“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.
He holds up a flier. The Citizens Firearms Training Course offered by the sheriff’s office has been oversold for four months. New classes fill instantly. “You can’t even get on the waiting list,” Chapman says. On the last Saturday of every month, he lets the public use the department’s firing range, free of charge.
Six-foot-two and going silver, Chapman came to represent the gun-loving Deep South when the microphones were stuck in his face. “The guy from CNN asked me about assault weapons,” he says, smiling. “To me an assault weapon is a Mark 19 grenade launcher.” He is exaggerating. His basic point is that citizens have a right to protect themselves. He will do everything he can to ensure that they are trained and responsible gun owners.
After the home invasion, Chapman was deluged with mail at the sheriff’s office. Most of it was for Melinda Herman. Please tell Mrs. Herman congratulations. God bless this mother. A man in New York wanted to send her a box of bullets. Another wanted to send her guns in case the government imposed new laws.
Herman never joined the fray. She has declined to speak publicly. All that stands is the account of her interview with sheriff’s deputies, typed out on a single page in the case file:
Mrs. Herman stated the subject came in the bathroom and opened the crawl space door. Mrs. Herman stated she started shooting at the subject. Mrs. Herman stated she kept shooting at the subject and the subject started yelling please stop.
Mrs. Herman stated she realized she had shot all of her rounds in the weapon. Mrs. Herman stated she kept yelling at him to stay down. Mrs. Herman stated she told him if he tried to get up, she would shoot him again. Mrs. Herman stated she grabbed her kids and they ran downstairs.
The deputies’ report does not mention the blood, the walls, the carpet or the screaming and crying. Nor does it say that the revolver Herman used was loaded with ammunition from a visit to a gun range a week before.
“Her husband had just talked her into learning how to shoot,” says Capt. Greg Hall, chief of detectives, sitting across the desk from the sheriff. “You’ve got two little kids trying to hide behind mama. The lady did what any mother would do.”
But Hall knows this is not true. Some people can’t pull the trigger. They panic, they freeze, they drop the gun, they soil themselves, they struggle with the slide or they delay, and for this reason, he doesn’t have much patience for the Dirty Harry jubilation that surrounds the Herman case. “It’s not natural to shoot someone,” Hall says. “It’s not natural to poke holes in someone.”
Herman fired six shots, missing only once. Paul Ali Slater, 32, an unemployed father of six, was shot five times in the face and torso. He made it back to his vehicle but crashed a few blocks away. He barely survived his injuries. Last month, Slater was sentenced to 10 years in prison. He told the judge that he thought the Herman’s house was empty when he broke in to steal.
Sitting at his desk, Chapman says Slater sought out Herman and her children, bypassing a purse on a counter and a big-screen TV to reach the crawl space, breaking through two locked doors in his path.
“Mr. Slater,” the sheriff begins, and then stops. “I hate to call a criminal ‘Mr.’ ”
He tries again: “How ’bout ‘perpetrator Slater,’ ‘dirtbag Slater.’ ”
Chapman looks over the latest numbers on concealed-weapon permits issued in the county. More permits have been processed in the first four months of this year — 1,434 — than in all of 2012. If anything positive has come from the home invasion, Chapman says, it’s the public-service message: “It’s telling the criminal element, ‘I can get my ass shot up doing this.’ ”
Before the shooting, in an effort to keep dangerous individuals and scam artists from residential neighborhoods, Chapman had urged the Walton County Board of Commissioners to adopt an ordinance that required background checks, registration and fingerprinting of all door-to-door salespeople. Two months ago, because of difficulties enforcing local regulations, the ordinance was repealed.
“It just opens the doors to the criminal element,” Chapman says.
Sharon Church Road in Loganville winds through subdivisions that slope off in big hunks of brick, flagstone, pine and crape myrtles. It’s hard to tell one from the next. Anita Brown lives in Cedar Lake Estates, and she’s “a hundred percent positive” of one thing:
“He came to my house before he went to the Hermans’,” says Brown, 38. “I saw him drive up.”
A hospital insurance specialist who works from home, Brown says she was in her office when she saw an SUV pull into her driveway. The man who got out was wearing a hoodie and baggy jeans, “clothes we would never wear,” Brown says, meaning the residents of Cedar Lake Estates. She grabbed her phone and went outside before he could make it to her front door.
He said he was looking for a coach, according to Brown. He was vague when she asked for specifics. “Where’s he coach at?” Brown asked. The man retreated to his vehicle and left. Brown went inside to cook lunch. She did not hear the gunshots a few cul-de-sacs away at the Hermans’ house.
“If she hadn’t shot him, we’d be having a murder trial right now,” Brown says. “I firmly believe that.”
Brown organized a meeting for shaken residents. Although she expected just a few neighbors, 113 people showed up, and the Sharon Community Watch Program was born. Brown now helps oversee what feels like a town unto itself: 14 subdivisions, each with sectional coordinators.
“Crime is moving out,” Brown says. “It will not be tolerated. We want to keep our area nice.”
The menace is hard to see. Outside, the streets are wide and empty. Garage doors are down, and driveways are vacant until about 6, when the red or blue or champagne-colored trucks with Bluetooth and GPS arrive home.
But Brown describes how it used to be. She and her husband, a machinist, and their teenage son would go to sleep at night in their $180,000 brick house without locking the solid-mahogany front door. Closing it was good enough. Brown can’t remember when they even used the locks. “We’d be on vacation in Panama City,” she says, “and one of our neighbors would call, and I’d say, ‘Where are you?’ and they’d say, ‘I’m standing in your kitchen.’ ”
Now the Sharon Community Watch Program is a part-time job. Born in Louisiana, Brown is honey and steel: lovely and gracious and in possession of several firearms. She treads a fine line on guns in the watch program. “If you don’t understand a gun, having one is more dangerous then not having one,” Brown says. “For instance, my mother-in-law couldn’t pull a trigger if she wanted to. Now, Miss Peggy and Mr. Don behind me, they are strong believers in the NRA. After the incident, they took an elderly group to the gun range to practice.”
Miss Peggy and Mr. Don are among the watch members who want to invite the NRA to speak to the homeowners. So far, Brown has resisted, concerned that the NRA might politicize the group. Instead, she brings in law enforcement officers, gun-safety instructors and home-security sales reps. “Options are important,” Brown says.
Above all she stresses vigilance, which is new for a lot of people here. Brown knows almost all the vehicles in her subdivision of about 50 homes. She has trained herself to be aware of bumper stickers and other identifying characteristics. She knows who belongs in Cedar Lake Estates and who doesn’t, and the man she says stopped at her house in a silver SUV did not belong. “We know everyone who’s from here,” she says.
“The other week, we had a van come though,” Brown recalls. From her living room window, she counted five occupants — “three males and two females” — who fanned out into the neighborhood selling OxiClean disinfectant wipes and products. Brown was outside, in her yard, before the first man could reach her front door. “He had that little wipe in his hand,” she says. “I said, ‘We don’t do that here.’ ”
Eight miles from Sharon Church Road, in a subdivision of more-modest homes, the silver SUV is parked in the driveway of a two-story brick house.
The Mercury Mountaineer has never handled right since the sheriff’s office released it to Slater’s wife, a 37-year-old elementary school teacher.
“Let’s go,” Zakia Slater calls to two of her sons, who have just inhaled dinner and are 20 minutes from the start of basketball practice. They load into the SUV. As Zakia backs out of the driveway, the steering wheel shimmies.
“Mom, it’s obviously not safe,” the 9-year-old boy says.
“It certainly isn’t,” Zakia says, trying to conceal one more frustration in a life now built on them.
Suddenly she is on her own with six children, and her husband is known as “that guy who got shot by the lady.” She owes a lawyer $7,500. Her phone rings with collect calls from jail.
“I want to see Daddy,” her youngest daughter says. “When are we gonna be able to see Daddy?”
“Daddy broke the law,” she says.
The community that Paul Slater upended includes his own family. His wife of nine years was so frightened by the public outrage that she slept with a knife under her mattress. She spent her days in her classroom with “The Legend of the Bluebonnet” and her nights in a chair at the hospital for five weeks. This went on as teachers and colleagues from school came to her house with casseroles, lasagna and red velvet cake. One crocheted a scarf for her. “We’re praying for you,” they said.
She has prayed a lot herself. Zakia can’t explain why her husband broke into a house with a crowbar. She imagines Herman and her children, “scared out their minds,” she says. But her husband said he was looking for jewelry, not people. Her fiercest conviction is that he had no intention of hurting anyone. “I can never imagine him doing anything like that,” she says.
To which Capt. Hall of the sheriff’s office says, “Bless her heart.”
Slater had been charged with theft one other time. He also had been charged on two occasions with assaulting his wife.
“I told him that’s not acceptable,” Zakia says, realizing the contradictions of the relationship. Not long before the home invasion, she told him, “This is your chance to do better.”
She believes that he was so close to doing better. In her bedroom are photos of Paul Slater with his son’s basketball team and a crayon drawing that says, “I love you mom and dad.”
On the day of Paul Slater’s sentencing, Zakia doesn’t go to the courthouse.
She goes to work. She needs a job.
She also decides that her family needs a system if it is to function. Paul Slater worked sporadically, but he took care of the cooking, laundry and driving kids to karate. Zakia gathers everyone in the living room. The youngest is 8, and the oldest, a freshman at a nearby college, 18. “Here’s how it’s gonna be,” their mother says: Each school night will follow a schedule, from homework to chores to dinner to prayers to showers before bed. Grocery shopping will be done once a week — “No more $350 trips,” she announces — and purchases will be based on the menu for the coming week. Everyone who can is drafted into helping with dinner. Zakia makes chicken curry. Her 16-year-old son makes spaghetti. Her 11-year-old daughter makes fish sticks.
About 9 one school night, she’s working on lesson plans when she hears foolishness upstairs. “Be firm with them,” she calls up to the 16-year-old, a bookish junior at a math and science magnet high school who would rather be on his computer than corralling younger siblings. “Shower and bed, that’s it.”
Next to her is a worn copy of “A Lineage of Grace” by Francine Rivers. It’s about five women chosen by God to overcome extraordinary challenges. “I read this a lot lately,” she says, with a weary smile.
On Zakia’s laptop, she still has the letter she wrote to the Hermans from her husband’s hospital room. He was on a ventilator, shot in the liver and lungs, with a shattered jaw and broken teeth.
Dear Family, the letter begins.
My six children and I would like to sincerely apologize for my husband’s intrusion in your home. We regret that you and your children had to endure this tragedy and be put in a situation you never would have imagined being in. We understand you felt you and your children’s life was threatened and took appropriate action, but we believe his intentions were not to harm you in any way.
She never sent the letter.
As time has passed, the same unease that affects the rest of Walton County has settled in her.
Deciding that a knife under a mattress wasn’t enough, she went to a pawnshop and bought a gun.