In wake of tragedy, community remembers line of duty deaths

Outside of the Conway Police Department on Front Street stands a memorial honoring three of four officers killed in the line of duty. The name of Officer William McGary will be added to the memorial, totaling four of the department’s finest who made the ultimate sacrifice for the wellbeing of others.

McGary, 26, badge number 474, had been with CPD for two years when he was struck by a motorist driving under the influence while directing traffic at a wreck on Dave Ward Drive. McGary was flown to a hospital in Little Rock, where he remained in critical condition. He succumbed to his injuries Feb. 1.

The stone statue was unveiled a decade ago during a ceremony for members of the law enforcement community and family members of the fallen officers.

On May 14, 2003, Conway Mayor Tab Townsell told the crowd that the etching of the names into the granite monument means nothing if the names are not remembered.

“We should never forget those who lost their lives serving. We should never forget those who sacrificed their lives,” Townsell said.

It had been nearly 15 years since CPD laid to rest a fellow brother in blue killed in the line of duty, and McGary’s death was the first of its kind for many officers within the department.

Lawrence Ray Noblitt, a 42-year-old 10-year veteran of the department, was shot and killed on Monday, Nov. 7, 1988.

Noblitt, badge number 22, was on patrol when he observed a man hooking a vehicle up to a flatbed trailer. Noblitt notified that he was going to investigate the scene, and while doing so, he was shot five times at point-blank range with a .44 caliber pistol. Noblitt pursued the suspect some 50-feet before collapsing. A passerby used Noblitt’s police radio to call for help. The suspect was found to have been involved in a criminal conspiracy to commit theft and robbery with the aide of two other Conway police officers, who were also arrested. A death sentence was overturned in court on a technicality. The shooter was eventually sentenced to a total of 36 years in state prison for the theft and murder. He was paroled from state prison in June 2004 before being transferred to federal penitentiary to begin a 20-year federal sentence for unrelated narcotics violations.

On Friday, Apr. 2, 1982, 23-year-old Patrolman Kent McDaniel was in his first year with the department, working a roadblock at Highway 286 following a weather event that produced a tornado. McDaniel, badge number 24, was standing in the roadway talking with a motorist when he was struck by a drunk driver and thrown 147 feet. The driver was fined $1,000 and had her license suspended for one year.

Patrolman Robert W. Martin, badge number 9, had been with the department for nine years at the time of his death. On Tuesday, Mar. 24, 1981, he was shot and killed by a murder suspect known to him. The man was turning himself in to Martin, who allowed him to go back into his home to retrieve personal belongings before he was taken into custody. As Martin waited on the living room couch, the man exited a bedroom and shot Martin at point-blank range before accidentally shooting himself as he attempted to flee the scene. The man was convicted of murder and was executed on Jan. 26, 1992.

In Faulkner County, the sheriff’s office has revered the passing of three deputies killed in the line of duty.

Det. Jimmy “Jim” Darrel Wooley died Aug. 5, 2003, following a fall while investigating a theft. Deputy William E. Hathaway was killed by gunfire on Aug. 5, 1931, and Deputy Oscar L. Honea was killed by gunfire on Oct. 23, 1914.

Mark Elsinger, now retired, served as a Conway Police officer for over 30 years. Elsinger served through the deaths of all three officers in the 80’s, and was in the procession during the funeral for McGary.

“The service was tremendous. The procession was absolutely awesome,” Elsinger said. He described passing law enforcement officers and civilians standing alongside the road, including a little girl with her hand over her heart and men saluting the processsion.

Over the past week, Elsinger was given the opportunity to speak with a couple of the department’s supervisors who expressed concern about how to best lead their fellow officers.

“It doesn’t ever get easier, you’re just going to get more detached from it,” he said. “Things don’t begin to get better until once you get past the funeral, then you can start the long, slow process of healing and coming to grips with what happened.”
Elsinger said he advised the leaders to simply be there for their troops. “If they want to talk, let them talk; if they want to cry, let them cry. None of that macho crap,” Elsinger said. “Let them do that. Their training will kick in and they will do what they are expected to do, and they’ll think about it from time to time as time goes on.”

Elsinger said McGary’s death “dredged up a lot of old feelings.”

Recalling the events is still “tremendously hard,” he said. “It kind of reminds you of your own mortality.”

In the 80’s, Elsinger said there may have been as few as 20-30 officers in the department. The CPD family was “extremely closeknit.”

“By May of 1983, we were all kind of walking on eggshells because it was kind of like a 13-month thing,” Elsinger said of the months following the death of Martin and McDaniel. “The department was so much smaller but the sense of community was the same. We were all very close and we just hurt that much more.”

Though the senselessness of the death of McGary is “what really gets to him,” Elsinger said he knows the department’s comradery will be made stronger.

Bobby Harkrider was a 25-year-veteran of the Conway Police Department who served as police chief from 1995-1998. Harkrider said he was working as a detective in 1981 and was best friends with Martin at the time of his death. “There was not as much fanfare back then as there is now, but it still really affected (the department),” he said.

Harkrider admitted he didn’t know what he would tell a younger officer who asked him how to cope. “That’s something that’s different for everyone,” he said. The deaths affected him personally, he said, though he said he never worried for himself as much as he did for other officers. Some of them, he offered, are just better-equipped to deal with the death of a fellow brother or sister in blue. Harkrider confessed he almost quit.

“It just didn’t seem worth it at the time, but I stuck it out,” he explained. “Once you bleed blue, you bleed blue for the rest of your life.”

 

(Megan Reynolds is a staff writer and can be reached by phone at 501-505-1277 or by e-mail at megan.reynolds@thecabin.net. To comment on this story and others, visit www.thecabin.net.)

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