Juicy saga appalls, amuses Towns locals
No longer like Mayberry: Mountain community abuzz as infidelity, gunfire, cover-up allegations threaten to bring down sheriff, chief deputy.
By JEFFRY SCOTT
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 08/06/07
Hiawassee — For years, residents of this Georgia mountain town have complained that things aren't like they used to be. For the past month, they've watched things get downright weird.
Around midnight on July 9, somebody pulled up in front of Gary Dean's home and started shooting. Bullets tore through his front door and whizzed passed his head. Dean dove behind a bed in the back room and reached for a pistol, but the shooter drove off and left Dean to thank his strange luck.
Orange paint marks a bullet hole in the front door of the Hiawassee home of Gary Dean. A GBI report says Dean was having an 'ongoing intimate relationship' with the wife of a deputy charged in the shooting. The case has drawn so much attention that the local weekly newspaper has doubled its press runs.
He would have been dead, Dean said, if he hadn't left the kitchen just before the shooting and gone into the back bedroom to mess with a stubborn DVD player.
"I'd a-took one right here," he said, pointing at his left side as he showed a reporter around his shot-up home, where 12 bullet holes had been spray-painted orange by GBI investigators. "Another bullet would have got me somewhere in the head."
The shooting was the opening act of a saga that has folks here flummoxed as it takes more twists and turns than a mountain creek.
About a week after the shooting, authorities charged Eddie Osborn, the chief deputy of the Towns County Sheriff's Office, with aggravated assault in the attack on Dean. They also charged fellow Deputy Jesse Gibson, who allegedly drove the car that night, with aggravated assault.
Then, last week, Sheriff Rudy Eller was charged with evidence-tampering, violation of his oath of office and related offenses after admitting he lied to GBI investigators and hid evidence to protect Osborn. On Friday, Gov. Sonny Perdue named a panel to recommend whether Eller should be suspended. None of the men, all released on bond, has commented on the charges.
But the details released by the GBI when it announced the arrest of Eller — including the revelation that Osborn shot up Dean's home because Dean was having an "ongoing intimate relationship" with Osborn's wife, Michelle — added titillation to a story that already had engaged townspeople as thoroughly as theater in the round.
Demand for every tidbit is so great the local weekly newspaper, The Towns Sentinel, has doubled its press runs since the shooting, said publisher Becky Landress, as she loaded the latest edition (headline: "Sheriff arrested, but remains sheriff") into a news box outside the Huddle House restaurant late last week.
"People come in here asking for back issues, the first stories, like they're trying to put together the pieces of the puzzle," Landress said. "It's a sad story — but it's been great for business."
Inside the restaurant, it was obvious why. Regulars joked about running for sheriff now that time appears to be running out for Eller who, they said, for 11 years has run an office that played favorites and pushed people around.
"You know what they say about the sheriff's office around here?" said Rex Johnson, 57, who has lived in Towns County all his life. "You're either for them — or they're against you."
Locals are half-appalled and half-amused by the seeming tragi-comedy.
It was Eller, after all, who called the GBI to investigate the shooting at Dean's house. But Eller already knew who did the shooting when he called the GBI, and he already had hidden evidence, according to a GBI affidavit. That means, the GBI says, that the first thing Eller did when investigators showed up was lie to them.
And his attempt to hide evidence seemed bungling at best. Hiawassee sits on Lake Chatuge and is surrounded by forested mountains.
Did Eller dump the evidence in the lake or bury it in the woods? No. According to the GBI, he put the pistol barrel Osborn gave him, which connects Osborn to the shooting, in a baggie and duct-taped it inside a hidden compartment in his bedroom dresser. GBI agents retrieved it after he admitted lying and hiding the evidence, the agency said.
GBI Investigator John Cagle said he thinks Eller called the GBI into the case to avoid being suspected of a coverup. If so, he underestimated Cagle and his investigators.
"I think he [Eller] thought we wouldn't discover that Osborn owned the gun used in the shooting," Cagle said. "But we knew from talking to other people at the sheriff's office that he [Osborn] owned the pistol."
Some townspeople think the case shows how the town has changed and is no longer as insular as it once was — a place where the sheriff, after the county commissioner, could fairly well do what he wanted.
Towns County's population has almost doubled over the past 30 years as outsiders, many from Atlanta, have built homes perched along the lake and surrounding mountains.
The Georgia Mountain Restaurant has long been a favorite eating spot in this town of about 1,000, which lies about 110 miles northeast of downtown Atlanta, but there's now a sushi bar up the road.
Where the Cowboy Church ("Rounding Up Souls For Jesus)" once was the spiritual touchstone on one stretch of main street, it now has competition from Bacchus — A Wine Shoppe. Stores such as Britt & Capri and resorts such as the Ridges Resort & Club cater to affluent locals and visitors.
Cultural issues aside, Rudy Roach, a former sheriff who plans to run to replace Eller, said the sheriff's office and jail simply need cleaning up.
"Ajax needs to come to town," he said. "And I'm bringing it."
District Attorney Stan Gunter said he's saddened by the strange turn of events because he's worked with Eller and his deputies in prosecuting cases over the years. He said he will take the cases to the grand jury, probably when it next meets in September. If he wins indictments and the cases go to court, the story will take more turns and The Towns Sentinal will sell more newspapers.
The place won't be the same, but it hasn't been the same for a long time, said Michael Myers, a welder who has lived in Towns County three decades.
"This place used to be Mayberry," he said, sitting at the bar at the posh Old Hiawassee Grille. "But it ain't no more."
"Don't judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds that you plant"