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January 3, 2014

Fallen police officers honored during 10-year memorial

In remembrance

Two fallen Athens police officers — killed in the line of duty 10 years ago — were remembered Thursday.

Mims-Russell AMVETS Post 21, a group of veterans that takes its post name from the late Sgt. Larry Russell and Officer Tony Mims, held the 10-year memorial in the council chambers of Athens Police Department.

Members of the Mims and Russell families as well as uniformed officers from the Athens Police Department and Limestone County Sheriff’s Department and city, county and state officials took part in the emotional service, which included a presentation of the colors, placing of two red, white and blue wreaths and the playing of taps.

“Too often we lose our young men and women — first responders — to senseless acts of violence,” Post 21 Commander Lyle Sadler said. “This memorial is to pay tribute to these two men who gave their lives in helping others and protecting the Athens community.”

State Rep. Dan Williams, R-Athens, served as Athens mayor at the time of the officers’ deaths. He said he received a call that two officers were down. By the time he arrived at the hospital, both were deceased. “That day — Jan. 2, 2004 — turned out to be the worst day in my 18 years of service as mayor,” Williams said. “It was a terrible day — a tragedy.”

However, he said it was good to see how the community came together. “There was so much that happened in the community in the following days to help support the families,” he said. “The community came together during one of the worst days of our lives.”

Athens Mayor Ronnie Marks, who was serving as a councilman, visited the gravesites of Mims and Russell before the memorial because he said he wants to keep public safety fresh in his mind and the minds of the community. “We need to continue to hire dedicated, trained, committed men and women to the job of public safety,” he said. “There is no higher priority — in my opinion — than public safety in our community. That starts with our own employees, our own police and sheriff department and it expands into our community. … Let’s hold this memory dear in our hearts.”

Councilman Wayne Harper was police chief at the time. He said losing the two officers was like losing family. “It was a terrible day and a great loss,” he said.

Harper believes it is important to remember what the men and women in law enforcement do on a daily basis. “It is sometimes a thankless job,” he said, adding when many are at home in bed, those men and women are out protecting property and lives.

Police Chief Floyd Johnson was serving as lieutenant at the time of the two officers’ deaths. He thanked the crowd for taking a few minutes to remember what the department lost 10 years ago. “I’m very proud and honored to lead our department,” he said. “They are some very fine men and women and it is our pleasure to serve. We are honored to serve.

“I wonder every time I hire a new officer where we will be tomorrow, where we will be next week, where we will be next year.”

Johnson said the tragedy is in the back of his mind every time he talks to new officers. 

“It was a hard time, a hard day and a hard season for us,” he said. “We learned so much from both of those officers. They were so huge to our department.”

Sheriff Mike Blakely said Jan. 2, 2004, is a day etched in his brain. “It was one of the saddest days in my law enforcement career,” he said.

Blakely still remembers the looks of shock and dismay on the officers’ faces at the scene. “I think all of us had the same thought going through our minds,” he said. “It could have easily been any one of us.”

Blakely shared the following words he remembers from a fallen officer’s funeral:

“They all knew they could be. They never thought they would be. God knows one never should be, killed in the line of duty.”

Moments later, Sadler asked that everyone keep all law enforcement and first responders in their prayers and never forget the contribution they make.

The service came to an end with the playing of taps by AMVETS members Roger Keys and Michael Hardy.

The memorial continued at Roselawn Cemetery where the Athens Police changed and raised the flags on the graves of their fallen comrades and the APD Honor Guard held a crowd moving 21-gun salute.

A placing of wreaths and veterans’ salute concluded the event.

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