NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Thursday, June 25th, 2020. Thanks for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.
MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: And I’m Megan Basham. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: The death of a deputy.
Last week, mourners laid to rest a longtime law enforcement officer in a small cemetery in South Mississippi. WORLD correspondent Kim Henderson attended the graveside service and has our story.
KIM HENDERSON, CORRESPONDENT: On June 12th—the same day a Wendy’s parking lot in Atlanta made the news—a parking lot two states away got some attention as well, though on a smaller scale. It was the site of a routine prisoner transport gone bad. Radio Dispatcher Crystal Scaraborough took the call at the Simpson County Sheriff’s Department.
SCARABOROUGH: …just advised me of some shots being fired and she told me that she thought I had an officer down, and I rolled him everything I had. That’s what we’re trained to do.
Simpson County Sheriff Paul Mullins heard the call come over the radio and made it to the scene in about three minutes. Paramedics flew Deputy James Blair to a hospital, where he later died. And 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.
MULLINS: What’s really crucial in this is setting up a perimeter. And with that many people, you can get a tight perimeter. And then we had to use some dogs, helicopters, the FBI sent a plane…
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.
AUDIO: [NEWSCASTER REPORTS FUNERAL]
The funeral took place at 10:30 that Wednesday. 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 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.
SMITH: There’s a lot of anger that this could happen to someone like that. 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, no mention of it. The whole ride up here, 71 miles, and no mention…
AUDIO: [BAGPIPES PLAYING “ROCK OF AGES”]
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.
GRIFFITH: Fallen ones are special, just like the military killed in action are special. Thankfully there are not too many of those.
He says 90 percent of the time the family wants him to close out the service with “Amazing Grace.”
GRIFFITH: I’ll play one verse standing up probably 50 feet from the grave side and then play one or two more verses walking off into the distance and letting the sound just fade away.
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.
STEWART: Normally we’re here probably about two hours prior. That way we can, uh, assess the area and, uh, 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. At 12:46, officials blocked Highway 583 to southbound traffic.
AUDIO: [HONK OF FIRETRUCK]
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.
When the white hearse arrived at 12:58, family members wearing black took their seats. The preacher told them that James Blair did not live his life in vain. He spent it serving others.
AUDIO: [21-GUN SALUTE]
Spent shells clinked against a nearby tombstone. The governor moved in close to say something for only the widow to hear.
Two 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.
Joe Andrews is a canine officer with the Simpson County Sheriff’s Department. He knew Deputy Blair well.
ANDREWS: He was a good man. He loved people in general. 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. 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?
ANDREWS: 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 funeral was something known as an “end of watch call.” It’s when a dispatcher issues a final radio call to an officer.
DISPATCHER: Dispatch to Simpson 25. Dispatch to Simpson 25, Deputy James Blair. Deputy Blair is 10-7. End of watch June 12, 2020. Although he was one man, he laid down his life for us. The wicked flee when pursued, but the righteous are as bold as a lion. Proverbs 28:1.
Reporting for WORLD, I’m Kim Henderson in Ruth, Mississippi.