ATLANTA — A man who fatally shot a wandering Alzheimer's patient in the early morning hours in north Georgia will not face criminal charges, a local prosecutor said Friday.
Joe Hendrix, 35, fatally shot 72-year-old Ronald Westbrook on Nov. 27. The elderly man had slipped from his home as early as 1 a.m. and wandered in the cold and dark for hours until randomly approaching the home of Hendrix's fiancee on a rural cul-de-sac, repeatedly knocking on the door and ringing the bell.
Hendrix's fiancee called 911, while Hendrix grabbed his .40-caliber handgun, went outside and confronted the unknown man in the dark. Hendrix told police that he could see that man was carrying a cylindrical object, which turned out to be a flashlight. The unknown man ignored shouts to stop and came at Hendrix, he later told police. Hendrix fired three or four times, wounding Westbrook in the chest.
District Attorney Herbert "Buzz" Franklin said he could press charges only if investigators could prove that Hendrix was not acting in self-defense when he pulled the trigger.
"It's a difficult burden to meet," Franklin said. "You have to be able to prove what was in their mind at the time of the act. All the circumstances here could lead one to reasonably believe that Mr. Hendrix was acting in self-defense."
Hendrix appreciated the care and deliberation shown by investigators, said his attorney, Lee Davis.
"Mr. Hendrix fully acknowledges the loss to Westbrook family, and his thoughts and prayers are with them," Davis said in a statement.
The outcome brought no solace to Westbrook's family.
"I'm a little upset," said Deanne Westbrook, the slain man's widow. "...I really wanted to see it go before a grand jury, and then maybe before a jury. But they tell me there's not enough evidence for that."
Franklin seemed to sympathize with the family's frustration, though he said he made the correct legal decision.
"What little satisfaction there may be in that, I might be able to take some small comfort in that. But the Westbrook family lost their father, husband, and there's nothing we can do to change any of that," he said.
The shooting was preceded by a series of chance events, even a missed opportunity.
On Nov. 19, Hendrix's fiancee called 911 just before midnight to report that a man carrying a piece of paper and a flashlight rang her doorbell and wanted to see a person whose name she did not recognize, according to Hendrix's attorney and police reports obtained by The Associated Press under the state's open records laws. The woman had only recently moved into the rented home and was suspicious, Davis said previously.
Worried, the fiancee called Hendrix, who told her to call 911. By the time Hendrix and police officers arrived, the suspicious man was gone. The incident worried the couple. Afterward, Hendrix, a former soldier, took a handgun from his apartment in nearby Chattanooga, Tenn., and brought the weapon to his fiancee's home.
About a week later, Westbrook slipped out unnoticed from the home he shared with his wife of 51 years. Westbrook suffered from Alzheimer's, a progressive disease that causes memory loss, impairs judgment and can leave it victims disoriented. His widow, Deanne, previously said her husband had become confused about where he lived and struggled to identify those closest to him.
She said she installed alarms on her doors to prevent her husband from wandering, but she didn't hear them when he left with the couple's two dogs, possibly around 1 a.m.
A resident in Chickamauga called 911 around 2:30 a.m. to report that a man was in her driveway shining a flashlight into a car. The deputy sheriff who responded to the call noticed a man later identified as Westbrook walking away from a mailbox with a flashlight and several pieces of mail, according to authorities. Westbrook seemed upset at being questioned by the officer. Apparently confused, Westbrook told the deputy that he lived up the driveway and walked away.
Just before 4 a.m., Hendrix and his fiancee woke up to barking dogs and realized someone was ringing their doorbell, knocking on their door and trying to get in, police said. Hendrix's fiancee called 911 while Hendrix went outside with his gun.