“Just remember everything that I showed you, everything that I told you, all right?” Donnie Herman told his wife, juggling phones. “Melinda, I’m on the phone with 911. They are dispatched right now.”
Walton County sheriff’s deputies barreled toward the subdivision off Sharon Church Road, but the intruder reached the crawl space first. When he opened the door, Herman fired six times.
The 37-year-old mother emptied her revolver as the national gun debate was reaching its most fevered pitch in the weeks after the school massacre in Newtown, Conn. Melinda Herman became an instant hero to gun owners facing new restrictions on firearms. While the intruder lay in a hospital, clinging to life, the National Rifle Association tweeted about GA MOM. The 911 tape of Donnie Herman yelling to his terrified wife, “Shoot him! Shoot him again!” played over and over on the news, fueling hours of programming on Fox News and radio call-in shows.
Here in Walton County, 30 miles east of Atlanta, there was no debate. People went out and bought guns. More conceal-and-carry weapons, and more “home guns for the ladies,” says John Deaton, owner of Deaton’s Gun Shop in Loganville.
Four months later, the satellite trucks are gone, and the man who broke into the Herman house is in prison. But far from closure, Walton County remains in a state of vigilance. The crime continues to occupy the imagination. Four months later, and still the first question asked when the Walton County sheriff speaks to the Rotary Club or Center Hill Baptist is about the Jan. 4 home invasion. Here where the subdivisions are hacked from red Georgia clay, among whippoorwills, T-ball and Olive Garden, the citizenry is ready.
“We don’t want to become Atlanta,” Walton County Sheriff Joe Chapman says, sitting behind his desk at the sheriff’s office. His department’s policy on apprehending people who try to outrun the law is simple: “We will chase you, wreck you and get you.”
When Chapman, 49, was a boy growing up in the county, hunting in the mornings before school, the sheriff at the time had three deputies covering 330 square miles of rural territory between Athens and Atlanta. The general store in Good Hope still sells biscuits and jig head lures, but today, as sheriff, Chapman has 178 deputies covering what’s now considered metro Atlanta, with 86,000 residents, many of them newly armed.