Heroic former sheriff laid to rest

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 3, 2004

Hundreds turned out Monday on a warm, spring like day to bid farewell to former Butler County Sheriff Joe C. Sanders, who passed away on Friday, Feb. 27, 2004 at his home on Bargainer Lane.

Sanders served eight years a chief deputy before running and winning the high sheriff’s office.

There he served until he conceded to the current sheriff in the 1994 election.

The services were held at First Baptist Church on Fort Dale Road, and its 500-seat capacity overflowed.

It was clear a lawman was being laid to rest from the number of law enforcement officers in attendance and in the processional to Sunrise Memorial on U.S. Highway 31.

&uot;When we looked over and saw that force of blue, it was comforting and overwhelming,&uot; Linda Sanders Johnson said following her father’s funeral.

&uot;For someone who has been out of office for nine years to have that many present, it was truly a tribute to him.&uot;

She said the church’s bell began to chime right as her father’s funeral ended his flag-draped coffin was bore out of the church by his pallbearers.

The procession snaked down Cedar Street and then turned on Conecuh Street, bringing Sanders by the historic courthouse where he served for so long.

Longtime courthouse officers and employees lined stood in silent witness as they made their way around the building one last time before heading down South Conecuh.

A huge black ribbon adorned the door of the sheriff’s office.

Once at the cemetery, a traditional law enforcement funeral took place with deputies performing a 21-gun salute and the mournful sounds of the bagpipes sounding through the area.

Many spent time remembering Sanders for the events of Feb. 11, 1991 when he was shot during a hostage situation in the second floor courtroom.

According to Greenville Advocate archives, Mudge Allen Brooks burst into the crowded courtroom shortly before court was set to begin at 9 a.m., brandishing a handgun. He was upset over a recent civil settlement.

Sanders calmly approached Brooks at the back door of the courtroom and asked him to no avail to drop his weapon. Since it was juror selection day, some 100 people were in the room.

Sanders offered himself as a hostage if the Brooks would let the others go, which he agreed to do.

Once the others were safe, Sanders and Brooks scuffled and Sanders was struck in both legs by a single shot.

For the next six hours Brooks held over 100 law officers at bay with Sanders as his hostage.

When he finally surrendered at 3:15 p.m., Sanders said he wasn’t trying to be a hero.

&uot;I just wanted to get everyone out of the courtroom,&uot; he said in an interview with Gregg Fuller.

&uot;That’s all I wanted to do. I wasn’t trying to be a hero.&uot;

Sanders said in that interview that when the others were safe he tried to push his way into Judge Arthur Gamble’s chambers but didn’t make it.

‘I pushed the door open and tried to slip in and shut him out, but I didn’t make it.

I heard the shot, but at the time I didn’t know he’d shot me.

Then I saw the blood.&uot;

For his actions that day, Sanders received national attention, garnering the Blue and Gold Award by the National Exchange Club of America and also a Carnegie Award nomination from the Greenville Area Chamber of Commerce.

On Tuesday, retired Probate Judge Calvin G. Steindorff remembered his friend and colleague from the courthouse.

&uot;Joe and I were lifelong friends and I’ll miss him,&uot; he said.

&uot;He and I would meet each morning before the courthouse opened because he got here promptly at 7 a.m.

It didn’t matter if he had been out all night answering calls, he was still here at 7 a.m.&uot;

Steindorff said his friend never complained about long hours because it was part of his duty.

He also said Sanders kept his sense of humor in any situation and it served him well.

&uot;He and I had to travel occasionally together and Joe always had his favorite restaurants along the way,&uot; Steindorff said.

&uot;Once we stopped in Clanton and went to Shoney’s.&uot;

The judge said when the uniformed sheriff entered with him people naturally stared at them.

&uot;Joe just told them I was his prisoner and that I would cause any harm,&uot; he said.

&uot;Someone asked him what I was in for and he told them white-collar crime.&uot;

That was the type of man he was, Steindorff said.

In 1996, Johnson said her father was diagnosed with prostate cancer.

Before surgery could be done, it was discovered his heart had severe blockage.

It was decided the heart had to be repaired before any other surgery could be performed.

&uot;You hate to look at it this way, but had Daddy not found out he had cancer, then we wouldn’t have known about his heart problem,&uot; Johnson said.

&uot;So in a way it was a blessing.&uot;

The sheriff underwent radiation treatment and everything seemed fine.

Then just over a year ago, it was discovered that the cancer had returned and this time had spread to his shoulder.

Even after realizing little could be done, Johnson said her father remained concerned about others.

&uot;As the pastor said during the funeral, when he recently visited my dad, he said he seemed more interested in how the minister’s wife and children were doing,&uot; she said.

&uot;He didn’t want to be center of attention. On his deathbed, he was more concerned about others.&uot;

She said the community’s outpouring of love and support in the last few days has sustained her family and she said they are grateful.

&uot;We’re doing pretty good,&uot; she said.

&uot;It’s hard because Daddy went down so fast since Christmas.

But to see what Daddy meant to other people has put in a real peace in our hearts.&uot;

She said her two children both said after Monday’s funeral that they knew their grandfather was well respected but the people’s outpouring of support stunned them.

She said another thing that has helped has been people telling stories about her father over the last days, and how it has helped to hear their stories of him.

Sheriff Sanders was 70.

Please see his full obituary on Page 2A.