It wasn’t the first time Peach County deputies had been called to settle a dispute between neighbors in the central Georgia community. But this time, the spat turned deadly when a 57-year-old man ambushed the two deputies who arrived at his home, according to police.
Ralph Stanley Elrod calmly spoke with the two deputies late Sunday afternoon outside his Hardison Road home in Byron, about 95 miles south of Atlanta. But hidden in his waistband and under his shirttail, Elrod had a handgun, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation said Monday. When the deputies told Elrod he would be arrested for threatening to shoot a neighbor, Elrod fired every bullet in the gun, GBI Special Agent in Charge J.T. Ricketson told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
“The deputies were not on any kind of alert,” Ricketson said. “It appears to us that their guard was not up when they were confronting this guy.”
From about an arm’s distance away, Elrod shot Sgt. Patrick Sondron, who was pronounced dead at the county hospital, the GBI said. Then, he allegedly shot Deputy Daryl Smallwood, who was standing about 10 feet away, before going inside his home.
When Elrod returned outside, he was wearing a bulletproof vest and carrying a rifle, which he used to fire additional shots at Byron police officers who arrived at the home, Ricketson said. Officers returned fire, wounding Elrod, who survived his injuries.
While at Elrod’s home Monday, investigators were able to review video of the incident from his home surveillance camera, Ricketson said. It was disturbing to watch, even for veteran law enforcement officers, the special agent said. But it shows that neither deputy had time to react or pull their own service weapons, he said.
Ricketson said he had known Peach County Sheriff Terry Deese for more than 30 years. Within 15 minutes of the shooting, Deese called Ricketson for assistance with the investigation.
While speaking to reporters late Sunday, Deese was visibly upset discussing his deputies shot in the line of duty.
“They were out there doing their job like we do every day,” Deese said. “We send these young men and women out to answer these routine calls, and there is no such thing as a routine call.”
Sondron, a veteran Peach deputy, was a 41-year-old married father and a generous, well-respected deputy, the county’s coroner, Kerry Rooks, told The AJC. Facebook pictures show Sondron on a recent cruise with his family.
“He was an asset to the Peach County Sheriff’s Office, and he was just a fine person,” Rooks said late Monday morning.
Rooks also knew Smallwood, a divorced father who is engaged to be married. Smallwood remained in critical condition late Monday at Navicent Health, formerly called Medical Center of Central Georgia, in Macon. Though optimistic Smallwood would recover, Rooks said the deputy may not survive.
“It does not look very good at all,” Rooks said.
On her Facebook page, an aunt of Smallwood said he was shot in the head, and that his recovery would take a miracle.
Smallwood previously worked as a deputy with the Crisp County Sheriff’s Office, where deputies gathered Sunday night to hold hands and pray for his recovery. Various law enforcement agencies around the country offered prayers and condolences to Peach County.
Elrod, who has no known criminal history, was medically sedated during the day Monday, the GBI said. But an agent was at the hospital to serve arrest warrants when Elrod was alert. Elrod was charged with murder and four counts of aggravated assault, Ricketson said. It was not known when Elrod would be released from the hospital.
Investigators will return Tuesday to Elrod’s home, where they will continue searching for clues to the shooting, which shocked the mostly rural community just off I-75. Sondron is the 54th officer nationwide to be killed by gunfire in 2016, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page.
Several GBI agents investigating the shooting knew the two Peach deputies, Ricketson said. Even the most stoic members of law enforcement, he said, have struggled to understand how an argument between neighbors escalated so quickly.
“The gravity of this is tough,” Ricketson said.
Funeral arrangements for Sondron were pending late Monday.
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