September 9, 2017 10:05:19 PM
Slim Smith - [email protected]
The last America saw of Andy Taylor, he was about 60 years old. But for those wondering what the beloved sheriff of Mayberry from "The Andy Griffith Show" might have been like in his 80s, Willie "Hoot" West may be a close approximation.
West is the constable for District 1 in Lowndes County and folks would be hard-pressed to remember who had the job before him.
West doesn't know exactly how many times he's been elected to the post.
"I'm going on my 47th year," West said. "And I've in law enforcement since 1962."
West is a down-home, laid-back gentle soul who relies more on his familiarity with the town and common sense than the emerging technology of modern law enforcement. His language is sprinkled with the vernacular of rural America.
West still gets the job done, and his way at that, as evidenced with a case he solved in the spring.
The mysterious shooter
It was a sunny April day, about noon. Steve Hall was sitting at a picnic table near the garage, talking to a neighbor at his home on Wolfe Road in Caledonia. His wife, Karen, was in the kitchen. The sound of shattering glass suddenly interrupted Steve's conversation. It was the rear window of Karen's Lexus SUV, parked just a few feet from where Steve was sitting.
"My son came running into the kitchen, asking me if I was OK," Karen said. "Why wouldn't I be? I didn't know what he was talking about."
Upon examining the SUV, the Halls found a spent 40-caliber bullet in the floorboard. A short while later, neighbors reported bullets had hit their car and the exterior of an upstairs room of their home near a window.
The Halls called Lowndes County Sheriff's Office, which promptly sent three deputies. It was most likely some sort of drive-by shooting, the deputies told the Halls before leaving.
The Halls have lived in this little cluster of about 15 homes for 15 years or so, Karen said. It's a little enclave of homes in an area surrounded by woods, and it had never been uncommon to hear gunshots in the distance.
"We never thought much about it," Karen said. "Out here, people are hunting and target shooting. It's not anything alarming to hear shots."
But the events that Saturday shook them, and when the Halls heard the sound of gunfire in the distance a few days later, they called the sheriff's office again.
"They were very courteous," Karen said. "I'm not criticizing the sheriff's department at all. They have a lot to do, and I knew they couldn't just drop everything and spend a lot of time trying to find out what was happening. Besides that, they don't know the people out here."
Karen Hall knew someone who did, though.
Hoot is on the case
West has lived his entire life in the Caledonia area. He takes an almost paternalistic view of the place, considering it his home and the residents his people.
"If you've been out here any length of time, I know you," West said.
Karen thought West's familiarity with the people in the area might be valuable in solving the case.
"Hoot was married to my mama's sister for a long time, so he's like family," Karen said. "So I called him and explained what happened. He came right out, and let me tell you, he was like a bulldog with it. He was out there walking down the road, knocking on doors, talking to people. He just wouldn't let go of it. And at his age, too. He's something else."
West said he had already heard about the shooting when Hall called, and he was happy to help.
"I try to take care of my people," he said. "So I started talking to people, trying to do something. I knew right off it wasn't any kind of drive-by shooting. There was no way you could hit the car from the street. The angle wasn't right. I sort of had it in mind what probably happened, but I wanted to talk to everybody I could first."
It's called "shoe-leather" detective work, and the more people West talked to, the more obvious it was that the shooting -- which always seemed to happen in the early evenings -- had shaken people up.
"Nearly everybody I talked to had heard the shooting," West said. "It bothered 'em, too. One fella who had a fish pond on his property said he was scared to take his little boy to the pond in the evening."
As he talked to residents, he developed a sense of the general area the shots were being fired. But he wanted to hear the shots himself.
"I spent four afternoons and evenings around there, trying to figure it out," West said. "After the fourth night, I'd pinned it down to one place. It was little old rental house that some fella had just moved into not too long before."
West went to talk to the tenant, who owned up to the shooting immediately. Turns out, he and his friends had put together a makeshift shooting range on the property and were shooting targets in the evenings. Apparently, the man had no idea stray bullets were affecting the neighbors.
"So I got him to take me out there to where it was they were shooting and it was just about eight inches of red clay bank they were using as a backstop. I told him, 'Man, you could've killed somebody.' He was pretty sorry, said he didn't mean it."
The next day, Karen Hall said Hoot arrived with the shooter in tow.
"He was very apologetic," Hall said. "You could see he felt awful about it. He offered to pay for any damages, but everything was covered by insurance. I really felt like he was sincere, that he had no idea what was happening."
West was satisfied, too.
"I just let him go with a warning because I could see he was sorry," West said. "I told him, 'Don't let me catch you doing this again.'" I don't figure he will. He better not."
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]