Forty years after he graduated, Sgt. Curtis Billue returned Saturday to Wilkinson County High School, his body at rest in a flag-draped casket.
Billue’s funeral was held at his alma mater out of necessity. It’s the only facility in this rural Middle Georgia town big enough to handle all the mourners – roughly 600, mostly fellow law enforcement officers – who gathered to pay tribute to a quiet hero.
RELATED: Condolences flood in for slain Georgia officers
EXCLUSIVE: How the manhunt for Georgia fugitives unfolded
The 58-year-old state correctional officer was killed Tuesday after two inmates on a prison transport bus somehow managed to escape their shackles and breach a security gate, fatally shooting Billue and Sgt. Christopher Monica, 42.
“Curtis Billue is a hero,” Georgia Department of Corrections Commissioner Greg Dozier said. “He gave his whole life protecting others. Curtis Billue made me proud.”
Billue, according to those who knew him best, wasn’t the type of guy to go fishing for compliments. They remembered his discipline and drive – that work ethic enabled him to make the Clark Atlanta University football team as a walk-on. By his senior year, the undersized defensive end had won a starting job, said his brother, Bruce Billue.
More than anything, his brother was someone you could always count on – a man of his word who never shirked responsibility.
When his elderly father could no longer live alone, Billue, one of eight siblings, became his primary caregiver.
“That says something about the kind of man Curtis Billue was,” said eulogist Harold Banks, pastor of Mt. Tilla Baptist Church in neighboring Irwinton.
The U.S. Army veteran, who joined the Department of Corrections in 2007, was “the ultimate professional,” said Cedric Taylor, warden of Baldwin State Prison in Milledgeville and Billue’s boss. He typically rose before dawn and was devoutly punctual.
He was also fiercely independent, an adventurer at heart. Banks said Billue, a wildlife enthusiast, had not abandoned his dream to live in Alaska.
It’s a move his siblings would’ve dissuaded. They lost their mother just 11 months ago. Their father, Revon Billue, is now 94 and confined to a wheelchair. Curtis, a divorced father of two sons, would soon be the patriarch.
“Curtis, you’re so wonderful to think of but so hard to live without,” sister Denise Billue, of McIntyre, said Saturday.
Banks implored family members and co-workers to forgive Ricky Dubose and Donnie Russell Rowe, the two men accused of killing Billue and Monica.
“Acknowledge God by forgiving those who committed this atrocity against you,” Banks said.
Let the justice system handle the retribution due the alleged killers, the pastor said. Dubose and Rowe were arrested Thursday in middle Tennessee after nearly three full days on the run
The punishment may well be death.
Stephen Bradley, the district attorney in the Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit, said he won’t decide how to proceed with the prosecution until after seeking indictments against the two men, who are expected to be extradited back to Georgia this week.
Meanwhile, Banks, referencing the inmates’ improbable escape, said he’s convinced the two officers didn’t die in vain.
“It’s going to save some other officers’ lives as a result of what happened,” he said.