Sonja Hatcher knows the pain and disbelief. She knows the anger when a “senseless and selfish” act kills a uniformed officer who dedicated his life to protecting others.
Hatcher’s first husband, Richmond County School Safety Officer Michael Stephenson, was the last Augusta-based officer to be slain in the line of duty. He was gunned down at Jamestown Elementary School responding to a burglar alarm in 1997.
As a former law enforcement dispatcher and the spouse of a fallen officer, Hatcher had a visceral reaction to Sunday’s killing of Richmond County sheriff’s Deputy James D. Paugh.
“Oh my gosh, it’s happened to somebody else,” she said. “I really prayed for (Paugh’s family). I know that’s what got me through some of the toughest times. I just prayed God would give them a peace in it.”
Hatcher knew the risk her late husband faced when putting on his police uniform. For 13 years, she worked as a dispatcher calling officers into threatening situations.
“Their lives are on the line every day. They put themselves in harm’s way for the safety of the public,” Hatcher said. “I always knew it could happen.”
Yet she didn’t live in fear waiting for a phone call in the middle of the night and a knock on the door, as she received 14 years ago. Knowing that her husband handled threatening situations to the best of his ability eased her anxiety.
“My heart is with every law enforcement person and their families, whether they lose someone or not,” she said. “The worst thing is to live in fear and for it to actually happen.”
Hatcher, now remarried, would have been dispatching her late husband’s shift if she hadn’t left for another job just a few months before his death. Like Stephenson, Hatcher knows Paugh exemplified a dedicated officer, although she never met him.
“Very caring. Just going out of the way to help someone,” Hatcher said. “They just had a heart for their jobs. It wasn’t just a job. It was who they were.”
Hatcher described a “comfort beyond understanding” after the death of her husband and the outpouring of support from the community and law enforcement. The hardest part was knowing that other people and her two young sons, Jeral, now 21, and Michael, 17, would no longer experience his wisdom.
“Paugh and Michael are the kind of people that chose to influence other people’s lives in the good way.”