published Thursday, December 5th, 2013

A dozen what ifs fell into place, each decision another step toward tragedy in Chickamauga, Ga.

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    Jason Westbrook holds his father Ronald Westbrook's medical I.D. bracelet that he says his father was wearing when the Alzheimer's patient was shot and killed in the yard of a house in Chickamauga, Ga., on Nov. 27.
    Photo by Doug Strickland.
    enlarge photo

CHICKAMAUGA, Ga. — Deanne Westbrook woke up around 5 a.m. on Nov. 27, alone. At some point in the morning, she thought, her husband must have sneaked out of bed.

She searched the house for him.

Ever since Ron Westbrook, 72, started showing signs of Alzheimer’s disease three years ago, Deanne had grown used to looking after him, keeping the former Air Force lieutenant colonel in her sights.

Earlier this year, Deanne stopped him as he tried to go out for a walk in the middle of the night. On this morning, though, she found no sign of Ron. And soon, she heard the doorbell ring. On the front porch, she found deputies with the Walker County Sheriff’s Office.

“There’s no easy way to tell you this,” she remembers someone saying, “but your husband is dead. He has been shot.”

The news still hasn’t quite set in, Westbrook said in her living room Wednesday, one day after burying her husband of 51 years.

“It’s like he should be here,” she said. “I can’t believe he’s not.”

Wearing a silver bracelet that identified him as a man suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, Ron Westbrook had wandered with his two dogs and a stranger’s mail to a home at 188 Cottage Crest Court on Nov. 27, Walker County Sheriff Steve Wilson said. The Westbrooks had installed a buzzer that sounded any time someone entered or exited the house — for situations such as this — but Deanne did not hear it.

Hours after he left home, Westbrook stood on the front porch of a stranger’s house three miles away. He rang the doorbell and jiggled the knob. Nobody answered. At 3:53 a.m., a woman inside called 911.

Twelve minutes later, with deputies on the way and his girlfriend still on the phone, Joe Hendrix walked out of the house with a hundgun and rounded the corner to the backyard. The girlfriend, whose name has not been released, did not tell dispatchers that Hendrix left, Wilson said.

Hendrix, 34, of Ooltewah, would later tell officers he could barely see Westbrook. He said he called out to Westbrook and heard nothing back.

Westbrook began to walk toward Hendrix, and Hendrix shot him in the chest.

A week later, Hendrix has not been charged. The Georgia Bureau of Investigations and the Walker County Sheriff’s Office are still investigating, District Attorney Herbert “Buzz” Franklin said Wednesday. Franklin hopes to meet with investigators from both agencies before deciding whether to bring a case against Hendrix.

The slaying was one of two within the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit in November in which the killer told detectives he defended himself. On Nov. 11, according to the Catoosa County Sheriff’s Office, 69-year-old Fred Youngblood shot a 17-year-old dead after he caught the boy stealing scrap metal from his yard. He told investigators he shot the teen because he charged at Youngblood.

Three weeks later, Franklin said, that investigation is still open, too. He hopes to meet with investigators from the GBI and the Catoosa County Sheriff’s Office soon to determine whether Youngblood actually did act in self-defense.

Hendrix did not return multiple calls seeking comment Wednesday, but his attorney said his client has been unfairly targeted in a case that has gained international attention. Lee Davis pointed out that, about two hours before Hendrix killed Westbrook, a deputy from the sheriff’s office stopped Westbrook around 2:30 a.m.

At a mailbox on Marble Top Road, Westbrook — still wearing the bracelet identifying his disease — told the deputy that he lived nearby, which was true until he moved in the 1970s. Wilson would later say that his deputy left Westbrook there.

Davis said this is a key point that people should consider when they talk about his client.

“They took no action,” Davis said of the deputy. “Had they taken action, this would not have happened. … The scrutiny seems to be all on (Hendrix) right now. I’m not blaming the sheriff’s department. I’m just saying it’s not as simple as people make it appear.”

This is not Hendrix’s first time in the public eye. Last year, he served as the communications director for Scottie Mayfield in an unsuccessful campaign to unseat Congressman Chuck Fleischmann.

“He was bright, energetic and positive,” Mayfield said Wednesday, referring to Hendrix. “That’s about all I know about him.”

For her part, Deanne Westbrook said her husband was quiet but friendly. He grew up in a two-room Rossville home with an outhouse and as a boy dreamed of becoming a fighter pilot.

He met his wife 54 years ago at Rossville High School. He played the trumpet, she the clarinet. He later joined the Air Force, graduated from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and became a Tennessee Valley Authority engineer. He and Deanne raised three sons.

In 1990, while still at TVA, he became a part-time commander of the 241st EIS Squadron, a group that traveled the world and installed communications systems into military units. He went to Germany and Italy, and he always came home with a gift for Deanne: a crystal punch bowl, a tea kettle, a cuckoo clock.

But he began showing signs of Alzheimer’s in 2010. He would ask for dinner after he had already eaten. He would ask to go home when he was in the living room.

Eventually, the man who once could remember the first names of all 180 men under his command began wondering who his own children were. Sometimes, he forgot Deanne’s name.

Robert Patillo, a lawyer for the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition, said the organization plans to reach out to the Westbrook family about joining the group’s lawsuit against Gov. Nathan Deal. The suit is aimed at striking down Georgia’s controversial Stand Your Ground law.

Jason Westbrook, 41, says he doesn’t like that his father’s death has become a lightning rod for gun rights. He owns a gun, and his father did, too. Still, Jason Westbrook struggles with how he should feel.

He is angry, of course. Angry at the situation, angry at Hendrix for walking outside last week instead of waiting for the deputies. But Westbrook said he became a Christian four years ago, and he doesn’t want to be a man of hate.

“You cannot harbor those things in your heart, no matter what it is,” he said. “This is the ultimate test in forgiveness. I can’t allow that to take root in my heart. I can’t do it. I really don’t want (Hendrix’s) life destroyed. Do I think there needs to be some kind of penalty? Sort of. But I can’t be like that.”

Deanne admits feeling similar conflicting emotions toward her husband’s killer.

“I would hate to think that I had shot somebody that was innocent and didn’t need to be killed,” she said. “I would hate to think what that must be like. As hard as it is for us, it’s bound to be hard for him, too.”

Contact Staff Writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or at tjett@timesfreepress.com.

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