My blood curdled on Friday night when I got the message that a deputy with the Jackson County Sheriff's Office had been shot.

It was eerily similar to a late night message I got on Dec. 29, 2004, when Pendergrass officer Chris Ruse was shot on the side of the road just north of Talmo.

The scenes were similar, too, with a multitude of law enforcement cars and flashing lights piercing the cold, dark night sky.

Tragic, tragic, tragic.

How could this have happened? Again.

•••

The shooting of any law enforcement officer is a huge deal, especially in a county like Jackson where serious crime is, thankfully, not as prevalent as it is in some areas.

An attack on a law enforcement officer is bigger than just the incident itself; it is an attack on our society at-large.

Law enforcement officers represent not just themselves, or the agency they work for, but they represent all of us. They embody the collective power of our community to intervene in situations that endanger others. Law enforcement officers are the guardrails of our society, setting the outer boundaries where personal behavior begins to collide with the safety of others in our society.

That is an awesome power and heavy responsibility. I couldn't do it. 

And frankly, all the talk of "defund the police" that we've heard in recent years is nuts. Truth is, law enforcement doesn't get enough funding. 

That's not to suggest that some reform in law enforcement isn't needed. As we saw with the George Floyd incident, there are some bad cops floating about.

But that's not, in my long experience in working with law enforcement agencies, the norm.

Most law enforcement and public safety folks we work with are good, decent human beings who care about their community and their jobs. 

If we want to reform law enforcement, then we need to focus on spending more money for screening, for training, for salaries, for specially-trained personnel and for equipment.

Ironically, the morning after last week's shooting, I covered an event in Talmo where a motorcycle club made up of recovered addicts donated Narcan to area public safety departments because local governments don't provide enough funding to buy enough Narcan.

If we can't afford to pay for life-saving Narcan, how the hell can we afford to pay for the kind of quality law enforcement our community deserves?

•••

Lena Nicole Marshall apparently loved her job. By all reports, she was not just a good deputy, she was a great deputy.

Barrow County Sheriff Jud Smith told me she could be working with a child at a scene to calm him or her down, but also be tough enough to deal with the rougher edges of a deputy's job. Jackson County Sheriff Janis Mangum said much the same thing; Marshall was a hard-working officer who had no fear. Smith described her as a "warrior" in the best sense of the word.

Marshall didn't know that when she responded to a domestic call on Nov. 5, she was walking into a situation that would lead to her death.

She didn't know that at the house on Hwy. 124 in Hoschton where she and another deputy were called was a woman who seethed with hatred of law enforcement and judicial officials, a woman who was in hiding from the legal community, a woman who had dared the judicial system to come get her, a woman who said she had bullets waiting for anyone who tried to enforce a court order over the custody of her two children.

•••

For the past few months, Jessica Worsham had been posting videos expressing that hatred; the videos got more intense after she lost physical custody of her children in September.

The videos were disturbing; one minute Worsham would be calm, the next moment, her eyes would widen and she would spew all kinds of nonsense and make thinly-veiled threats toward family members and the legal community. Among other things, she claimed to be psychic, to have put a curse on the courthouse, to telepathically read minds, to have heard voices, to be an expert in martial arts and she spewed all kinds of conspiracy nonsense. 

Local officials had seen these videos and law enforcement deputies were told to be cautious if they encountered her.

Homeless, Worsham had gone into hiding to keep deputies from finding her children. Reportedly, she was at that house on Hwy. 124 Nov. 5 because one of the people there felt sorry for her and her children and allowed them to stay there, apparently unaware of the intense hatred roiling up inside her.

The two final videos are unnerving. The first is the chaotic scene in the house before law enforcement was called. It's not clear exactly what had happened, but Worsham was yelling at other people in the house, one was yelling back telling her to leave. "If you had stayed in your room, this wouldn't have happened," says one person in the video. Briefly, someone mentions calling deputies. 

The final video is chilling: The deputies arrive at the house, unaware Worsham is there. She meets them at the door in the front foyer area. A shot is apparently fired.

At that point, someone starts a video on a phone and runs toward the front room. You hear a woman say, "She f----g shot me." Then there is a cascade of gunfire, 17-18 shots can be heard as Marshall, the second deputy and Worsham exchange fire.

It only lasts a few seconds. 

•••

There are a lot of things about that we don't know, but we do know Marshall's death wasn't the first time a local law enforcement official has been killed in the line of duty. 

In the early 1900s, town Marshals in Statham, Maysville and Center were killed (two gunned down, one hit in the head with an iron pipe.) In nearby Lula, three town policemen were killed in the early 1920s. Jackson County Sheriff Cliff Barber was gunned down in 1919 by an AWOL soldier. A federal marshal was shot and killed in the 1940s in Commerce in Banks County while raiding a moonshine still. In 1967, solicitor general Floyd Hoard was killed with dynamite in his car in Jefferson. Officer Ruse was killed in Pendergrass in 2004 and officers Eddie Evans, Todd Helcher and Steven Thomas all died in the line of duty from auto accidents.

Several other local law enforcement officials have been shot while on duty, but survived. It's a dangerous job.

Out of all of those incidents, however, Lena Marshall was the first local female law enforcement officer killed. In fact, she is one of the very few female officers to have ever been killed in the state, especially by gunfire. As far as I can tell, only two other female officers have been shot to death in Georgia in the line of duty (a couple of female officers have died in training accidents and other have died in wrecks. Many female officers have died of Covid, as have many male officers.)

Nationwide, only a handful of female officers have died from deadly assaults. In 2019, the last complete year of data, only 3 female officers died as the result of deadly assaults across the entire nation.

And as far as I can find, Marshall is the first female officer shot to death by a female assailant.

•••

And then there is the question of what to do about people with mental health issues and how to keep them from perpetuating this kind of violence.

Jessica Worsham was clearly unstable. When the court gave primary physical custody of her children to her ex-husband, it stipulated that before she could get them back, she would have to have a mental health examination.

In one of her videos, Worsham taunted that idea, saying it was the court that was crazy, not her. 

But she was very clearly unstable. Why isn't clear.

She had been voted the friendliest girl by her senior class at JCCHS in 1996. She was homecoming queen at the school in 1995.

What happened after high school that led to her mental decline and then to the shooting of a deputy?

And how does someone who has mental health issues get their hands on a gun?

•••

Deputy Lena Marshall had children, too. A family. Friends. Co-workers.

She was taken from them for reasons that are difficult to understand.

It would be an overstatement to say that "the system" failed Marshall. Our society's penchant today for blaming some vague "system" for problems smacks of a cheap way out, a way to dodge the deeper questions we are afraid to ask.

Lena Marshall walked into what amounted to an ambush on Nov. 5. Worsham knew that if found, she would lose custody. With deputies at the front door, she did exactly what she had threatened in videos to do when that day came.

Why couldn't we — all of us, our society, our legal system, our gun laws, our mental health system — have stopped her? 

I don't know; but like the rest of the community, I feel the pain of a good life, a good deputy, gone too soon.

Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers. He can be reached at mike@mainstreetnews.com.

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(1) comment

Jon Oblesen

Reagan repealed most of the MHSA in '81 which made it difficult for mental health institutions to stay open and now many are closed. We now live in a society where there is no recourse if someone is acting like Worsham was acting; we just wait around until they do something that they can be criminally charged with. I saw just this week that the FBI knew about the Parkland shooter prior to his actions, but did nothing. Bring back the institutions and get these people the help they need so our society can progress. Its incredible to me how loud these people are before they act out violently; almost every case features friends / family acknowledging that they thought the person could be violent.

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