Wetherington retiring after 36 years of 'rewards and tragedies'

NORTH AUGUSTA --- Tuesday wasn't a very productive day for North Augusta Public Safety Chief Lee Wetherington.

He spent much of the day shaking hands and receiving farewells on the last day of a 36-year career.

He said he was the first public safety officer hired when the fire and police department merged in 1976.

Chief Wetherington said he doesn't plan on going anywhere, so goodbyes aren't needed. His first months of retirement will be spent working on a "honey-do" list for his wife.

"I'm going to slow down. I'm not going to miss listening to my pager and wondering if I have to go look at a dad that killed himself and murdered his two sons or a 6-year-old girl that was raped," he said. "All those images that get burned in your mind aren't easy to forget."

He said he also won't miss being in the spotlight as a public figure. Chief Wetherington said part of his decision to retire was based on the publicity surrounding a sexually explicit e-mail that was sent in May. It resulted in a one-week suspension for him and suspension of other officers and staff.

"I still think that was blown way out of proportion," he said.

"It's so trivial when you look at everything we've done over the years. My career is full of rewards and tragedies."

Even on his last day, Mr. Wetherington was still trying to solve one of those tragedies. Investigators pulled a file for the unsolved 2005 Huddle House murder of William Powell, a friend and coffee buddy of Chief Wetherington. Another friend, the Rev. Earl Carter, was wounded in the random attack.

"I'll never let that go," Chief Wetherington said. "They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. I know the families, and we'd both like to have some closure to it."

The two men were entering the restaurant early on the morning of Nov. 22 when a man approached them and began firing.

Though there are some loose ends to tie up on some cases, there are three he's proud the department solved: the Keenan O'Malia case in 1999, in which the 6-year-old boy was abducted and murdered by a pedophile; the David Mark Hill case in 1996, in which a man opened fire at the Department of Social Services and killed three people; and the killing of former North Augusta Mayor Kim Ledford in 2002.

As for his replacement, Chief Wetherington said whoever comes in has to believe in teamwork.

"You have to surround yourself with people that are going to shoot from the hip and be honest and tell you when you're crazy," he said.

Chief Wetherington's replacement is expected to be announced in March.

Reach Julia Sellers at (706) 823-3424 or julia.sellers@augustachronicle.com