Do The Right Thing - Features - Atlanta Magazine

Do The Right Thing

Only one police chief in Georgia had the guts to hire Richard Jewell

This article originally appeared in our September 1998 issue.

Police Chief Paige McNeese leans back in his chair and pensively tugs on a Marlboro. "That word, hero," he says, "it can backfire on you in a heartbeat."

His office in the back of the Luthersville Town Hall is compact and plain: walls painted off-white, a green Army surplus desk and filing cabinet and two chairs for visitors. Propped up in a corner behind his desk is the odd combination of a shotgun, a rifle and a fishing pole. "Meriwether is [one of] the largest counties in square miles in the state of Georgia and it's also not a very wealthy county," he says in a voice that is deep, slow and drawling. "We don't have the facilities and services that Atlanta has. Sometimes, through no fault of the EMTs, it might be 30 minutes before we get an ambulance, and a lot of people know that. So when something goes wrong, people call the police or come to the station. As luck and God would have it, the two officers were here doing paperwork on that Friday night [in May]. Usually, they know better than to be in the office sitting around because they know I'm going to check on them. I want them out being seen and doing their job."

It was about 11 o'clock on a night when a man and woman burst into the police station with their 5-day-old baby. The infant was gasping for air, already turning a deathly hue of blue. The sergeant took charge. He sat the infant on a desk and quickly figured out it had regurgitated its milk; the bile was blocking its mouth and nose. He had once taken an advanced course in first aid and simply did what he'd been taught to do. He laid the baby on a desk and used his finger to clean the mouth and upper throat. The other officer called an ambulance and brought in a suction cup to clear the infant's nose. The sergeant quickly turned the baby over and picked it up, cradling the tiny chest in the palm of his hand. He gently tapped the baby's back, helping it to force out the rest of the congestion.

Finally, there was a cough and then a deep breath and the sound of a baby wailing. The ambulance arrived about 15 minutes later. Without the sergeant, it would have been 15 minutes too late. The parents returned the next day to thank the officers, to call them heroes. But that's a word that makes McNeese uneasy. Especially considering that the cop who took charge and saved the infant's life was Sgt. Richard Jewell. Right. That Richard Jewell.

"To the mom and dad, he was the hero," says McNeese. "And to us, he did his job. Like I said, that word can definitely backfire on you. Of course, Richard knows that better than anyone else."

McNeese likes to quip that Luthersville might as well have a WELCOME TO MAYBERRY sign at the city limits. Situated about 40 miles southwest of Atlanta, traveling to Luthersville is much akin to stepping back into the 1950s. The closest thing to a traffic signal is a flashing red and yellow caution light in the center of town, and the closest thing to a fast-food place is BubbaDoo's, a hamburger-and-hot-dog joint/convenience store. Luthersville is one of those rare places still unspoiled by progress, although development from neighboring Coweta County is inching closer and closer. The area has a spacious feel, with rolling green lawns and century-old hardwoods shading stylish well-kept Victorians, the kind of white-washed wood-frames with large front porches that your grandparents lived in.

"It's a small town," says McNeese. "There's a lot of retired people living here, people who want to live real quiet. And you can tell by looking at it, there's an awful lot of money here, old money that's still got the stale smell to it. Luthersville is a real good place to live. We seldom have any trouble."

Until McNeese's arrival, the police department itself was the major source of trouble in Luthersville. The town had the reputation as Georgia's most notorious speed trap. Officers were known to spot an elderly person behind the wheel and get on their back bumper, hoping to make them nervous until they crossed the center line or forgot to use a turn signal. Then, they would be pulled over and ticketed. Road blocks were customary every Friday and Saturday night. The former police chief made no bones about it. "I like the name speed trap because people drive slower," boasted then-Chief Dorsey Evans.

In the spring of 1995 the state attorney general's office seized all of the town's traffic court records and launched an investigation—many of the driving convictions were going unreported to the state, and the town also went four years without sending the state its share of money collected in traffic fines. When investigators went to get the traffic court records, they discovered more than 30 grams of marijuana sitting in an unlocked file cabinet in the chief's office; Evans told an investigator that it had been left there by a predecessor. Evans resigned five months later, saying he was tired of feuding with the mayor. Then, last year, the former chief was arrested by the Fayette County Sheriff's Department as a suspect in a multistate bank fraud, accused of manufacturing false identification cards to open fraudulent checking accounts in at least four Southern states. However, the grand jury did not indict him.

In September 1997, Luthersville turned to Paige McNeese to clean up its police department.

McNeese was born near Soperton and spent most of his life in Vidalia, the heart of onion country in south Georgia. He did a tour with the Marine Corps, messed up his knee, and spent the next 14 years in the banking/finance industry. "Then I went absolutely crazy and went into the police business ," McNeese says with a laugh. "Actually, it's the only thing I'd ever wanted to do since I was knee-high to a bantam rooster. I went through a divorce, and figured that it was time to do what I wanted to do and not let money be the driving force in my life."

He landed a job with the Vidalia Police Department, stayed there 10 years and eventually went to Marshallville—a little town just south of Macon—as police chief. After three years, he tired of the grind and decided to get out of law enforcement. "As a chief, you sometimes kind of think that there are all these people out there laying awake at night trying to figure out ways to screw up your day," he says. McNeese was going to take a year off, maybe go out to Colorado and ramble around, do some private detective work on the side .

Within three months he was bored stiff. McNeese heard about the opening in Luthersville and took the job.

He found a department in complete disarray. There were two police cruisers, the newest a re-built 1994 model. There was no spare tire and no jack. There were two shotguns and one shell for each. Officers were making six bucks an hour and, of course, there was the speed trap business.

"When I came here, this was one of the most corrupt police departments I had ever seen," says McNeese. "I went back as far as 1991 straightening things out and one of the first things I did was initiate a GBI investigation. We found a lot of things that were done wrong. We basically started over; created a new department. It's an honest department now, a good department. But just like Richard, we still have things that will take us years to live down."

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