published Saturday, March 1st, 2014

No charge in killing of man with Alzheimer's disease

  • photo
    Deanne Westbrook poses with a photo of her husband in her home. Westbrook's husband, Ronald, was shot by Joe Hendrix. District Attorney Herbert "Buzz" Franklin announced last week that he would not to bring charges on Hendrix.
    Photo by C. B. Schmelter /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

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Was the right decision made in the Westbrook case?

When they learned that the man who killed their father, their grandfather, their husband would not be punished, the Westbrooks remained quiet.

Herbert "Buzz" Franklin, district attorney for the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit, told the family Friday morning in his office that the evidence supported Joe Hendrix's claim that he killed Ronald Westbrook, 72, in self-defense three months ago.

Deanne Westbrook, the victim's wife of 51 years, began to cry. So did her granddaughter.

But other than that, silence. Westbrook's sons expected such an outcome, had expected it for months. Deanne, 70, did too.

That doesn't mean they agree with the decision.

"Something should be done," said Allen Westbrook, who drove nine and a half hours from Champaign, Ill., Thursday to attend the meeting.

In a news release, Franklin said that Hendrix, 35, tried to run away from Westbrook before shooting him in Hendrix's backyard. Westbrook's wife and children said they had not heard that before Friday. In a news conference the day of the shooting, Thanksgiving eve, Walker County Sheriff Steve Wilson did not mention that Hendrix initially retreated.

"I'm not sure if that was ever asked," Wilson said, referring to the news conference.

An Alzheimer's patient, Ronald Westbrook left his home just after midnight, walking miles in the cold. Stopped by a Walker County sheriff's deputy, Westbrook said he was close to his home and continued walking. Just before 4 a.m., he showed up at Hendrix's house on Cottage Crest Court in Chickamauga, Ga.

Westbrook knocked on the door, rattled the knob and rang the bell. Then he walked to the back of the house. Inside, Hendrix's girlfriend called 911. About 12 minutes later, Hendrix, an Army veteran, walked outside with a handgun.

He asked Westbrook to identify himself, but Westbrook did not respond. He rarely talked any more because of his condition, Deanne Westbrook later said.

In the dark, Ronald Westbrook stepped toward Hendrix. Then, according to Franklin's news release, Hendrix ran to the front of the house before firing at least three shots. One of them pierced Westbrook's chest, killing him.

Hendrix told investigators he acted in self-defense, and on Friday the district attorney said he did not have enough evidence to prove otherwise. Hendrix never wavered in his self-defense claim, Franklin said, and the physical evidence did not contradict his statements.

In Georgia, it is legally justifiable to kill someone on your property in self-defense if you are acting reasonably. However, the definition of "reasonable" is open for debate.

In particular, Westbrook's family points out, Hendrix walked out of his home with a gun while deputies were on their way. Was that reasonable?

"How long is he supposed to wait?" Hendrix's attorney, Lee Davis, said Friday. "Three minutes? Five minutes? Seven minutes? From what I understand, he waited 11 minutes. Eleven minutes is a long time to wait."

Allen Westbrook disagrees: "No reasonable person I know would walk out of their house and pursue someone."

And what about Franklin? Would the district attorney have done the same thing in that situation?

"I would not have gone outside," he said. "I would have stayed in the house, waited on the deputies."

However, Franklin continued, "I could not say that was unreasonable. That's what it all boils down to. You would have to convince [a jury of] 12 people beyond a reasonable doubt."

True, Deanne Westbrook said. But proving self-defense might be difficult in court, too.

"Only [Hendrix] knows exactly what happened that morning," she said. "Ron isn't alive to tell his side."

Hendrix, who served as Scottie Mayfield's communications director during the dairy tycoon's unsuccessful 2012 campaign for the 3rd Congressional District in Tennessee, has not spoken publicly since the shooting. On Friday, Davis said his client agrees with Franklin's decision but cannot celebrate such an event.

In the months since the shooting, Westbrook's family has felt conflicted about what should happen to Hendrix. A man shouldn't be able to take someone else's life without punishment, they say. But at the same time, they don't want Hendrix's life to be ruined.

"I truly hope that Joe Hendrix sees this as a God moment and asks why God let him go free," said another of Westbrook's sons, Jason.

Three months ago, the family planned to meet in Chickamauga for Thanksgiving. The day after the shooting, they came together anyway to celebrate a hollow holiday.

"Next Thanksgiving will be the same way," said Allen Westbrook. "Next Thanksgiving falls on the 27th."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or at tjett@timesfreepress.com.

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