Slain cop was ‘one of the good guys’

Published 3:49 pm Friday, June 13, 2014

The Chicago Bears had William “Refrigerator” Perry.

The Greenville Academy Tornados had Gary “Deep Freeze” Heath.

And just like the Bears with Perry, when the Tornados needed a little extra bulk in the backfield, they turned to  “Deep Freeze.”

That was the case in GA’s 1986 showdown with crosstown rival Fort Dale South Butler Academy.

In the second quarter of what proved to be a defensive struggle, the Tornados found themselves within four yards of the end zone. First-year head coach Lance Neven elected to move Heath from the line to backfield.

“Going into the game I knew it was going to be tough,” Neven said. “(FDSBA) had a good team and I thought we might have a hard time moving the ball, so that week in practice we put in a play where Gary was in the backfield. When we got down there close to the end zone I called the play and the kids just went crazy.”

The move paid off. Heath carried a handful of Eagle defenders with him into the end zone for the game’s lone score.

“I can still remember the look on his face when he came off the field,” Neven said. “Being a senior and a lineman and scoring a touchdown in his final regular season game against his crosstown rival, you couldn’t have knocked that smile off his face.”

The Tornados went on to win the contest 6-0.

“He wasn’t the fastest, but there weren’t too many people that could stop him,” said Gary’s father Joe Heath with a chuckle.

The same determination that carried Heath into the end zone also helped him achieve his goal of becoming a police officer.

Prior to attending the Montgomery Police Academy, Heath tipped the scales at 280 pounds. By the time he had graduated from the academy he had dropped more than 60 pounds.

“He ran up and down the road by our house over and over,” Joe Heath said. “He was just determined to get into shape to go to the Police Academy and become a police officer and one day a DEA agent.”

In 1993, Heath joined the Greenville Police Department to gain the law enforcement experience he believed he’d need to become a DEA agent.

Lt. Justin Lovvorn joined the department around the same time as Heath.

“Gary had a deep desire to do this kind of work,” Lovvorn said. “This is what he had made his mind up to do. He could have done anything. He wasn’t a police officer for lack of options. He chose to do this because it was what was in his heart.”

On June 14, 1994, 20 years ago today, Gary Wayne Heath was shot and killed in the line of duty. He was 25.

Heath was shot to death when he stopped at the Amoco station at the intersection of Hwy. 10 West and Interstate 65 to check on the store clerk.

Greenville Police Chief Lonzo Ingram said officers routinely stopped to check on employees during nighttime hours.

When Heath entered the store, authorities believe he interrupted a robbery attempt and was ambushed by the would-be burglar.

The store clerk, Pamela Jean Scruggs, was also shot and killed during the robbery attempt.

The suspect later shot and killed Deputy Len J. Rowell, of the Pearl River County Sheriff’s Department (Miss.) and Lt. Coy Smith of the Alabama Public Service Commission. The suspect committed suicide after being surrounded by officers following the killing of Lt. Smith.

“Gary was a fine young man who always wanted to be a police officer,” Ingram said. “He had gone to school and worked toward that goal. Before we had hired him we did a background check and all we got were favorable comments. People used terms like honest and dependable to describe him. That was just an dang tragedy.”

Capt. Randy Courtney, who served as one of Heath’s training officers, said he believes Heath had found his calling.

“This is what he wanted to do,” Courtney said. “He had his heart set on it. He was a smart kid and a hard worker and he seemed to really love the job. I think he would have made a great police officer if he had had the chance to have a full career. That was a tragic night.”

Chuck Branum was a teammate of Heath’s on the GA football team. He still remembers Heath barreling into the end zone to beat FDSBA.

“I will never forget when we lined him up in the backfield to run the ‘Deep Freeze.’ He scored from four yards out dragging players on his back,” Branum wrote on the Officer Down Memorial Page.

Branum also remembers the night he learned his friend had been killed in the line of duty.

“I was an officer on the same shift as Gary the night he was killed,” Branum wrote. “It still haunts me to this day. I worked four more years with different agencies trying to find peace, but just could not. I resigned. It was an honor to know such a kind-hearted man. He was a great friend. There will always be a huge hole where he was standing.”

Stacey Tillery was a high school classmate and teammate of Heath.

“Gary was my strong side tackle as I stood at quarterback,” wrote Tillery on the Officer Down Memorial Page. “He was a true friend. He had a heart of gold, and would never quit on you. He was as dependable as the sun. He was my friend and pal, and I will never forget him.”

Each year the Greenville Police Department honors Heath’s memory at its memorial service by awarding the Gary Heath Education Award, which is presented to an officer that is pursuing higher education or additional training.

“Gary was a tremendous young man,” said Ingram. “The hardest night of my life was the night I had to tell his parents that Gary had been killed. Losing Gary was a big loss for our department and our community. He was one of the good guys.”