They gathered somberly and in some cases tearfully on Thursday to honor 10 law enforcement agents from Henry County who were killed or died in the line of duty, dating back to 1919.
The annual Peace Officers’ Memorial Service at the Martinsville City Council chambers drew representatives of area law enforcement agencies, government officials and family members and friends of fallen officers.
The list from the Henry County Sheriff’s Office included John Hughes Mitchell, who was killed May 4, 1922; Willis Herman Ferguson, who was killed March 18, 1975; George Melvin Brown, who was killed June 26, 1984; and Paul Edward Grubb, who was killed July 2, 1989.
Grubb was shot during a drug raid. Brown was killed in a car accident while transporting an inmate. Ferguson was killed by a driver (who left the scene) while he helped a motorist with a flat tire. Mitchell was shot in an ambush after seizing some illegal whiskey.
Officer George S. Frame of the now-defunct Bassett Police Department was killed March 18, 1923. Officer John J. Johnston of the now-defunct Fieldale Police Department was killed Jan. 27, 1945. Frame was shot by a suspected moonshiner, and Johnston was killed in a car wreck.
From the Martinsville Police Department, they honored George F. Carter, who was killed June 14, 1919, while he was attempting to apprehend gamblers, and Jonathan W. Bowling, who was killed Jan. 26, 2005, when his Marine Corps Reserve convoy was ambushed in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Virginia State Police Trooper Charles Eugene Morris was killed in 1962 while assisting the Patrick County Sheriff’s Office with an arrest. Sgt. James Michael Phillippi died while on duty on Jan. 11, 2014, as a result of a medical condition.
The ceremony began with a prayer by Lee Hagwood, welcoming remarks by Martinsville Police Chief Eddie Cassady and proclamations ready by Martinsville Mayor Kathy Lawson and Debra Buchanan, vice chair of the Henry County Board of Supervisors.
A color guard included representatives from Martinsville, Henry County and the state police.
Henry County Sheriff Lane Perry read the names of officers killed in the line of duty, and David Cameron rang a bell after each name. Clark Givens played "Taps" on a bugle. Bob Norris played “Amazing Grace” on bagpipes. Martinsville Sheriff Steve Draper recognized family members. Major Eric Winn of the Henry County Sheriff’s Office gave the closing prayer.
According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund website, since Jan. 1 there have been 43 officer fatalities, 20 of which were firearms-related, 16 traffic-related and seven from other causes. Only one was from Virginia. There 63 fatalities during the same period in 2018.
Darlene Isom of Bassett, daughter of Ferguson, said “I do my best” to come to the ceremony every year.
“It’s so nice. so many years after it happened, [to recognize] the sacrifice that was made, that he made, certainly because he chose this job, but the family made it too,” she said.
“When he died, I was 15, 16, and my sister two years younger, 13 years old, and my brother he was 1 year old. He doesn’t even really remember Daddy.
“He was helping a lady on side of road, who had a flat tire in rain at night. He was hit and killed by a drunk driver.”
She said her father worked two jobs, driving a school bus by day and being a police officer at night. He started at the Fieldale Police Department and worked for the Bassett PD before the sheriff’s office.
“Sometimes he’d wear his police uniform on the bus [he drove] because he had to go to court. The kids [on the bus] acted really good on those days,” Isom said with a laugh.
“When we were teenagers, if we did anything, like stayed out real late or didn’t come home, Mama didn’t get involved — Daddy was out in the night. He was coming after us. So we didn’t do those things.”
She said she works with the Fieldale Heritage Festival, and when several people found out who her father was, they would say he was the best guy. “Some said he stopped me for doing such and such and gave me a strong talking to. If he thought they would do better, he would let them go; if not, he would call their parents.”
“He could tell, I guess, if he made an impression or not on them,” Isom said.
“He loved it [being a law enforcement officer]. He just loved it. He just loved helping people and helping the community be better.”
Shirley Mitchell Wilson, who lives near Ridgeway, is the granddaughter of John Hughes Mitchell, who died years before she was born.
“He was ambushed by some bootleggers. That’s how the story goes,” she said.
She said she feels the fallen officers should be honored for the ultimate sacrifices they made.
Too often, she said, young people criticize law enforcement, who are out protecting the public.
Sharon Merricks of Stanleytown came to the ceremony to remember Phillippi and support his wife, Peggy.
“I knew Mike through our church, McCabe Memorial Baptist," she said. "He was a dear friend of mine and my husband, Steve. He and his wife, Peggy, were godparents to our daughter.
“Mike was the nicest, most caring person you would ever meet, quiet, always had a smile on his face.”