Families wait for justice in shooting death of man with Alzheimer's disease in Chickamauga

Families wait for justice in shooting death of man with Alzheimer's disease in Chickamauga

February 23rd, 2014 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

Buzz Franklin, district attorney for the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit, visits the scene at a Cottage Crest Court home near Chickamauga, Ga., where Joe Hendrix shot and killed a man shortly after 4 a.m.

Photo by John Rawlston/Times Free Press.

CHICKAMAUGA, Ga. - Deanne Westbrook has woken up alone for the past 88 mornings. Each time, she looks beside her, to the spot Ronald Westbrook occupied for so long. The vacancy surprises her, still.

She says three months of loneliness cannot offset 51 years of marriage, a relationship that ended when a stranger shot her 72-year-old husband dead on the morning of Nov. 27. Deanne, 70, woke up that day with police at her doorstep, and she has slept in her bed alone ever since.

"It's the strangest thing," she said. "I know he's not there, but it seems like he should be there. It is the hardest thing in the world."

Ronald Westbrook suffered from Alzheimer's disease, and on the morning of his death he left home to walk his dog shortly after midnight. Around 4 a.m., he showed up at Joe Hendrix's house, knocked on the door and rang the bell.

After his girlfriend called 911, Hendrix confronted Westbrook in his backyard while deputies drove to the home. Hendrix could barely see Westbrook, who did not respond when Hendrix asked who he was.

Westbrook rarely talked, his wife says. This was a condition of his mental state. But Hendrix did not know that, and when Westbrook began walking toward him, Hendrix fired a shot.

In the days after Ronald's death, Deanne wasn't sure Hendrix should be charged with a crime. She wasn't sure whether her husband's death should lead to another man's imprisonment.

Three months later, she knows where she stands. Hendrix should be charged with a crime, she said. He should at least stand trial for the death of her husband, not for her own closure but on principle: One man cannot end the life of another, innocent man without punishment.

But right now, Deanne doesn't know if that will happen. Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit District Attorney Herbert "Buzz" Franklin has not decided whether he will ask a grand jury to indict Hendrix.

The shooting is one of two high-profile killings Franklin has yet to address in the three months since they occurred. In the other case, 69-year-old Fred Youngblood shot 17-year-old Dalton McConathy through his neck in Youngblood's backyard on Nov. 11.

Youngblood said McConathy tried to steal from him and then charged at him. Youngblood said the shooting was in self-defense.

McConathy's family disagrees. Citing another boy who was with McConathy, they say McConathy was taking scrap metal from what he thought was an abandoned house. When Youngblood came outside, McConathy tried to leave before Youngblood shot him.

Three months later, McConathy's mother says she can't understand why Franklin has not presented the Youngblood case to a grand jury.

"Are we going to see justice for Dalton?" Kim Lowery said. "Or is it going to continue to be a battle? We want to have closure. We want to see [Youngblood] have to pay for taking our son."

Westbrook, meanwhile, said she is trying to be patient. But she also wonders why Franklin has not made a decision about her husband's death.

"I'm getting tired of waiting for them to do something," she said. "It seems like all I do now is wait. I appreciate how nice they've been to me, but I really want someone to do something."

Last week, Franklin said he did not know when he would make decisions about McConathy's or Westbrook's killings. The Catoosa County Sheriff's Office gave him the full investigative file about McConathy's death in December, but Franklin is still waiting for McConathy's toxicology report from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

He also received the investigative file on Westbrook's death in mid-January, but he doesn't know when he will decide whether to pursue charges in that case, either. Before he does, Franklin plans to meet with the Walker County Sheriff's Office and get the investigators' take.

"There's usually some questions that arise out of reading the reports," he said.

Walker County Sheriff Steve Wilson declined to say Friday whether he thinks Hendrix should be charged for killing Westbrook, who used to attend Wilson's church. The sheriff said Franklin is the only person who can make that decision.

Wilson also declined to say whether he was surprised that Franklin still had not made a decision.

"It's a very in-depth, large file," Wilson said, referring to the investigative report. "I could see it taking 30 days to review the file, review the evidence."

The cases of both McConathy and Westbrook revolve around Georgia's self-defense law. According to the Official Code of Georgia Annotated 16-3-21, a killing is justifiable if you reasonably believe that the other person will otherwise kill you.

Also, according to OCGA 16-3-23, killing someone on your property can be justifiable for three other reasons. First, you can kill someone whom you reasonably believe has come into your house in a "violent and tumultuous manner" with the plan to hurt someone in your house.

Second, you can kill someone who you reasonably believe used force to illegally enter your house. Third, you can kill someone in your house if you reasonably believe that person came there to commit a felony.

In all of these cases, self-defense is an acceptable excuse if the killer acted "reasonably." But who defines whether something is reasonable?

"That's a hard question," said Russell Covey, a Georgia State professor who teaches criminal law and criminal procedure. "It's one that the jury has to grapple with."

Even so, Covey said, a prosecutor should not present every stand-your-ground case to jurors just because "reasonable" is up for debate. Some killings are obviously done in self defense, and a district attorney should be able to pick which cases have a good chance to be prosecuted.

"A prosecution is a serious matter, regardless of whether the defendant has been found guilty," Covey said.

While Deanne Westbrook admits she is not well versed on the nuances of the self-defense law, she does not understand how her husband could be seen as a threat.

"[Hendrix] went out of that house with a gun in his hand, intending to shoot," she said. "You can't just do that because somebody is in your yard. You can't just shoot him. My husband was an innocent man. He had Alzheimer's. I think he was looking for help."

Hendrix, an Iraq war veteran, may have been more scared than most people in that scenario. About a week earlier, records show, his girlfriend called 911 when a stranger showed up at 11:30 p.m., demanding to see the man who lived in that Cottage Crest Court home before she and Hendrix did.

Deanne said this should not factor into Franklin's decision. After all, deputies were on the way. Hendrix chose to walk outside with a gun.

In the months since her husband's death, Deanne has slowly returned to the normal activities in her life. She went back to Oakwood Baptist Church. She can now watch a full TV episode without thinking about the shooting. She has even resumed reading her favorite books: crime thrillers.

On Valentine's Day, her three sons gave her roses, carnations and Russell Stover chocolates in Ronald's memory.

But, she said, "Nothing anybody can do will bring him back."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or at tjett@timesfreepress.com.