told me. “He was a school deputy, and kids learned that they could speak to the police. That they didn’t have to be afraid.”

Andrews has been in law enforcement for 16 years. I wondered with all the national criticism coming right as he was in the midst of a manhunt, while he was coping with the death of a fellow officer, did he think about quitting?

He shook his head: “It’s not a job. It’s a passion. We don’t do it for the money. We don’t do it for the glory. We do it because it’s a calling.”

The conclusion of the service was something known as an “end of watch call.” It’s when a dispatcher issues a final radio call to an officer over a loudspeaker.

“Dispatch to Simpson 25 . . . dispatch to Simpson 25 . . .”

It’s hard to listen as the officer doesn’t respond.

Eventually the dispatcher announced Deputy James Blair’s end of watch as June 12, 2020 and that “although he was one man, he laid down his life for us.” She then added the words of Proverbs 28:1.

“The wicked flee when pursued, but the righteous are as bold as a lion.”   

You can contact Kim Henderson at kimhenderson319@gmail or follow her on Twitter at @kimhenderson319.