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Facing The Test

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By Ben Bomberger, Reporter

INDEPENDENCE — You could say that Grayson County Sheriff Richard Vaughan has been tested right from the start.

Just 40 minutes into his first day as sheriff in Grayson, he participated in a drug bust.

It was a positive beginning, one of those things that went a long way toward showing Vaughan was the right man for the job.

But, nothing could have prepared the law enforcement veteran for what came next.

Twenty-three days later, on a tree farm in the far western end of the county, a brutal triple homicide began a grueling 45-day stretch that tested Vaughan and his entire department.

By the end, a total of eight people were dead in Grayson county — the three fatal shootings at the tree farm, followed about a month later by a double murder/suicide and the discovery of two additional homicide victims all on the same day.

The second pair of crimes occurred only about a month after the first incident.

Vaughan took the investigations as a challenge and pushed forward, all the while trying to implement changes at the department he had just taken over.

The past year was also spent tracking down leads on two unsolved “cold cases” from before his time — one of which yielded an intriguing lead.

Vaughan sat down with The Gazette earlier this month to reflect on his first year wearing a Grayson uniform.

Trial By Fire

At 12:40 a.m. on Jan. 1, 2008, Sheriff Vaughan and Chief Deputy Mike Hash stopped a driver in Fries, charged him with a DUI and found marijuana in the vehicle.

“We got off to a good start,” Vaughan told The Gazette last January. “The way our first night started out was a good indication of how busy our first year was going to be.”

Little did he know that about three weeks later, he would be faced with the worst homicide case in Grayson history.

Vaughan remembered Jan. 24 in exact detail. He and a few deputies had gone over to the Courthouse Cafe in Independence to grab a bite.

When he returned to the office, he was told about the shootings at the Hudler tree farm— then believed to be in Ashe County, N.C.

“We thought we'd ride out that way and see if there was anything we could do to help,” Vaughan said.

He was about halfway there when the call came in that the murders could possibly be in Grayson.

After “stepping it up” a bit to arrive quicker, Vaughan said he felt some relief when he had to cross the North Carolina state line before reaching the house.

“I looked around and saw the tags of the cars parked at the house all said North Carolina and I felt okay,” thinking the crime scene was in the neighboring state.

After using a GPS system to get an exact location on the farm, Vaughan was faced with a triple homicide — only 24 days into taking office.

Ronald Hudler, his son Fred and farm worker John Miller had all been shot in what appeared to be a robbery.

“It was tough to be faced with a challenge right off the bat,” Vaughan said of what became a four-day marathon investigation. “I don't think I slept any during those four days.”

Every time he went to lay down, he would think of something and jump up to type it into the computer or get a shower and head back to the office.

“At that point, your adrenaline just kicks in,” he said.

Add to that the stress Vaughan felt while trying to restructure a sheriff's department and becoming acquainted with his new staff, and it became a difficult situation.

“I didn't know many of them personally,” Vaughan said of his staff. “I really didn't have that trust built up yet.”

That was one reason Vaughan was on hand for most of the investigation.

In the end, it helped him see what kind of staff he had and how they could perform under tremendous pressure.

“It proved to me what our investigators were capable of,” he said. “It also brought us closer together... but at the same time it did interfere with the transition and it definitely slowed that process down.”

After tackling the first round of murders and arresting suspect Frederick Hammer within four days, Vaughan took a weekend off to catch up on some lost sleep.

“It's really a blessing the way that case turned out,” Vaughan said, with finding a suspect so quickly.

On March 2, 2008, Vaughan was on his way to Mount Airy, N.C., when he received a call from Hash saying a Hispanic man had been found dead in Baywood. He returned to Grayson to help with the investigation.

While investigators were processing the scene in a wooded area near a logging road, another call came in that a man had killed two people — and then himself — just a few miles away.

Freddy Eugene Hawks Jr. called police to report that he'd shot two people. When officers arrived, they found Hawks dead, along with his former girlfriend, Amanda Dawn Brown and Andrew Allen Ashworth.

Later, a second Hispanic man was found dead near the first body in Baywood.

“Eight people found dead in 30 days,” Vaughan said. “It was rough.”

Police named Francisco Garcia De La Fuente as a suspect in the murders of Jose Rubio and Sergio Vasquez, but he is believed to be in Mexico.

With the quick arrest in the triple homicide, Vaughan feels that he gained a lot of trust with the citizens. “I had a lot of calls from people saying 'good job' and just overall excited about the job our department did.”

Cold Cases

During Vaughan's campaign in 2007, he told voters that he would work his hardest to bring closure to several cases that had yet to be solved. The two most notable cases included the killing of Galax High School student Brandon Billings in 2002 and the disappearance of Logan Bowman, then five years old, who was last seen in January 2003.

Vaughan said his department has been working hard to solve both cases and has spent numerous hours following new leads.

Concerning the Billings' case, Vaughan said evidence has been re-submitted for processing and several new leads are currently being worked on.

“We do have several persons of interest,” Vaughan said.

He noted that several of the people of interest had moved to other parts of the country, so it was taking time to track them down and talk with them.

“I'm very optimistic about it,” he said of the 6-year-old case. “You know, statistics show that in 80 percent of all cold cases... the suspect's name is listed [somewhere in the initial paperwork].”

Vaughan hopes that is true of the Billings' murder, which he says he is working hard to solve.

As for the Bowman case, Vaughan and his department felt they had a positive lead earlier this year when the boy's mother, Cynthia Lee Davis, broke down and told police where the toddler's body was located.

(Davis is serving time for homicide. In her plea agreement, she did not admit to killing her son, but believed there was enough evidence to prove the charge.)

After Davis drew officers a map, Vaughan — along with assistance from several other departments — went to the site, but was unable to determine exactly where to look.

The next day, Vaughan filed paperwork to have Davis released in their custody so she could show the officers exactly where the boy's body was buried.

After receiving the exact location, authorities used cadaver dogs to search the area. Vaughan said the dogs hit on several spots, all of which were completely excavated.

Nothing was found.

“It was a bit of a disappointment,” Vaughan said. “But we'll continue working on the case.”

Davis and boyfriend Dennis Schermerhorn were both charged in Bowman's disappearance.

Schermerhorn was convicted of child neglect and received a 12-month sentence.

Vaughan didn't promise that he would solve both cases, but said his department is working “extremely hard” on both to bring closure to the families.

Making the Transition

When Vaughan took office last January, he set out to make the office more structured.

The first of his changes was to break the deputies down into two different patrol teams, A and B. The teams work 12-hour days in a four days on/four days off rotation.

“This allows us to have better coverage at night, with more units on the road,” Vaughan said.

The new teams also created two new leadership roles of patrol sergeant, as well as a patrol lieutenant that supervises the two sergeants.

Having a sergeant on duty at all times provides some accountability for each deputy and creates a different chain of command within the department.

Deputies are now filing paperwork differently and are required to keep statistics from their shifts and time sheets.

Vaughan said that goes hand-in-hand with the new business check-ups, which require deputies to monitor businesses while they are closed.

Along with the business checks, the department also offers residential checks for citizens that are going to be out of town. Anyone interested in having their home monitored can contact the sheriff's office.

“They have to keep track of how many people they've stopped, any arrests and all their business checks,” Vaughan said. It's a way to ensure the deputies are held accountable for their time on duty.

Along with the change in how deputies file paperwork, they also receive memos and announcements differently.

“Each deputy now has their own e-mail address,” Vaughan said. Deputies are required to check their e-mail daily for updates and information.

Another recent change Vaughan made to the department was to have deputies begin working accident scenes. “It's something we don't have to do,” he said. “But it's a service we now offer to our citizens.”

The department does not handle accidents involving commercial vehicles and/or fatalities, but Vaughan said they do handle minor crashes to assist the state police, noting that some nights there is not a state trooper on duty in Grayson.

“We just want to help out.”

Renovations

Along with personnel changes, the department received a face-lift in its building and at the courthouse.

Vaughan said when he took over, the building was in “bad shape.”

Last January, he told The Gazette that the building had not been renovated since the 1980s and that he planned new sheetrock and a fresh coat of paint.

Nearly a year later, citizens are greeted as they enter by a much simpler, presentable and safer office.

Previously, anyone entering the door could walk right into where the dispatchers sat. Now, a locked door has been placed in the entrance that keeps visitors from going any further. Directly to the right is a secretary that handles all incoming traffic.

Other changes include Vaughan moving his office upstairs and putting some new sheetrock and carpet throughout.

“When I came here we had holes in the carpet... and walls,” he said. “Now we gave it a face-lift and used inmate labor to do most to keep the costs down.”

Additional changes included putting two doors in and creating a hallway that links the main office with the holding cells.

Vaughan said deputies could not access the jail without first walking outside. “When we had an inmate, we had to walk them all the way around outside, in the rain and cold temperatures.”

The renovations included a complete overhaul of the dispatch center. Previously, it was crammed into a small location, but it now allows dispatchers to spread out and hides most of the electronics from view.

The sheriff also said Grayson's dispatch is now directly connected to the E-911 Dispatch Center (C-COM) in Galax and can receive information instantly when a 911 call comes in for the department.

“We now have the T-1 connection from the E-911 center to transfer the calls,” Vaughan said. “[E-911 Director] Eddie Hines and the 911 Commission have been great to work with and get us linked directly to C-COM.”

The sheriff's department is in the process of installing a Computer Aided Dispatch system to go along with the connection that will enable the dispatchers at the sheriff's office to receive everything electronically from C-COM in Galax.

“Eventually, we are going to be completely paperless,” he said. “This will also speed up our dispatch and response time.”

For example, when a 911 call goes to the system in Galax, once dispatchers know it is a call for the sheriff's office, they can transfer it immediately.

When the dispatcher picks up in the phone in Independence, all the caller's information — such as 911 street address — will automatically appear on the dispatcher's screen.

Previously, dispatchers had to ask for that information again and look it up themselves.

“This links everything together,” he continued. “It made a lot of rescue squads and fire departments happier to have this all together.”

One change that has received mixed feelings from citizens is the automated answering machine. Vaughan said the decision to install the automated system came because of the high volume of calls the office received daily.

“We only have one dispatcher at a time,” he said. “This made the way our office runs more efficient.”

Callers now can push extensions to talk directly with investigators and/or the sheriff.

Many citizens expressed concern over emergency calls and whether they could get a “live” person.

Vaughan noted that all 911 calls go directly to the dispatch center in Galax first and then are transferred to the sheriff's department. He added that a special phone line is set up so dispatchers know when it's a 911 call.

Also, the recording clearly states when it first picks up that, if the call is an emergency, to push zero to speak to a dispatcher immediately.

Court Security

In December 2006, a survey on Grayson County's courtroom noted that a lot of improvements were needed, according to Vaughan.

One year after he took office, all have been made.

“We hired two people to work part-time in the courtroom at no cost to the citizens,” Vaughan said of one of the improvements needed. “We get $10 back from each ticket that goes through the courthouse. Those salaries are paid out of that.”

Another change made at the courthouse was to reposition the metal detector — and mandate that all those entering the courtroom go through it each time they enter.

“We also installed a new holding cell on the same level of the courtroom and put combination locks on the back entrances of the courtroom, restricting access to court personnel only.”

Vaughan said that having the locks on the doors prevents anyone from randomly walking into the courtroom.

In addition, a Civil Division has been created that serves all civil process papers generated from the courts.

Accomplishments and Additions

During his first year as sheriff, Vaughan has seen his department add a color guard, as well as its own K-9 unit.

He said the local VFW donated flags for the color guard, while the K-9 unit — named Bosco — was purchased from Wythe County Sheriff's Office.

Deputy Adam Horton attended a month-long training session and is Bosco's certified handler.

Horton and Bosco conduct drug investigations at the schools and out in the county on a regular basis, as well as random drug searches in the schools.

“It was all paid for with money from the drug forfeiture fund that requires no money from the county and costs taxpayers nothing,” Vaughan said.

The department has also begun running radar throughout the county.

Right now, deputies focus mainly on school zones and areas that have had a lot of fatalities in recent years.

“This has already made our highways safer,” he said. “As of Dec. 29, there has not been a motor vehicle-related fatality in Grayson County this year.”

The radar detectors were purchased with grants from the DMV.

Vaughan also had a new ordinance passed that allowed the county to keep money from traffic violations instead of sending those funds to the state. “In October alone, that change brought in almost $3,000,” Vaughan said.

He said it appears his initial projection of $35- to $40,000 in revenue would be fairly accurate.

Unfortunately for the sheriff, 100 percent of those funds are going to the county budget's General Funds line item, although supervisors have said the money would be used to help fund the Law Enforcement Officer Retirement Supplement [LEOS] payment.

Vaughan also was able to expand county patrols through two additional positions approved by the Grayson Board of Supervisors.

The new recruits will be finishing their field training in January.

The additional positions will put two day-shift deputies on patrol and four on night shift.

Along with the two new patrol positions, an additional school resource officer was added for Fries Middle School, giving the department one at each middle school and the high school.

Goals for 2009

Vaughan has accomplished a lot in his first year, and said he hopes to continue that success into his second year and work closer with neighboring localities.

Currently, he is working with the Carroll County Sheriff's Office and the Galax Police Department to secure grant funding to put computers in all police vehicles.

“That would enable us to be able to communicate better from our vehicles,” he said. “It's a 100 percent grant with no local match, so no cost to the county or its citizens.”

One change the computers may bring is the ability to do what the Independence Police Department has begun doing — file paperwork from the car. Currently the software company the sheriff's office uses can't do that, but Vaughan said he expects it to be there before long.

Another change that will occur in 2009 is a complete switch to digital equipment.

“This has been ongoing since October of 2007,” Vaughan said.

It's another partnership between Carroll and Galax — who already runs on digital equipment — and should be up and running by late spring to early summer.

“We are just now starting to get our radios in,” Vaughan said. “Our new radios will be both digital and analog and will provide better communication throughout the region and tremendous communication between the sheriff's department and the rescue squads.”

With the mountainous terrain officers face in Grayson, Vaughan expects the digital system to provide more areas where deputies can be in contact with dispatch, without the “cutting in and out” that they often face now. “With digital, you either have a signal, or you don't.”

The installation will take a few months and several new digital transmitters will be set up throughout the county. “It will be a huge benefit for all the rescue and fire departments.”

The new system will include analog channels, as well, to allow contact between any departments that don't switch over to digital, although Vaughan said it was required by 2025 for all agencies.

Overall Welcome

“We've gained a lot of trust with the citizens,” Vaughan said of his first year. “Everybody's been very appreciative and have called in because they've seen more deputies on patrol... people have called in and met some of the deputies. It's a comfortable atmosphere.”

In a normal week, Vaughan said he tries to spend at least half a day visiting local stores and businesses to get out and meet the citizens.

“I'm enjoying talking with the people of Grayson County,” he said. “That's what we're here for... it's been an honor to serve as Grayson Sheriff and I hope to continue that as my career... That's what I want here... a career.”

Vaughan noted that the door is always open to anyone wanting to stop by and visit. He reminds people that he's only a phone call away.

“I'm pleased with the progress we've made this year... We are definitely headed in the right direction and we've already made a lot of positive changes,” Vaughan continued.

“Although this has been a very challenging year, it has also been very rewarding. I would like to thank all of my staff, family and most of all God for blessing us with a successful first year.”