It was a hard rain.
Rutherford County has known its share of hard rains, but few can compare to May 31, 1979.
Two events were held Friday, May 31, 2019 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the deaths of Owen Messersmith, Roy Huskey and Pete Peterson. Messersmtih and Huskey worked for the sheriff's department and were killed responding to a domestic disturbance.
Peterson died while trying to pursue the man who killed the other two, although the record shows he did not know the man he followed had killed the other two.
Officers streamed in from neighboring counties to conduct a manhunt that lasted 13 hours. Finally the killer came out of a thicket after being found by bloodhounds. The State of North Carolina executed him four and a half years later on March 16, 1984.
The Rev. Travis Smith, a local teacher and counselor on issues of grief says memorial services like the one held Friday are critical to dealing with community grief. "Rituals are important and storytelling matters. The stories have to be told over and over. That means so much as a community grieves." (Smith can be reached at blueridgehope.org.)
Among the speakers Friday afternoon was retired trooper, Wayne Spears, who has lived the following 40 years with, "Survivor's guilt. Why wasn't it me? Why was it Pete?"
In a dramatic and detailed speech, Spears said Trooper Peterson did everything by the book, putting the engine block of his patrol car between him and the shooter. He was able to fire one shot, flattening a rear tire on the killer's Ford LTD before being mortally wounded by a shot to the head.
The killer, James Hutchins, was a trained Air Force sharpshooter and used a high powered rifle in the gun battle with Peterson. He had been charged with murder earlier in his life, but charges were dropped due to insufficient evidence.
Spears said, with clear emotion, "I heard the last words Pete ever spoke. He said, '234, don't come up the road.' That was me, 234. He knew I would be driving into an ambush. He was trying to save my life and he did."
The retired trooper, who was first on the scene to find Peterson's body, also had high praise for Dr. Bob England, who was county medical examiner at the time. England arrived shortly after Spears and the trooper acknowledged that it meant a great deal to have him there. England was present at the ceremony and acknowledged the thanks from Spears.
Spears also praised Clerk of Court Steve Owens. Owens was first on the scene to find the bodies of Messersmith and Huskey.
"He was a 16-year-old boy and he dealt with something that should never happen to any 16 year old. He got on the radio and said, 'Two deputies have been shot; and I'm afraid they're both dead. I don't know if anybody can hear me, but it's James Hutchins. He is armed and dangerous. He is driving a white LTD Ford.' That was the best description we got all day long and it was very valuable," Spears said. Owens was also present at the ceremony.
Retired troopers Larry Davis and Jack Edwards were also present Friday and had been involved in the manhunt that resulted in the killer's arrest.
Former Sheriff Dan Good, who was also a N.C. Highway Patrol officer on duty that day, recalled that he and other troopers exchanged gunfire with Hutchings during the manhunt. "We ate dirt that day just like I had learned to eat dirt in Vietnam."
He and Peterson were on the same shift and had shared coffee at 4 that afternoon at the Pizza Hut. Good said they planned to have coffee again at 8 later that evening, but Peterson died before they could have the second cup. Good said, "I know someday I will have that second cup of coffee with Pete."
All three officers, Huskey, Messersmith, and Peterson were praised for their bravery, basic goodness and friendship.
Col. Glenn McNeill Jr. the commander of the N.C. Highway Patrol also made a dramatic speech and was especially grateful to the roughly three dozen troopers on hand and in uniform for the hot afternoon ceremony.
Of the fallen lawmen he said, "These men did not cower in the face of danger. It ended their lives, but it did not end their mission of standing and holding the thin blue line," Col. McNeill said.
When a reporter asked McNeill if he were the head knocker in charge, he said, "Nossir, I work for these troopers."
Captain Neil Denman, who leads Troop G serving 17 Western North Carolina counties with the patrol said, "We're here to keep the service of these officers alive. We're here to honor their memories."
Another hero of the day mentioned was Forest City Police Chief Tom McDivitt, now deceased. McDivitt's daughter, Loujeana Parker, was on hand and acknowledged.
Spears praised McDivitt's leadership and willingness to override a Highway Patrol desire not to use bloodhounds in the manhunt. Spears said, "He said the highway patrolman on the ground believes we need the dogs, so let those damn dogs loose." Spears said when Hutchins came out of the thicket where he was hiding he was shouting, "Call off the dogs. Call off the dogs."
The Friday afternoon service was organized by Rutherford County Sheriff Chris Francis who was emotional in his remarks.
He acknowledged that several of the officers who participated in the manhunt were present. He said, "I don't know if you have been thanked, but I want to thank you today. If you have been thanked, I want you to know you can never be thanked enough."
Spears said, "I hope you never have to live through anything like this, but if you do, you will see how precious life is."
The afternoon did feature a light moment when retired trooper Harry Stegall recalled that Peterson as physical trainer at the academy could scare cadets, "Absolutely to death. We thought he hated us. We thought it was his job to run us off." But Stegall also shared that after he had been shot seven times during a traffic stop, Peterson sat at his hospital bedside all night long. "It's a side of Pete Peterson you didn't know."
The Sheriff's Department's chaplain, Rev. Paul Scott offered booming and passionate invocations and benedictions. With his voice full of emotion he evoked the familiar 23rd Psalm, "Yes, though I walk through the valley of death, you are with me. Your rod and your staff they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely your goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever."
Spirit soaked, flag draped, emotion painted, the afternoon was highlighted by Amazing Grace performed by Ryan White, a bagpipe player from the Gastonia Fire Department.
The second event of the evening was the showing of Rutherford County Line, the Earl Owensby film that dramatizes the events of May 31, 1979. The movie was shown at the POPS in downtown Forest City.