Monday, August 27, 2018
The Legend of a Georgia High Sheriff
In 1960, at the age of 10, (stop doing the math to see how old I am!) we moved to heaven, as far as I was concerned. Crescent, in north McIntosh County. For the first time, I had indoor plumbing, I had neighbors, and I had a church that met weekly instead of every fifth Sunday of the month. And best of all, there was water, water, everywhere. I became a “river rat,” along with all my new friends. As wonderful as it was, McIntosh County had a dark underbelly.
MCINTOSH COUNTY was, and still is, one of the poorest counties in Georgia. When I lived there, the shrimping industry was booming; however, one destroyed shrimp net was enough to bankrupt some fishermen. SeaPak still had a packing house in the community of Valona that employed mostly blacks from three counties. Later, a shoe factory was built that was the life line for those desperately seeking employment.
BACK THEN, I-95 had not been built, and highway 17 in north McIntosh flourished with Pecan Centers, locally known as clip joints, where unsuspecting tourists were suckered into betting games. Highway 17 was also the home of the S & S Truck Stop, with campers parked out back and little tiny shacks housing prostitutes held in white slavery. I lived close to the famous Buccaneer Restaurant when it was a “key club” where everyone was screened through a peep hole to keep out black people. This same peep hole was used on nights the restaurant was closed and high stakes gambling games were held. These businesses had one thing in common, chief stake holder, Sheriff Tom Poppell. And, that’s not all he owned……
I DON’T know if this story is folk lore or truly happened, but it was told repeatedly around the county to describe Sheriff Poppell’s autocratic rule. A man was hog hunting and just as he shot a hog, Sheriff Poppell walked up on him. The Sheriff accused the man of shooting his hog. The man denied this. Sheriff Poppell told the man, “It has my brand.” The hunter said, “This hog doesn’t have a brand on him.” The Sheriff said, “Yes it does!” He instructed the hunter to lift up the hog’s curly tail, and said, “See that; that’s my brand!”
MCINTOSH COUNTY had more black residents than white. He owned the blacks, too, so-to-speak. Voter registration among blacks was nearly 100%. He ruled them through fear and kindness. When a tractor trailer would break down on Highway 17, Sheriff Poppell would raid the truck of its goods and give it to the black community. One such incident involved a truck carrying high-end shoes in all sizes. He sent the word out and black families cleared the site of all the shoes. Another incident involved an elderly black lady who was trying to rebuild her house. The Sheriff stopped by and asked her how it was going. She said, “I’m just praying for sheet rock.” A few weeks later, her prayer was answered. A tractor trailer jack-knifed on Highway 17 carrying an entire load of sheetrock. That was the kindness part. If anyone crossed Sheriff Poppell, they would disappear. It was called swimming by wearing too many chains. That was the fear part.
FLASH FORWARD to 1973. SeaPak was gone. The shoe factory closed. I-95 was completed and forced the closing of all the Sheriff’s nefarious businesses. The shrimping business had about dried up due to a shortage of shrimp in the sound. Everyone in the county was hurting financially. Shrimpers are the salt of the earth, hardworking men. However, it was hard to turn down an offer to rent their shrimp boats for the purpose of transporting drugs. By this time, I lived in Savannah and was an officer on the Metro Drug Squad with the Chatham County Police. I was asked to work on a joint task force. The target was none-other than my former Sheriff, Tom Poppell.
I WAS so excited that me, a home girl, would actually play a role in taking down the legendary Tom Poppell. We knew the time and the place when Poppell’s rented shrimp boat would unload. The day before the raid, I became deathly ill with pneumonia. I couldn’t go, and I have never been so disappointed in my life. The night of the raid, an agent phoned and told me the members of the task force were hiding in the woods when Sheriff Poppell arrived at the river bank. The shrimp boat flashed its lights. Sheriff Poppell flashed his. As the shrimp boat reached the bank and just as the agents were exiting the woods, Sheriff Poppell stepped out of his patrol car with a rifle and said to the people on the boat, “Put your hands up, you’re under arrest for drug smuggling.”
LATER I moved to Dekalb County where the sheriff was Sidney Dorsey, the most notorious Sheriff in Dekalb history. Among other things, he had his opponent murdered.
WHEN WE moved to Monroe County in 2000, it was refreshing to learn that Sheriff John Carey Bittick had a stellar reputation and in my eighteen years here, I have never even heard a single rumor of wrong doing by our Sheriff. The same is true of the Sheriff before him, Carey Bittick, Jr. Both of these former Sheriff’s were rewarded for their professionalism and respect nationwide by being appointed as a Federal Marshal. Both of these distinguished Sheriffs were elected at the age of 28.
Now Lawson Carey Bittick is running for Sheriff. He is 30 years old and has 12 years’ experience in the Sheriff’s office. Plus, Lawson has 60 years of experience as his backup. Take it from me, one that has lived in counties with bent sheriffs, you don’t need to take that chance. I mean no offense to any of the other fine candidates that are running. But, I simply believe if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.