Quiet town of Chattahoochee Hills shaken by violence

Drive down South Fulton Parkway, through the 8.4 miles that run the length of the “city” of Chattahoochee Hills, and not a single structure rises from the rural landscape.

Off the main drag, the network of dirt roads is surrounded by cow-filled pastures. Roughly 2,500 people live in this newly incorporated town, spread across 33,000 rolling and wooded acres.

To the residents here, Chattahoochee Hills is a world apart from the rest of Fulton County, Atlanta and all the comes with the big city.

Then there are the reminders that this community, which is in the midst of re-envisioning itself, is still not that far away.

The ambush killing last week of Lt. Mike Vogt, a popular officer from the tiny police force, left this tight-knit community stunned. Residents flocked to church to pray or to City Hall with an endless stream of crock pots and covered dishes.

“Someone has a baby or gets sick here and we’ll cook for them for a month,” said Sarah Richards, who moved to the city three years ago “for the raw nature and the people.”

Police said Vogt, one of the city’s 12-full-time officers, was shot to death Monday after he encountered Robert M. Cook on a dirt road. Cook, a 44 year old who lives in a trailer in nearby Fairburn, allegedly had been drinking. He didn’t want to get a DUI and return to jail, police said, so he opened fire on Vogt with a AR 15 semi-automatic rifle.He was arrested after a two-day manhunt and faces murder charges.

Chattahoochee Hills Police Chief Damon Jones rubbed red, sleep-deprived eyes while recalling Vogt, his friend and mentor, a man he met in the early 1990s when they were Union Point cops.

“The first time I rode in a marked patrol car, Mike Vogt was with me; he was my training officer,” Jones said of the second officer he hired.

Vogt was enthused by the idea of helping build a new police force.

Years ago in Oklahoma, Vogt worked undercover to score one of the state’s biggest drug busts. In Union City, he helped crack the long-unsolved murder of 22-year-old Sparkle Rai, who was killed in 2000 by a hit man hired by her father-in-law.

The former undercover narcotics agent, hostage negotiator, arson investigator and certified fraud examiner had the passion and computer expertise to quickly establish a solid, functioning force.

Jones worried Vogt might be bored in Chattahoochee Hills. But he stayed busy and led the department in arrests.

While crime here is rare, it is not unheard of. Last summer, intruders invaded a home, shot a young woman in the face and brutalized her 1-year-old son. It was not a random crime, Jones said. The woman’s family knew the family of 17-year-old suspect Antoine Wimes. The case gained notoriety because Wimes, a murder defendant out on bond, cut off an ankle monitoring device before allegedly committing the home invasion.

“Stuff like that isn’t supposed to happen here,” Jones said. “It seems like we’ve had too many visits from the news media.”

Just three years ago, some 85 percent of the voters here chose to incorporate this vast expanse to hold tight to “the last oasis in the area,” as Mayor Don Hayes put it.

Residents brag about having their own cadre of cops (and nine full-time firefighters). Fulton police, who once covered the 55 square miles, would get lost going to calls and infrequently roll by on patrol, residents said.

Bonnie Goode, a retired Palmetto High School teacher whose students included Chief Jones, watched her home burn to the ground in 1964 before a fire truck arrived. In 1992, her father suffered a massive stroke but waited an hour for an ambulance. Response times have vastly improved, she said.

“We have needed the services a city can bring,” said Goode, who works part-time at City Hall logging traffic tickets written by the new force. “We like that kind of progress.”

City Hall is the old Rico Elementary School, a four-classroom facility that Goode attended. “I’ve seen all the changes here,” she said, then quickly correcting herself. “I mean, I’ve seen so little change. And that’s the way we like it.”

Mayor Hayes jokes the city, while only a 40-minute drive from Atlanta, operates on a first-name basis.

“We have a very involved and energetic citizenry,” he said. About 120 people, or 5 percent of that citizenry, were on committees that pushed for incorporation and to get the new city to get up and running.

Chattahoochee Hills (it started out as Chattahoochee Hill Country) became the fourth new Fulton city in a two-year period, following the lead of Sandy Springs, Milton and Johns Creek.

“We wanted self-reliance,” said Hayes, a resident since 1969. “We wanted our own police and fire departments. We wanted our own zoning, rather than someone in Atlanta making decisions about us.”

The master plan is to have three “villages” developed off the main roads so those driving through the city will see trees and fields, not driveways and garage doors. Hayes said residents didn’t want to become Paulding County, the fast-growing metro county where subdivisions supplanted greenery with reckless abandon.

Not everyone supported the independence effort.

Lifelong resident Kenny Smith -- who, like Goode, is 67 -- owns the century-old Smith’s Grocery, pretty much the end-all when it comes to shopping in the area. Smith opposed incorporation and still likes to call the area “Rico,” which is noted on his store’s sign.

Smith’s major complaints are higher taxes (the city’s budget is about $2.5 million) and reduced maintenance on the city’s gravel roads.

The issue is still touchy and Smith realizes he must live with the other 85 percent who voted for the city.

“I don’t want to say too much,” he said. “I don’t want to make them mad.”

Just a few miles away from Smith is Serenbe, a planned community in the city featuring homes up to $1 million and the epitome of “new urbanism” or “smart growth” or whatever is the latest developmental term de art.

The 900-acre brainchild of restaurateur Steve Nygren, Serenbe is a cluster of homes and an old timey downtown surrounded by organic farms, horse pastures and forests. There are about 100 homes and 250 residents. It is seen by many Chattahoochee Hills residents as a roadmap for the city’s future development.

Sarah Richards stopped in at the Bilt House, a fashionable Serenbe boutique that is the retail inverse of Smith’s Grocery. She was walking two American Field Labs and handed a dozen eggs to Betsy Marlow, the store’s worker. Most of the eggs were brown but some were green, which she said come from a South American bird.

Richards discovered Serenbe on the Internet and gushed about the social camaraderie, the non-denominational religious gatherings, the environmentally friendly lifestyles and, still, the sense of security here. She then laughed, adding, “We all don’t drink the Kool-aid here.”

“It’s kind of a back-in-time thing,” said Richards, who runs the Serenbe directory and knows there are 55 children, 55 dogs and 35 cats in the community. Like residents in and out of the development, Richards is assured of her own safety. “There is crime (in the area), but not in Serenbe.”

But real life always seems to find a way of intruding.

Chattahoochee Hills policeman Matthew Rook said on Monday the affable Vogt came to work and began spinning some of his yarns, stories that could last for five minutes or sometimes stretch to an hour.

“We sat around and talked just like we always did and then he went out,” Rook said. “Then our world fell apart.”