Hall County sheriff’s Sgt. Charles Hewell became fast friends with rookie deputy Nicolas Blane Dixon when he was first assigned to his shift about nine months ago.

They were both 28 years old, had young families and played the same sports growing up. It wasn’t long before Hewell treated Dixon as a seasoned patrol officer, trusting him as a deputy as much as he did as a friend. After working together during a serious incident a couple of weeks ago, the two officers never left each other without an “I love you.”

And when Dixon was hit with a fatal bullet during a shootout Sunday night between deputies and four teenage suspects, Hewell was by his side.

“I grabbed him by his vest and told him to hold on,” Hewell told the audience of friends, family and Georgia law enforcement officers who came to honor Dixon at his funeral Thursday morning. “My brother held on and fought longer than he should have. That’s just the fighter he was.”

Dixon died in the hospital early Monday morning. The bullet struck him under his ballistic vest. He leaves behind his parents, Fred and Jada Dixon; his wife, Stephanie; and two young sons, 9-year-old Caden and 3-month-old Colton Justice.

“Blane had a giant heart,” Hewell said. “He could go from finding a suspect and being a tough cop to doing everything he could for someone he met on a call or someone walking by who looked down in the dumps.”

The young deputy had always wanted to be a police officer, said speakers at the funeral held in Gainesville Free Chapel Worship Center. He started as a jailer about three years ago, a requirement for Hall County deputies, then moved into patrol.

His unwavering enthusiasm for protecting and serving his community was mentioned repeatedly by officers and family members during the service.

“I believe there are those among us with hearts that God chooses to infuse with spirit, service and guardianship. Blane’s heart was certainly one of those,” Hall County Sheriff Gerald Couch said.

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Police officers from departments across the state came to honor the fallen deputy, filling the huge church auditorium with all manner of uniforms and making the funeral procession a massive line of law enforcement motorcycles.

Members of the Patriot Guard Riders were there too, lined up, holding flags along the front of the church as the hearse arrived, then doing the same later at the cemetery.

The funeral procession stretched more than a mile and a half from Free Chapel to the Memorial Park cemetery, and people lined the streets, holding signs to honor Dixon. Those who couldn’t make it to the cemetery were invited to watch the Channel 2 livestream of the flag ceremony and service inside the worship center.

People from the Hall County community who knew Dixon, a longtime resident of Gainesville and a North Hall High School graduate, were among the uniformed officers honoring him. Attendees came in dark blue and black, some pinning blue ribbons to their clothes, and others hanging a black flag with a blue stripe from their cars.

Pauline Giles, 77, has a son on the Hall County Sheriff’s Office force who she said bought a flag to fly at half-staff in their yard after Dixon’s death.

“The Hall County community is so supportive of the police,” Giles said. “And you find that rare these days, but you can see by the outpouring how we all feel.”

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Flags flew at half-staff around Hall County to honor Dixon, and Gov. Brian Kemp ordered the same for the flag in front of the state Capitol in Atlanta.

Some officers who spoke about their friend lightened the mood of the sniffling crowd, telling stories about Dixon’s signature, goofy wave, hours-long phone conversations, and his accidental run-in with a guardrail while driving his patrol car.

Since Dixon’s death, Georgia governments and agencies have posted condolences to the Dixon family and the Hall County Sheriff’s Office. And Dixon’s younger brother Jeremy thanked other businesses and organizations that have shown support.

The four 17-year-old males suspected of firing at Dixon and his fellow deputies are charged with felony murder. Brayan Omar Cruz, London Clements and Eric Edgardo Velazquez are in custody, while Hector Garcia-Solis remains in the hospital because of multiple gunshot wounds.