ATLANTA - The girlfriend of the man who mistakenly shot and killed a disoriented Alzheimer's patient in North Georgia warned her boyfriend that the stranger appeared to be an old man and did not perceive him as a threat, the woman told investigators.
A local prosecutor decided last week not to press criminal charges against Joe Hendrix for fatally shooting 72-year-old Ronald Westbrook in the early morning of Nov. 27.
Westbrook slipped unnoticed from the home he shared with his wife as early as 1 a.m., taking his dogs with him. He was spotted wandering in the cold, apparently confused, before reaching the woman's rented home on a rural cul-de-sac, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press using Georgia's open records law.
The then-girlfriend, whose name was redacted in police reports, told investigators that she heard a dog in her home pacing on the hardwood floors. District Attorney Herbert "Buzz" Franklin identified the woman as Terri Huskey. She and Hendrix are no longer in a relationship.
When the girlfriend looked outside, she saw a man -- later identified as Westbrook -- with several dogs, according to a transcript of her interview with police the day of the shooting. She assumed the stranger was just walking his dogs and checked that her door was locked. Westbrook eventually started ringing the doorbell and attempted to open the door, both witnesses said.
The girlfriend gave mixed signals about whether she felt threatened by the man. During an interview just hours after the shooting, she acknowledged that she was scared by the unknown intruder. However, the woman also considered other possibilities.
"I thought he was just confused where he was," she said.
On Dec. 5, she spoke again to detectives. Once alerted to the man, Hendrix quickly went into the bedroom to get a .40-caliber handgun he kept there.
"... He was going to get his gun and I said Joe he's like a, he's, he's like a 70 year old man, you know I didn't think it was a big, that big of a deal for ..."
"Uh huh," an investigator said.
"You know for him to bring out a gun," the woman said.
Investigators asked whether the woman communicated her thought to Hendrix. She said she did.
"I said Joe he's like a 70-year-old man," she said.
Hendrix told the woman to call 911, and the couple retreated to a bathroom while the woman continued speaking by phone with a police dispatcher. When Hendrix learned that an officer would need five minutes to get to the house, he went outside.
The woman said she heard shouting from outside, then three or four gunshots. Hendrix came back inside, grabbed the phone and told police that he had shot the unknown man.
"... I thought he should've stayed where he was, the police were five minutes away and we had already waited 10 minutes and why, why, why it was such an urgency the last five minutes I just, I'm still furious with him," the woman said. "Why he didn't just, wait."
Franklin, the prosecutor, said it was unclear whether Hendrix heard his then-girlfriend's comment. The woman seemed cloudy about whether Hendrix acknowledged her warning, and she could not remember what Hendrix said in response. Hendrix's attorney, Lee Davis, said Hendrix did not believe his then-girlfriend made any such statement.
"It's an extremely stressful event, and it's not uncommon for people's recollections to differ when they're giving an interview," Davis said.
Most of the investigation focused on Hendrix's actions. Prosecutors had said Hendrix could be charged with a crime only if they could prove Hendrix was not acting in self-defense when he pulled the trigger. Investigators interviewed Hendrix and even had him walk through the events leading to the shooting. They concluded that his statements were consistent.
Hendrix told investigators in a series of interviews that he went outside armed after spotting the man move toward the back of the house.
"I felt if he was gonna confront me, I wanted him confronting me and not her and not getting inside the house," Hendrix told police.
Hendrix told police that he shouted for the man, asking what he was doing. He then spotted the stranger coming toward him quickly. Hendrix said the man ignored repeated commands to stop.
"I'm backing up and he just, he doesn't say anything and he keeps coming, he keeps coming at me and uh that's when I fired ... my gun," Hendrix said.
Hendrix briefly worked as a reserve police recruit in DuPont, Wash. Police officials started an internal investigation in 2005 after accusing Hendrix of breaking rules while off duty by confronting a partially naked man who was obstructing traffic. DuPont police officials said Hendrix broke rules by taking action out of his department's jurisdiction and against the advice of a police dispatcher.
In a second incident, police officials determined that Hendrix broke rules when he used a forcible hold on a panhandler. Hendrix told police that he felt threatened by the panhandler, who also had approached a woman. He was not charged with any crimes, and he resigned shortly after the second incident.