Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

Columns

April 8, 2013

Tammie Hetzer-Womack: Sheriff’s death makes young Greenup troopers heedful: 04/08/13

ASHLAND — Writing Kentucky State Police’s pieces, I greet likelihood of tragedy — and readily open my eyes. Tears well up.

There’s no farsightedness of stakes when troopers, deputies or patrolmen enter the fray.

My journey started with Trooper Nate Carter, six months ago. I’m a teeny silhouette, standing in big black patent paths. It’s muddy. Their tales leave soggy mascara traces.

Law enforcement motorcades salute departed brothers in the region — and there’s a lion’s share the past few months. Close to my series of KSP stories, I take it harder. After all, they’re now friends and an amazing saving grace. They’re stars. That’s expected.

Now the unanticipated part of this assignment…

As a civilian I see the offset perhaps no one else notices. Last week Mingo County Sheriff Eugene Crum was gunned down eating lunch in his cruiser. On Friday night, I climbed back in the car with Tpr. Carter just days after the sheriff’s killing.

I spot his sharp circumspection. He’s on a traffic stop on U.S. 23 near South Shore.

He quickly glances back to his squad car — I think to check on me.

I see Carter as a sweet Westwood boy who grew up around the corner from my parents. Carter left for the Academy last April, so he’s close to one year on the job. He grew up since I met him last autumn. But his crew-cut is still boot-camp fresh.

“The state police made me better. I’m not the same person I was,” he said, before I ask his thoughts on Crum’s passing. “I’m not allowed to die out here. That’s the rules. Because I can’t imagine my family looking into that box and seeing me gone away. They would die, too.”

OK, these tough guys think I’m a real softy. Maybe I am. I sniffle; tell Nate to never ever break his own rules, and continue our interview.

“I can’t help but think what his last thoughts were, at that second, as he went to heaven,” said Carter. “He was a sheriff, just like us troopers, out here trying to fight the good fight, trying to clean up the town he loves. He had no idea what was about to happen. That’s the sadness in all this. He didn’t have a chance. God bless him.”

During his brief time with KSP Carter has already attended four police funerals.

“I pray to never see another.”

He pays mind to Crum’s kin.

“This man is someone’s son and husband, someone’s father, someone’s brother and someone’s grandpa. I look at it that way. Who’s left behind to suffer?”

That’s when Carter meets his buddy and backup in rural Greenup County. Trooper Eric Homan is also celebrating a year with KSP. He stands alongside his pal on a traffic stop — he knows to never call this routine. Crum’s death is proof anything can happen in service and protection.

On Sunday morning he headed to West Virginia with fellow troopers from Ashland’s Post 14, a fleet of flashing lights venerating veteran service. Entering tiny Taylorville, it’s a day of grief and gospel. Homan reflects afterwards.

No town deserves this. No family should suffer such slaughter. But Mingo County moves on in remembrance. The guard changes, Homan said.

There’s southern hospitality down at the fire station, a warm supper shared between countless badges following a reverent interment. It’s the quiet end of watch for Crum and his extended blue family.

“It hits you — just how many people Sheriff Crum impacted. He lent a hand to a lot of folks. The packed school gym bears witness to his good work,” Homan said. “I think it prompts all of us troopers to go home and continue his efforts. He vowed to do battle against drugs. Because of a senseless act he didn’t get to personally finish.

“In deference to Sheriff Crum we should all work as hard, even harder, back here.”

Young in their trooper careers, Carter and Homan try to learn from this. But, straight up, it’s simply a kick in the teeth. It makes both men understand just how unforeseen the blows may arrive in their career. And — apart from all you do — there’s real wickedness.

Troopers wear hearts on creased sleeves. Sunday’s memorial brought it out.

Seeing a weeping widow say one last goodbye pummels police.

“It makes you think. Helps you make instant decisions. Makes you stay ahead of every step. And we pray it brings us home,” Homan said.

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