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Ga. man who killed 2 sheriff’s deputies pleads guilty

Ralph Stanley Elrod, Jr., avoided the death penalty and received two life-in-prison-without-parole terms


By Joe Kovac Jr.
The Macon Telegraph

FORT VALLEY, Ga. — Ralph Stanley “Robin” Elrod Jr., a Navy veteran and electrician whose life was more or less an ordinary, middle-aged suburban existence until, inexplicably, it erupted in unprovoked gunfire of his own making on a fall evening nearly two years ago, pleaded guilty here Thursday to murdering two Peach County sheriff’s deputies.

In pleading guilty to shooting and mortally wounding deputies Daryl Smallwood and Patrick Sondron on Nov. 6, 2016, Elrod avoided a potential death penalty trial and was sentenced to two life-in-prison-without-parole terms plus 100 years.

The plea, which came during a two-hour proceeding before a courtroom packed with 200 or so spectators — at least 50 of them uniformed police officers — was not unexpected. Word of its likelihood emerged publicly on social media in recent weeks after one of Sondron’s sons, upon learning that prosecutors had decided not to pursue the death penalty against Elrod, posted remarks critical of District Attorney David Cooke.

“We are not OK with this,” the son, Jacob Sondron, 23, told The Telegraph at the time. “If this case doesn’t get the death penalty, what are the requirements to receive the death penalty?”

But after a relative of one of the slain deputies approached Cooke about accepting a guilty plea for Elrod, some family members of the fallen officers, including both deputies’ parents, agreed to the measure.

The high-profile case had seemed bound for trial sometime next year. The slayings of deputies Sondron, who was 41, and Smallwood, 37, came amid a four-month stretch in which three other Middle Georgia law enforcement officers were gunned down in the line of duty.

At a hearing earlier this year before Superior Court Judge Edgar W. Ennis Jr., lawyers for the 59-year-old Elrod told the court their client was willing to plead guilty. The lawyers’ aim in Elrod’s defense was geared more toward sparing him from execution than it was building a case for acquittal.

The evidence against Elrod was strong, if not insurmountable. It included video footage recorded by the slain officers’ own cameras as well as Elrod’s statements and words to relatives in the aftermath of the shootings.

In a voicemail that Elrod left for his son in the moments following the fatal gunfire, he apologized for his actions.

As a cavalry of cops raced to the scene to help Smallwood and Sondron and apprehend their attacker, Elrod, in the phone message, told his son, Jarrod, who until earlier this year was himself a sheriff’s deputy in Jones County: “Hey, Jarrod, this is my last day on this planet. I’ve just killed two police officers from Peach County. I’m sorry, son. But, uh, this is probably it for me. Love you. Bye.”

Elrod had shot the deputies when they’d answered a call about Elrod pointing a gun at a neighbor’s nephews. Elrod claimed he had trouble for some time with neighbors motorbiking up and down Hardison Road in front of his house and on parts of his lawn, which lies on the edge of Byron in a countryside neighborhood about three miles west of Interstate 75.

While no meaningful explanation for what compelled Elrod to open fire on the deputies may ever emerge, in the weeks that followed, Jarrod Elrod told The Telegraph that he and his father had sometimes harsh falling outs over the years. He painted his father as a “very unpredictable” man who, consumed by anger and a fiery temper, may have finally snapped.

When Sondron and Smallwood showed up at the senior Elrod’s house and told him he was under arrest for pointing a shotgun at his neighbor’s nephews, Elrod pulled a concealed pistol and shot the deputies.

The killings, on their face at least, seemed to fit the bill for a capital punishment prosecution. The victims were lawmen slain in the line of duty, which is one of the statutory qualifiers for the death penalty. In a climate strong on punishment for such offenders, it was widely expected that the district attorney’s office would try to send Elrod to death row.

In January of last year, two months after the deadly shootings, Cooke announced he would, in fact, seek death.

“Those who intentionally take the lives of law enforcement officers who are peaceably and lawfully carrying out their sworn duty to protect the public should expect to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and to face the ultimate penalty,” Cooke said at the time.

Death uncommon for cop killers in recent years

But cop killers don’t receive the death penalty as frequently as one might expect.

A Telegraph examination of the slayings of Georgia police and corrections officers, those whose deaths resulted in murder charges, found that such killings in the past 10 years have resulted in no death sentences. Six cases are still pending.

Since January 2008, the slayings of 26 cops and corrections officers have led to murder charges against 24 suspects.

Of those 24 suspects, five were shot and killed by the police during the crimes, three committed suicide and one was a juvenile — 17 years old and ineligible for the death penalty.

As for the 15 remaining suspects, 14 of them, including Elrod, have at some point faced — or are still facing — death penalty prosecution. (The lone suspect among those 15 who did not face capital punishment proceedings was charged with and convicted of murdering Montgomery County Sheriff Ladson O’Connor in June 2015 after the sheriff died in a high-speed chase led by the suspect.)

Of the 14 suspects left, six of them, excluding Elrod now, still face death penalty prosecutions.

The remaining seven have already been through the system. Four have gone to trial and all four have been sentenced to life without parole. Three have pleaded guilty and been sentenced to life without parole.