Wandering man with Alzheimer's shot, killed in Walker County

photo The scene of an early morning shooting in Chickamauga.

An Ooltewah man who shot and killed what he thought was a middle-of-the-night prowler -- actually a 72-year-old man with advanced Alzheimer's disease -- Wednesday in Walker County, Ga., hasn't been charged but he might be later, authorities said.

The slain man, Ronald Westbrook, had walked about 3 miles to the shooting scene from his home on Carlock Circle, Sheriff Steve Wilson said at a Wednesday afternoon news conference. When Westbrook was shot, he was clutching letters he had taken from a mailbox on Marbletop Road, where he had lived previously, the sheriff said.

A deputy had stopped and questioned Westbrook at about 2:30 a.m. at the mailbox, Wilson said, but Westbrook said he was getting his mail and lived up the hill.

Westbrook then rang the doorbell and turned the doorknob of a home at 188 Cottage Crest Court at 3:54 a.m., awakening Joe Hendrix, 34, of Ooltewah, and his fiancee. They had rented the home in the new subdivision about two weeks ago, next-door neighbor Brandi Wallace said.

Wilson said Westbrook was lost, confused and possibly exhausted. He had wandered for about four hours in the night with his two dogs, wearing a light jacket and straw hat as the wind-chill temperature hovered around 20 degrees.

"This one house at the end of the cul-de-sac had a porch light on," Wilson said. "I tend to think [Westbrook] was drawn to that light."

Hendrix's fiancee, whose name Wilson declined to give, called 911 and stayed on the phone with an emergency dispatcher who sent two sheriff's office patrol cars en route.

After a nine- to 10-minute wait -- and before deputies arrived -- Hendrix went outside armed with a .40-caliber handgun and saw the elderly man in silhouette behind the house, the sheriff said.

"There was no light except for the front porch light," Wilson said, explaining there are no street lights at The Woodlands, the subdivision off North Marble Top Road west of Chickamauga.

"[Hendrix] gave several what he described as verbal commands," Wilson said. "[Westbrook] continued walking toward him after he told him to stop."

Westbrook was slow to talk, Wilson said, because of his advanced Alzheimer's disease.

Fearing for his safety, Hendrix fired four shots, the sheriff said. One bullet hit Westbrook in the chest, killing him.

'Should have stayed inside'

No charges were filed Wednesday against Hendrix, who drove himself away from the shooting scene around 10:30 a.m. as investigators were wrapping up their evidence gathering.

Hendrix and his fiancee were fully cooperative, Wilson said.

"Both [their] stories matched completely," the sheriff said.

However, Wilson said that Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit District Attorney Herbert "Buzz" Franklin, whom Wilson called to the shooting scene, might bring charges after reviewing all the evidence. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation helped the sheriff's department on-scene with its investigation.

"We reserve our options and rights to file charges once the investigation is complete, if we feel like Georgia law warrants charges being filed," Wilson said.

Georgia's 2006 "stand-your-ground" law that allows people to use deadly force to protect themselves "may apply to this case," Wilson said.

The dispatcher who stayed on the phone with Hendrix's fiancee wasn't aware Hendrix went outside the house with a handgun, the sheriff said.

"In my personal opinion, I believe that he should have stayed inside the house," Wilson said. "Did he violate any laws by exiting the house? No."

"Mr. Hendrix is clearly saddened and heartbroken," the sheriff said. "Mr. Hendrix has to live with his actions for the rest of his life."

Westbrook 'a fine man'

Wilson said he knew Westbrook and they attended the same church.

"Just a fine man, fine family," Wilson said. "I really hate it for his wife and his children."

Westbrook's family didn't realize he had wandered off until around the time the shooting occurred.

"You can't watch them 24/7," Wilson said of people suffering from Alzheimer's disease, which he said got progressively worse for Westbrook after he was diagnosed two years ago with dementia.

Contacted at their Carlock Circle home, Westbrook's family declined to comment.

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6651.