After a young man served a 10-year sentence for armed robbery, one of the first things he did with his newfound freedom was visit Sheriff Scott Berry and thank him.
“I’m now the godfather of his son,” said Berry. “This man stays in touch with me. He talks about how much being in my jail changed his life—how he’s a standup citizen now.”
Berry, who retired this week, was destined to be a lawman from an early age. His father, Dick Berry, was an FBI agent who worked many high-profile cases, including the child serial killings in Atlanta during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Berry remembers his father looking for bodies of three civil rights workers who were found in Mississippi and also bringing outlaws of the Dixie Mafia to justice.
“My dad was my hero,” said Berry. “My dad to me was larger than life.”
When Berry was 7 years old, Dick took him to the highway patrol barracks. Berry remembers seeing the big gold stars on side of motorcycles, and that’s swhen he knew he going to be a lawman.
Berry began his career with the Norcross Police Department before taking a job with the University of Georgia Police Department. There, he befriended Western Judicial Circuit District Attorney Harry Gordon, who offered Berry a job as an investigator for the DA’s Office. During the next 13 years, Berry learned from Gordon and then-Sheriff Charles Holcomb.
However, during the years between Holcomb and Berry, the Sheriff’s Office lacked leadership and direction. There were multiple cases of inmates escaping, including a murder defendant, and the sheriff preceding Berry had been found guilty of civil rights violations.
Although Berry inherited a beleaguered department, he hit the ground running. At the time, there was only one deputy working the night shift. Berry would ride along until dawn and sleep an hour or two in the patrol car before starting his next day.
After having been sworn in the month of January 1993, Berry and his investigators solved a tragic murder. That month, a young clerk at the Butler’s Crossing Golden Pantry was shot and killed by three armed robbers. Those suspected were caught within weeks of the crime.
“I hadn’t met all my deputies yet,” Berry recalled.
Over the course of 27 years, Berry has overseen multiple murder investigations, including the case of a man shot on the banks of the Apalachee River by a member of Aryan Nations. It was the only case in modern history in which a murder defendant was given the death penalty.
Berry has never taken a victory lap when an arrest is made for a violent crime, because he knows that victims and their families get justice only when a case has been prosecuted in the courts.
“Just become we arrest someone doesn’t mean justice has been delivered,” he said. “My heart still breaks for all the family members of victims of violent crimes. I think that justice means different things to different people. The system is far from perfect, but it’s the most perfect one on the planet.”
Berry added, “When you are the victim of a crime, we owe you our best effort. And I think I can honestly say that we’ve given our best effort.”
Berry also believed it was his responsibility as sheriff to deliver the news of a death by crime, accident or suicide to the family of the victim.
“That’s one thing you never get used to, but there’s some jobs that the sheriff needs to do,” he said.
One of the hardest things he’s had to do is bury one of his own. Deputy David Gilstrap lost his life directing school traffic in October 2008.
Every day, Berry thinks about Gilstrap’s impact in the community.
He appreciates when the schools pay tribute to him every year.
“It means so much to me to see his name in front of the schools,” said Berry. “Hopefully the kids learn that David was there to protect them. He died doing that.”
Berry remembers how a group of men would drink coffee at the Macon Highway Waffle House and watch Gilstrap write tickets. Often, they’d bet on how many traffic stops he’d make. Berry also jokes that Gilstrap’s wife, Tammy, “runs the Sheriff’s Office.”
Berry credits the esteemed reputation of the Sheriff’s Office to its employees—people like Jimmy Williams, who recently retired as the 911 director; Paul Maxey, who has been with the agency for over 30 years; Cpt. Chuck Johnson, who manages the jail; Chief Deputy Lee Weems and those who preceded him; Investigator Carter Brank, who died last year; and James Hale, who is succeeding Berry as sheriff.
Berry said he retired when he did, because he knew the Sheriff’s Office was in good hands with James Hale.
“I think he will take the Sheriff’s Office to another level,” said Berry.
“You have to hire the best people you can get,” Berry said. “I had the best people. These are men and women who served Oconee County with honor and bravery.”
Berry grew the Sheriff’s Office from 32 employees to almost 100. Under his watch, the county built a new jail and office space for administrative employees and E-911 personnel. He implemented more effective techniques in investigating sex crimes. He represented Oconee County in a number of regional or statewide agencies, such as the Governor’s Criminal Justice Reform Commission, Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners Inc. and the Georgia Sheriff’s Association, of which he served as president.
In 2005, Berry led a team of deputies into the wreckage of Hurricane Katrina. The Sheriff’s Office has also responded to other hurricanes, tornadoes and public demonstrations.
“I wanted to be a part of Katrina response because I couldn’t stand the images of these people on the roof,” said Berry.
He is also proud that the Sheriff’s Office has always provided funeral escorts.
“We do that with honor,” said Berry, adding that he is proud of the men and women who wear the badge.
“I’ve always taken the position that the Sheriff’s Office is here to help,” said Berry. “We are here to
make life better.”
That includes answering service calls and helping citizens with everyday problems.
“You just never know what your day is going to be like,” said Berry. “Every day is something completely different. Every hour is completely different. I’m so proud of keeping Oconee safe. I’ve done my best, and that’s the truth.”