Last Saturday morning, I woke up intending to write something funny. Those of you who subscribe to this blog (thank you, by the way) know that I use it occasionally as an outlet for humor, or a chance to write about music or TV shows. I had another one ready to go.
Then I saw the obituary for Ron Westbrook, and I couldn’t get him off my mind.
By now, the story is familiar to many of you. On Thanksgiving, we heard that an elderly Alzheimer’s patient had tried to enter a home that was not his own. The residents of that home, awakened in the middle of the night, feared for their safety. It was a “perfect storm” of tragedy. Mr. Westbrook was shot and killed by the male occupant of the home, setting off a firestorm of blame. The family of the deceased, for not having safeguards in place at his home? The Sheriff’s deputy who saw Mr. Westbrook along what was to be his final journey, and believed everything was all right? The man who pulled the trigger, refusing to stay inside and wait for the police to arrive? As of Saturday, everyone seemed to have an opinion, but few seemed to know much about Ron Westbrook, and who he really was. So I wrote a story about him, called, “More than just an Alzheimer’s patient.”
I learned that you can’t get him off your mind, either. It’s a story with tragic repercussions for those who loved him, and those who were at the scene of his death. But it also affects our lives. We put ourselves in his place: Who will take care of me, if I lose my way someday? We put ourselves in his family’s place: How will I know when it’s time to put safety locks on the door, or to place my loved one in a health care facility? We put ourselves in the deputy’s place: If I see someone on the road, and something doesn’t seem right, what do I do? And of course, the ultimate question: If someone is on my property, posing an apparent threat, do I take action? Or do I have time to wait on the police?
Aloha Buffington writes: “I question the wisdom of American society’s nurturing fear. For decades, we’ve been warned of the dangers of the creeping stranger in the bushes, the troll under the bridge, the sneak thief in the night, but since 9/11/2001 we have brought the troll into the house and placed him behind the shower curtains and under our beds. Is it necessary to use deadly force? Ever? When we finally become weary of filling the shower stall with holes and peeking slowly under the bed, will we demand something meaningful to alleviate the fear? Why can’t this man’s tragic death focus our attention on the real enemy? FEAR.”
Treva Forster writes: “People may continue to ask, Why wasn’t Ron Westbrook admitted into a healthcare facility, so he could be monitored more closely 24-7? I worked in Long-Term Care Facilities for thirty-eight years, with Alzheimer’s patients. Patients also walked out of such facilities, unnoticed, so this recommendation is not 100% free of incidents. I highly commend Mrs. Westbrook for loving and caring for her beloved husband of fifty-one years, in his own home setting! Mrs. Westbrook needs the highest Medal of Honor for her type of service, because this type of love and dedication is rare! As for the deputy that stopped and talked to Ron Westbrook, he needs to forgive himself and understand that someone with Alzheimer’s may appear completely normal one minute, then change in a split second. Please forgive yourself, or you may not be able to completely focus on protecting others in the future.”
A couple of factual discrepancies came up. Michael Carver wrote: “You said Mr. Westbrook was accompanied by one dog, his Rottweiler. The newspaper said he was there with his two dogs. Which is correct?” Mr. Westbrook left his home with his dog, the Rottweiler. Along the way, according to Sheriff Steve Wilson, a stray dog joined them. At the end, Mr. Westbrook’s dog stood guard over his owner’s body. It had to be removed from the scene by animal control officers, but was returned to Mrs. Westbrook the next day.
Stephanie Adams asked this question: “You said Mr. Westbrook was shot after trying to enter a home in Chickamauga, Georgia, but the paper said it happened in Ooltewah, Tennessee. What’s up with that?” The tragic shooting happened in Chickamauga, about 3 miles from Mr. Westbrook’s actual home.
Elsa Radnor asked, “Why didn’t you give the name of the man who was protecting his home? You identified the man who was believed to be the intruder, but never named the other man, who is being pictured as a villain. He deserves sympathy and support too. He was just trying to do what was right for his family.” I didn’t name him in my story, because it was primarily about Mr. Westbrook. I felt his life’s accomplishments were being overshadowed by the circumstances of his death, and the disease that had ravaged him in recent years. A Google search could easily reveal the name of the man who fired the shots, Joe Hendrix. Authorities at the scene did not feel he had violated any law, but said charges could be filed at a later date if their investigation determines the need to do so.
Mark Hart wrote: “I too had a family member who suffered from this terrible thing. Your observations about the shooter are not something I can agree with though. I can tell you without a doubt that a 72 year old Alzheimer’s patient wandering in my yard would not be shot. It is not some keen gift of hindsight that makes me say that either. In order for me to use deadly force against anyone, I would have to identify them as a threat to me or a family member. In the darkness that can not be done. When the autopsy is completed and the distance that Mr. Westbrook was standing from Mr. Hendrix is known, we will know more about this case. It will give gun control advocates a little more ammunition because Mr. Hendrix was clearly out of line in his actions and had he not played Wyatt Earp, Mr. Westbrook would have been taken to his home instead of a funeral home. Regardless of whether charges are ever brought against Mr. Hendrix for this murder, a poor defenseless man needing help was shot to death. Mr. Hendrix will not only have to live with that, he will have to die with it as well.”
Mr. Hendrix does indeed have to live with it, as do we all. I’m still not comfortable speculating on right and wrong. Only Mr. Hendrix knows exactly what happened, and how serious a threat Mr. Westbrook seemed to pose. Surely everyone involved would like to have a do-over, but life isn’t like that. Things come at us quickly, and we react the best we can, the way we’ve been trained to do. We don’t always get it right.
If there is a silver lining behind this very dark cloud, it is this: We’re having conversations with our families. We’re asking questions. We’re making plans and hard choices, for our safety and our loved ones. Read Ron Westbrook’s life story, and you’ll know that he stood for something. Even in death, he’s making a positive impact on our lives.