About 100 people stood on a busy street corner in downtown Eastman Monday afternoon to pay their respects to Officer Tim Smith, whom a gunman shot and killed Saturday night. A procession of police cars escorted his body to a local funeral home. MARK DAVIS/MRDAVIS@AJC.COM
Photo: Mark Davis
Photo: Mark Davis

Georgia town grieves over slain officer

They all stood a little straighter, a little taller, when the white hearse came around the corner. It carried one of them.

Eastman Police Officer Tim Smith came back Monday afternoon. Two days earlier, he’d been on the job. Now, everyone knew, his shift was over. Smith is dead, killed Saturday night by a gunman on a downtown street.

Smith returned on his birthday. Had he lived, Smith would have been 32.

“This is a small town,” said Phil Kingston, an Eastman resident who parked his ’04 Suzuki motorcycle and stepped off, helmet under his arm, to await a long line of approaching police cars escorting the lone hearse. “He will be missed.”

Smith was working his usual shift Saturday night when he got the call around 9:30: an armed man, walking down the street.

Police would later identify that man as Royheem Delshawn Deeds, who lived about a dozen miles outside Eastman. A camera on Smith’s patrol car provided the ID. The two exchanged shots, according to police reports, but only one fell — Smith. He wasn’t wearing his department-issued bullet-proof vest. Smith died that night.

Deeds got as far as Nassau County, Fla., about 140 miles south of here. An officer pulled over a car driven occupied by Deeds sister, Franshawn Deeds, and her boyfriend, Jamil Mitchell. In the trunk: her 24-year-old brother. He’d been on the run, said police, for about four hours.

Monday evening, police were anticipating Deeds’ return. They intend to charge him with murder.

Attacks on police

Smith is the second Georgia police officer to be killed in the line of duty this year. His was one of two attacks this weekend on police officers in the state.

In Marietta, Officer Scott Davis, a 10-year veteran of the force, is expected to recover from a gunshot to his leg. Two 15-year-olds were arrested in connection with the shooting. Authorities say both are Bloods gang members.

In Eastman, with a population of just over 5,000, police said they have no evidence that the confrontation between Smith and Deeds was racially motivated. Still, the killing underscores a national issue: the friction between police and people of color.

Last month, police shootings of civilians in Minneapolis and Baton Rouge were followed by deadly ambush-style attacks on officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge. Milwaukee is the latest city to be gripped by violence. Officials there put in place a curfew Monday after two nights of protests in response to the police shooting of an unarmed black man.

The shooting in Eastman transcends race, said Police Chief Becky Sheffield. People, regardless of race, have expressed sorrow over Smith’s death, she said.

“It’s unreal, how much support we’ve had,” said Sheffield, noting that a lot of folks called her fallen officer “Turtle” — why, she didn’t know.

“You don’t think something like that will happen in a town like this,” Sheffield said. “But you never know.”

When she learned that Smith was killed, Samantha Asbell posted his photo on the Facebook page that advertises Asbell & Sons Garage. She and her husband, Everett, operate the shop.

“This has shaken up our little town,” said Asbell., whose husband worked on Smith’s Dodge Ram pickup. “You see this sort of thing in the big cities.”

Smith was a protector, said Breanna Skeens, 18. “Everybody’s devastated,” said Skeens, who knew Smith through her father, a city employee. “He was everybody’s friend.”

And one woman’s sweetheart. Smith met Chelsea Clark at Flash Foods, an Eastman convenience store. He was the cop on patrol, making sure everyone was safe. She was the smiling manager behind the register. The couple purportedly planned a March wedding.

“She’s shook up,” said Katelyn Giddens, Clark’s cousin. “She doesn’t know what she’ll do.”

Ribbons of support

The ribbons are like flowers, showing up all of a sudden. The first, twin clusters of blue that symbolized the color police often wear, appeared on Liberty Baptist Church. The church sign also lets passersby know its position: We support the blue, it reads.

On Wednesday, the church is inviting Dodge County residents to gather in the sanctuary and pray for police, firefighters and others who serve the public.

“It’s a chance to grieve,” said the Rev. Brian Martin, the church’s senior pastor. “A lot of people are upset.”

The church has distributed flyers advertising the prayer meeting all over town. It’s also gone on social media to spread the word.

Martin thinks he may see something Wednesday evening in the 350-capacity sanctuary he’s not witnessed since becoming pastor two years ago. “I’ve never seen it full before,” he said. “But I think we might be full.”

Back in downtown Eastman, the corner of the Piggly Wiggly parking lot where people waited for Smith’s procession to pass got pretty full, too. Among them was Dana Stokes, squinting in the sun.

A year ago, Stokes said, a family member was in crisis. No one knew what to do. They called the cops.

“While I was waiting, I prayed that they would send someone with compassion,” said Stokes. Her voice quavered, then broke. “And they sent him.”

That, she said, was a prayer answered.

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