A harrowing video of a homeowner shooting and killing two Peach County deputies was just one piece of evidence that could have led to a murder conviction. But the video, recently released by the District Attorney’s Office, was never shown to a jury.
Ralph Stanley Elrod Jr. instead pleaded guilty, sparing his life, though his sentence means he will die in prison.
The dashcam video was recorded Nov. 6, 2016, as deputies talked to Elrod, who had just threatened to shoot some neighbors riding motorbikes in front of his home, about 20 minutes from Macon. He denied he’d threatened anyone, but deputies had cellphone video of Ralph Stanley Elrod Jr. doing just that.
“Just so you know, you’re under arrest,” Sgt. Patrick Sondron told Elrod.
“No, I’m not,” Elrod replied.
Before Sondron could grab his wrist, Elrod pulled a gun from his waistband and fired, striking the sergeant and Deputy Daryl Smallwood, killing them both. A dashboard camera on a patrol car captured the exchange and the following moments, when Elrod went inside his home and returned wearing a bulletproof vest and carrying two rifles. Bracing his gun on the hood of the police car, he began firing on backup officers who had arrived to help.
Elrod, 59, deserved the death penalty, according to District Attorney David Cooke, but the deputies’ families could not fathom reliving the deadly shootings during a trial. On Sept. 6, Elrod pleaded guilty to two counts of malice murder, two counts of felony murder, three counts of aggravated assault on a peace officer and two counts of aggravated assault. He was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole, plus an additional 100 years in prison
“With his guilty plea, his chances for appeal are nearly nonexistent as compared with the decades of appellate hearings that would have followed a death sentence,” DA David Cooke said after the plea. “He’s not going to have teams of law students fighting for his freedom. No one will light a candle on the night of his death in protest. He’ll die quietly in prison, alone.”
Mayhem over motorbikes
On a Sunday afternoon, Elrod was upset about neighbors riding a four-wheeler and a motorcycle in front of his Peach County home, so he decided to do something about it. He grabbed a gun and confronted the riders, threatening them, according to investigators. One of the young men captured the exchange on his cellphone.
“You can’t run this (expletive, expletive) up and down … (in front of) my house,” Elrod said. “I’m gonna kill your (expletive)!”
“All right,” Kelvin Ross, who had been on the four-wheeler, replied. “My fault, man.”
“You understand me?” Elrod said.
“Yes, sir,” Ross said.
“I’m getting tired of your (expletive, expletive),” Elrod said.
At approximately 5:30 p.m., a neighbor called 911 to report Elrod’s threats. Deputies arrived on the street, located just outside of Byron and about 95 miles south of Atlanta, and interviewed the woman who reported the threat. Other witnesses were also interviewed, and deputies watched the video Ross took. Then, the deputies went to Elrod’s home, where Sondron approached him and the two talked.
“You took what you felt was your authority out in the road, and you told that man that you’re gonna kill him,” Soldron is heard saying on the video. “They had a video going, and that’s terrible for you.”
As the deputy informed Elrod he was under arrest, the calm encounter instantly turned deadly: Elrod pulled a gun from his waistband and shot the deputies at close range. Sondron, 41, died the same day. Smallwood, 39, died two days later.
Elrod then went into his house and, crouching, returned to the police car in a bulletproof vest, carrying two rifles. The video shows him then begin shooting at Byron police officers, who returned fire, injuring Elrod.
“I’m down! I’m down! I’m down!” Elrod screamed.
Two deputies down
Sondron served in the U.S. Air Force and loved to travel, but his legacy was to serve others. He was married with three children. Sondron was a pilot who drove charter buses and loved cars, including Dodge Challengers, and was a die cast collector, according to his online obituary.
For 13 years, Sondron worked for the Peach County Sheriff’s Office, where he was a sergeant assigned to the patrol division and a member of the SWAT team
“Patrick was a dedicated public servant, a respected partner to others in law enforcement and was known to be kind and level-headed,” his online obituary stated. “A well-loved friend to many, he was described as a true ambassador for Peach County. Above all else, he was a devoted husband and father who loved spending time with the family he adored.”
Smallwood previously worked as a deputy with the Crisp County Sheriff’s Office, where deputies gathered the night of the shooting to hold hands and pray for his recovery. The divorced father was engaged.
“He was always listening to music and enjoyed riding his Harley motorcycle,” his obituary stated. “He was a simple man, easy going, and loved being a great father to his children.”
After the deputies were killed, investigators reviewed footage from their cars, along with video from Elrod’s home security system. When questioned by the GBI, Elrod admitted to shooting both deputies. He did so because he said he didn’t want to go to jail.
Two months after the deputies’ deaths, Elrod was indicted on murder charges, and DA Cooke said he planned to seek the death penalty.
“Those who intentionally take the lives of law enforcement officers who are peaceably and lawfully carrying out their sworn duty to protect the public should expect to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and to face the ultimate penalty,” Cooke said.
No trial, but justice prevails
Cooke previously turned down the defense team’s offer for a plea deal. Only if the deputies’ families approached him and wanted a plea would he consider it.
Then, earlier this month, Cooke said the deputies’ families could not bear sitting through a trial for Elrod. By entering a guilty plea, Elrod would avoid the death penalty but die in prison.
“It’s important to point out that the majority of the families’ decision to ask me to accept life without parole was not made for the defendant’s benefit. It was made for theirs,” Cooke said following the plea. “Likewise, my decision to honor the wishes of the majority of the family was based purely on what I realized was best for them and what I thought Patrick and Daryl would want for their families.”
The courtroom was packed, including by numerous law enforcement officers, for Elrod’s final hearing and plea, The Macon Telegraph reported. Heartbreaking statements from family members were read.
In her statement, Rebecca Foster, Smallwood’s mother, said, “My life will never be the same. It feels like it was all just yesterday,” The Telegraph reported.
“… I could not sit in court listening to the testimony and seeing the pictures of how this man killed my son,” Foster wrote in her statement. “I cry every day. I do not need anymore information about this murder in my head. I just pray that it will all be over now.”
Elrod is being housed at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification State Prison in Jackson.
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