04/10/2006

Miss. sheriff who cut "red tape" after Katrina faces charges

Copyright 2006 Capital City Press
All Rights Reserved
 
PENNY BROWN ROBERTS; Advocate staff writer

BROOKLYN, Miss. - Lettie Knight had a feeling she might not make it.

It had been six days since the winds and rain of Hurricane Katrina lay temporary waste to this town - with its one yellow blinking light and a Quick Stop - where she was born 75 years ago and rarely has strayed.

Waves of trucks laden with supplies just passed by on their way to big cities, and Knight - who has diabetes and high blood pressure - had long since run out of water and ice.

"It was so hot, I like to croak," said Knight, eyes suddenly wide and peeking out from behind plastic-rimmed glasses that push back her salt-and-pepper pageboy. "I was nearly dead. My knees just collapsed. I tell you, I was about gone."

That was until an 18-wheeler packed with ice showed up at the Forrest County Agricultural High School - local police and federal helicopters in rapid pursuit.

Forrest County Sheriff Billy McGee and his deputies had just commandeered it and another Federal Emergency Management Agency supply truck sitting idle for three days at a National Guard base, handcuffing and citing a soldier who tried to stop them.

Athletes and honor students were waiting at the red-brick campus to hand out the hijacked booty, and an already mile-long line of desperate rural Mississippians enduring 90-degree days without power was eager to spirit it away.

The now-famous deed has turned McGee into part American folk hero, part suspected outlaw - the simultaneous subject of a country-and-western ballad and a federal investigation.

He faces possible prosecution by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Baton Rouge - an entity already well known for indicting the last three sheriffs of St. Helena Parish. Two were convicted; the third - Ronald "Gun" Ficklin - goes to trial this fall.

Backers from all over the country are contributing thousands of dollars to the Sheriff Billy McGee Legal Defense Fund. And U.S. Attorney David Dugas has been the target of an "open letter" editorial in the Hattiesburg American - the local newspaper - implying McGee faces prosecution for nothing more than exposing the "abject incompetence" of FEMA.

"There's no doubt in my mind if I were a prosecutor I would be wondering what I did to bring this case to me," said Marty Wiseman, director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government at Mississippi State University. "They're definitely in a quandary because it isn't easy to take a hero - one who acted decisively and courageously - and prosecute them. Many people will never put the two together that in the process, he did interfere with an officer of the military just doing his duty."

'Straight as an arrow'

On the advice of his attorney, McGee declined to be interviewed for this story. His attorney, Jim Dukes, said last week he doesn't want to "back the prosecutor in a corner" with continued publicity about the case.

The 53-year-old sheriff with a characteristic crew cut has been in law enforcement much of his life, as was his father before him. He first was elected in 1991 and - according to news accounts - hasn't faced any serious opposition in four terms.

Buddy Baron, a disc jockey for the local country radio station, described McGee as "a soft-spoken but diligent public official. He's kind of like an Andy Taylor. The man is clean as a whistle."

Paul McMullan, who retired as chief executive officer of First Mississippi National Bank about 25 years ago, has known McGee for more than three decades.

"He's tall and straight as an arrow - both in his stance and in his ways," said the longtime Mississippian who started the legal defense fund. "Right now, he's a hero in these parts."

That distinction emerged Sept. 4 - six days after Hurricane Katrina barreled through Forrest County with 100-plus mph winds, leaving residents in the sweltering heat without power and basic supplies.

According to an account McGee gave the Hattiesburg American in February, Forrest County Emergency Management District Executive Director Terry Steed told McGee early that morning that five trucks of ice and water bound for Hattiesburg lost their way from Jackson and wouldn't arrive until the next day.

After learning of a FEMA staging area at Camp Shelby - a National Guard base just a few miles south of town - McGee tried for five hours to get in touch with federal authorities, hoping they might release some of the supply trucks parked there.

Failing that, he and three deputies went to the base early that afternoon, where they were told there were two trucks filled with ice that had not been assigned a destination.

The drivers agreed to follow the deputies to Petal and Brooklyn, but as they drove away, Capt. Michael Bryant - a National Guardsman - jumped on the side of the lead truck, "either trying to get the keys or pull the driver out," McGee told the newspaper.

When Bryant refused to stop, deputies handcuffed him, placed him in a patrol car and drove him to the Sheriff's Office. He was cited for interfering with an officer and released.

"I didn't see anything wrong with what I was doing other than it was outside the protocol," McGee told reporters. "This is more an indictment of the federal government than of me. This is a failure of the process."

Butch Benedict, the county coroner, was in Brooklyn with a contingent of volunteers, awaiting arrival of one of the 18-wheelers. He was confused by the local police cars and federal helicopters chasing the truck - until he learned how it got to town.

"There was a line of cars a mile long waiting for that ice," Benedict said. "I think they realized they had a bigger fight on their hands if they took the truck away, so they left us alone."

An American hero

There's little doubt how the residents of Forrest County feel about Sheriff Billy McGee.

They circulated petitions insisting that he acted in their best interests by commandeering the trucks and bombarded the local newspaper with letters expressing the same sentiment.

A few weeks ago, the Board of Supervisors honored him for his service in a ceremony attended by dozens of law-enforcement officers, judges and county workers.

And B95 - a nationally recognized country radio station in Laurel - gives frequent airplay to "Haulin' Ice: The Ballad of Billy McGee," written by a journalism professor and musician from Georgia.

The tale of Billy McGee is spreading beyond county lines. After a report aired on CNN two weeks ago, Anderson Cooper's blog was inundated with e-mails from Massachusetts to California - some from Baton Rouge - most of them offering accolades.

The sheriff remains a frequent topic of conversation at the Brooklyn Quick Stop - no more worse for the hurricane, save for perhaps a bit more rust on the sign perched atop the cabin-like building.

Behind the counter - her head framed by rows of chewing tobacco and cigarettes - cashier Pamela Anderson recalls waiting in line nearly three hours to get ice that day.

"If it wasn't for Billy McGee's ice, we wouldn't have had nothin'," the 53-year-old said. "He took the ice, but we all went and got it. If they prosecute him, they should prosecute all of us."

Barefoot and fresh from a swim in nearby Black Creek, Shaughn Jones - a 16-year-old Forrest County Agriculture High School soccer player who helped hand out the supplies - said the sheriff "really helped us out in a time of need."

In Sheeplo, a tiny African-American community situated on a loop miles from the nearest town, Ronnie Mackey remembers some of the purloined ice and water being delivered to his door even as the roads were blocked by limbs.

"Somebody had to be responsible," the 34-year-old said. "Nobody was doing anything. I don't know how they can blame that man."

'Very early stages'

As it stands, McGee hasn't actually been blamed for - or charged with - anything, and it isn't clear whether he ever will be.

The sheriff agreed in February to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of interfering with, intimidating and impeding a federal officer. He has said he did so to prevent three deputies who acted on his orders from being prosecuted, and because it would allow him to remain in office.

But in March, U.S. Attorney Dunn Lampton of the Southern District of Mississippi recused himself from the case for reasons that haven't been made public.

The U.S. Department of Justice handed over responsibility to the next closest district able to take it on - the Middle District of Louisiana, based in Baton Rouge. First Assistant U.S. Attorney Lyman Thornton and Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Bourgeois are the appointed special prosecutors.

U.S. Attorney David Dugas said he knows of no instances in Baton Rouge in which prosecutors have squared off against such a popular public figure. But he said the Department of Justice frequently has pursued legal matters in spite of public sentiment, as in civil rights enforcement.

He said the McGee investigation remains in the "very early stages," and it isn't clear how long it might take to complete. He would not discuss specifics of the case, saying "at this stage, it's particularly important we not prejudge it."

What remains unclear from public accounts of the incident is whether the sheriff diverted supplies intended for other critical destinations, and whether the soldier was injured.

Attempts to reach Pete Smith, the press secretary for Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour - who reportedly pushed for McGee's prosecution - were unsuccessful. The Advocate left two voice mail messages last week. The Mississippi National Guard repeatedly has declined to comment on the incident. And Eugene Brezany, a FEMA spokesman based in Mississippi, referred all questions to Dugas.

While Dugas is aware of McGee's growing hero status, he said public opinion will play no role in the decision whether to prosecute.

"The days after Hurricane Katrina were an emotional time, and I frankly think it's understandable that based on the information they have right now, people would have strong feelings," he said. "In the end, whatever action we take will be based on facts of law and the evidence and at that time, people can form an opinion about whether we've taken the appropriate action."

Nonetheless, those opinions are as abundant as the gravy that comes on open-faced steak sandwiches, French fries, and pretty much everything else on the menu at the Coney Island Café - a diner just a few blocks from the Forrest County Sheriff's Office in downtown Hattiesburg.

John Richard Thompson, a 70-year-old retired grocer, thinks federal prosecutors are wrong about McGee.

"I don't know why they're trying to string him up."

But John Garner, who runs a wholesale electrical supply business with his brother, J.D., believes authorities will drop the case.

"He acted when money would not buy ice," the 67-year-old Petal resident said. "He made a critical decision in hard times when the government bogged down."

Moments later, a freight train rolled by the restaurant - so long it took several minutes to pass. Its only cargo: metal white FEMA trailers, like the kind still sitting empty in Hope, Ark. 

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