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Plant tragedy has brought changes to Lauderdale County

Lauderdale County and the surrounding area are continuing to recover from the “Lockheed Tragedy,” in which seven people were slain in the Lockheed plant last July 8. Eight more were wounded.

Sheriff Billy Sollie calls it “the worst tragedy in Lauderdale County history.” Area residents continue to use the watchwords of “shock and disbelief” to describe their reaction.

There have been few overt changes in the four months since, but the community is certainly more “on guard.” And there is a strong sense of a continuous coming together of the community as a result of the tragedy.

Sheriff Sollie became the point man that sultry July morning. “You have dreams or nightmares about confronting the national media, but it never happens,” Sollie said. “On July 8, it happened and we survived.”

Members of the national media expecting a Mississippi version of “Boss Hogg” were disappointed. Sollie is not only a youthful 48-year-old crew cut, articulate county-wide bicycle rider, he’s Lauderdale County’s first sheriff with a degree in criminal justice. And he’s steeped in law enforcement having joined the Meridian Police Department at the tender age of 19 and later becoming Meridian’s police chief.

He was elected sheriff in 1996 and has just been overwhelmingly reelected to his third term. And his wife, Diann, is a former police officer. He currently serves as president of the Mississippi Sheriff’s Association, so he’s no stranger to the spotlight.

A pall is cast in Sollie’s office as he discusses the events of that horrendous morning. He can tell you exactly where he was and what he did in minute detail. He displays two three-ring notebooks chock full of evidence accumulated during the investigation. “They are the facts as we know them,” Sollie said. “It will be turned over to an 18-member Lauderdale County grand jury the third week in November.”

Based on that evidence, he leaves no doubt about his own conclusions.

“One individual decided to commit suicide and take others with him,” Sollie said emphatically. “We are certain that it was a suicide and homicides at the hands of Doug Williams. Our presentation (to the grand jury) will be lengthy and we anticipate that the case will be closed and no further investigation will be needed.”

As for initial reports that it was a racist crime (nine of the 13 casualties were black and six were white), Sollie said, “Documentation from the FBI, including Williams’ computer that was seized, shows nothing to indicate that he was a member of, or associated with, any extremist groups.”

Lockheed located the plant just northeast of Meridian in 1969 at the high point of the Sonny Montgomery Industrial Park. Known locally for its high wage scale, long-tenured employees and strong support of community causes, it is recognized in the company for quality workmanship in making parts for military aircraft.

How Lockheed reacted

Sam Grizzle is director of media relations for Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Company in Marietta, Ga.

“Every one of our employees felt pain that day,” Grizzle said. “Our

senior executives, including our president, dropped everything and came to Meridian. We began working almost immediately with the families of the victims. A personal advocate and professional counselor was assigned to each family, and we made sure the other employees received necessary counseling. Those counselors are still available around the clock.”

Meridian Mayor John Robert Smith is visibly moved as he describes how those senior executives “wept openly for employees. It touched your heart.”

Grizzle said, “There are no words to adequately describe Lockheed’s gratitude to the sheriff and his staff, the mayor, the clergy, the hospitals and emergency personnel, the city police, the business community and just plain citizens for their outpouring of support.”

Lockheed established a victims’ assistance fund supported by the company and their employees from the firm’s worldwide operations. Grizzle said it’s reached almost $1 million and is being distributed equally to each victim’s family.

Visible changes have been made at the plant. The portable training room where the trouble began has been removed and a new one is under construction. “And to reassure employees, a perimeter fence and a security gate are almost complete,” Grizzle said.

How a neighbor reacted

Lockheed’s neighbors were also affected. Jimmy Carle is president of Lake Shore Studios, a lampshade manufacturer just up the road. He remembers the horrors of July 8 vividly. “One of our secretary’s friends called and told her about it, so we turned on the radio,” Carle said. “We locked the doors until we knew exactly what was going on. Other than disbelief and general concern, it’s hard to say what our emotions were.”

Ever since, Carle’s been more attentive when there are problems with employees. “Confrontation is never easy, but we are careful to avoid anger,” he said. That’s the only change he’s made.

Structural Steel Services is located almost cattercorner across town from Lockheed. Tommy Dulaney is president of the home grown firm that has 275 employees. He’s just concluded a two-year term as chairman of the East Mississippi Business Development Corporation (nee chamber of commerce). He’s unaware of any major changes by local industry or business since July 8.

As for his own firm, “We have always had a workplace violence rule, but we immediately made it part of our official policy manual,” Dulaney said. “We walked the floor the next day and emphasized to our employees that we want to protect them from any similar incidents. We told them, ‘We take any threats seriously, so don’t even joke about it.’ In our 28 years, we’ve had two scrapes and both of those were between people who just didn’t like each other.”

Perhaps one of the reasons for the peaceful relations is that the company has provided an employee mental health assistance program “for a number of years.”

The value of counseling

Sheriff Sollie knew that his officers would need psychological help, so he called a mandatory meeting of all his deputies and introduced four counselors from Weems Community Mental Health Center. Certain that there would be a reluctance to admit the need, Sollie was the first to raise his hand saying, “I want to talk to a counselor.” Twenty-five more deputies followed.

“It’s been very beneficial,” Sollie said. “The interesting thing is that it triggered a reaction to previous tragedies that they had investigated.”

Mayor Smith said that the major change in the city’s procedures came about when a New York City councilman was killed during a meeting in that city’s chambers. “We had metal detectors (in the council meeting room) before that, but didn’t take them seriously,” he said. “We do now.”

Meeting hate with love

Smith’s major role in the Lockheed tragedy’s aftermath was to bring the community together in healing and support. He organized a spontaneous prayer vigil on the steps of City Hall the evening of the calamity.

“Black and white ministers came to me asking what they could do and I told them to stand behind me and let others see us as a team. It was a very diverse group,” he said.

Two days later Smith arranged a community service that filled the sanctuary of Meridian’s First Baptist Church. It was almost equally divided between blacks and whites. Reverend Bill Harper, an African American minister, gave the main sermon. “Some of the media were looking f
or a
hate filled story and they couldn’t find it,” Smith said.

“Less than a month later, I learned that White House presidential advisor Karl Rove was coming through Meridian on Amtrak,” Smith recalled. “So I went down to speak to him. He said he had seen our responses (to the tragedy) on TV and that they were touched by a small community that met hate with love.”

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