Note from Dan: This column originally ran June 2, 2011. The following November, former Franklin County Sheriff Ewell Hunt finished third of three candidates in his re-election bid.
A couple of years ago, the campy foibles of the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office were funny in a tawdry, “Dukes of Hazzard” kind of way.
Back then, according to a grand jury’s report, it was a corn pone soap opera: Sheriff Ewell Hunt’s tantrum-prone teenage daughter, a part-time clerk on the sheriff’s payroll nicknamed “Hurricane Ashley,” bossed around full-time deputies and played dress-up cop.
She yelled at her dad in front of his staff, turned in highly questionable time sheets and defiantly carried on an eye-rolling relationship with an older married officer, Deputy Jonathan Agee.
Now, events have turned tragic. Agee’s ex-wife, Jennifer Agee, is dead, allegedly slain by the enraged deputy Monday outside a Roanoke convenience store — in front of one of their daughters. Then, Agee allegedly shot a state trooper during his getaway.
Negligent and indefensible actions by Sheriff Hunt preceded these crimes. That’s why he should resign his office now.
It’s rare when police get specific advance warning of a killing about to happen. It’s even rarer when the putative killer is a trained gunman, armed with a semiautomatic rifle, driving a marked police cruiser, miles away from his intended target, and when the tip comes from another law enforcement officer.
That is what happened roughly 25 minutes before Jennifer Agee’s slaying.
What did Hunt do under these circumstances? He nixed an order to warn Roanoke County and Salem police to be on the lookout for Jonathan Agee.
Hunt said he would take care of it himself. So he called Salem police and left a message shortly after Agee headed north from Boones Mill.
By the time Salem police returned the call, Jennifer Agee was dead.
We will never know if she would be alive today had that lookout been issued. Many other things still are unclear about the case. But it’s hard to conceive that her chances would have been better the other way.
Issuing a lookout, however, might have proved embarrassing to the sheriff, who won election by less than 250 votes in 2007.
It would likely have led to some uncomfortable questions in an election year in which Hunt already was facing a stiff challenge from a candidate he barely edged four years ago — before he turned the sheriff’s office into a laughingstock.
Who was this loose-cannon deputy? Why was such an unstable man on the force?
The answers would have led back to Jonathan Agee and his controversial relationship with Ashley Hunt, the sheriff’s daughter, and to more questions.
Why wasn’t Agee canned back when it was clear he was cavorting, on duty, at all hours, with a teenager?
Was it because the teenager was the sheriff’s daughter?
As an anonymous person posting under the nickname “Retired Officer” commented on my blog Wednesday:
“Sheriff Hunt found himself in a position of either protecting life or protecting his department. . . There was only one decision to be made and the sheriff chose not to make it.”
I would put it a bit differently: It looks like Hunt was protecting his own skin for November’s election. And perhaps because of that, a woman is dead, her two daughters have been orphaned, a state trooper has been shot.
Now Hunt has another decision to make: whether or not to resign. It is well past time for him to turn the department over to someone capable.
If Hunt declines to do the right thing, voters can take steps to force this issue.
Under Virginia law, a judge may remove a constitutional officer for neglect of duty, upon petition.
In Hunt’s case, that would require the signatures of at least 1,545 registered voters — 10 percent of the total number of people who cast ballots in the 2007 sheriff’s election.
Precisely 8,299 people voted for somebody other than Hunt in that four-way contest.
Under the circumstances, it shouldn’t be that hard to round up 1,550 signatures calling on a judge to give the sheriff the boot.