It has been decades since he took off his last shield and put it away. Now it rests in a framed collection of memorabilia on the wall of his law office in west Augusta.
Although his second career as an attorney has provided him with more success and wealth than he dreamed of as a boy growing up on Old Savannah Road, Sanders has yearned for that badge almost every day.
The last day he wore it is still fresh in his mind after 27 years.
“I drove to work that morning as police chief and went home unemployed,” said Sanders, recalling the day in 1985 when the county commission disbanded the Richmond County Police Department.
“It was one of the hardest things for me ever,” he said solemnly, before lightening the mood with a joke: “To this day no one has ever called me to tell me I was out of a job.”
The last badge
Sanders’ last law enforcement job included a dark episode that cost Sheriff J.B. Dykes his job and sent Dykes to prison.
Under investigation for a ticket-fixing scheme, Dykes was convicted of threatening a witness: Sanders, the sheriff’s chief deputy at the time.
Sanders said Dykes was taking bribes to fix DUI tickets.
“People were just bringing in envelopes of cash and dropping them at the sheriff’s office,” he said.
Sanders said he and fellow officer Ronnie Strength saw what was happening and decided to turn in their boss.
“It was shameful what he was doing,” he said. “I have more respect for a bank robber than for a police officer that does something like that.”
Dykes went to prison and Sanders was given most of the sheriff’s law enforcement responsibilities as the new chief of police in 1983. That lasted two years, until his friend, former revenue agent Charles B. Webster, was elected Richmond County sheriff.
Webster re-established the sheriff’s power and took what Sanders had built – cars, equipment and men – as his new department, Sanders said.
All the county police officers got jobs with Webster as deputies, except Sanders.
“I would have done the same thing,” said Sanders, who holds no grudge against his old friend for that. Sanders said Webster knew there could be only one boss and he had to establish control.
Within days of his abrupt dismissal, Sanders was offered a job as a lawyer with Nixon, Yow, Waller and Capers. While working as a sheriff’s deputy, Sanders took advantage of a program that allowed deputies to advance their education.
“I really wanted to see how far I could go,” he said.
He attended college and the Augusta Law School at night and was admitted to the Georgia State Bar in 1981.
When the law firm split in 1993, he became a member of Capers, Dunbar, Sanders, Bruckner and Bellotti, where he still works today.
He has done well at it, he said, specializing in civil cases, especially those that require complex trial work.
The work has brought success and enough wealth for a comfortable life on his 16-acre country estate off Goshen Road. It is a quiet retreat complete with a private lake and a clubhouse out back, which serves as a place for entertaining friends and as a 48-track recording studio for his other love, music.
“I have always loved the blues,” said Sanders, who has played guitar and dabbled in blues combos for most of his adult life.
Parked not far from the clubhouse in its own shed is another memento from Sanders’ past – a restored 1970s fire engine, the same vehicle he used when he served with the suburban fire department.
Sanders was a volunteer firefighter even while he was a student at Butler High School in the mid-1960s.
After he graduated from Butler in 1966, he continued to volunteer until a paid job came open, he said.
“We had 14 paid men and the rest were volunteers,” Sanders said. “On Dec. 6, 1966, I came on as a paid man.”
His firefighting career was broken up by a short stint in the Army Reserve. When he returned from training at Fort Polk, La., in February 1969, he was eager to get back on the fire truck, but it didn’t last long.
“I was home 18 days when we got the call,” he said.
“The call” was for a fire April 2, 1969, at Dan Moore Furniture on North Leg Road. Sanders recalled that it was in the middle of lunch at Station 7 when the alarm sounded.
“You would think that in the middle of the day a fire like that would not be that strong,” he said.
They had just arrived and Sanders was working on the outside of the building when the intense heat caused a brick wall to explode outward.
He was buried under a pile of bricks and steel, and two vertebrae were crushed.
“I was in a body cast for three months, from my neck to my knees,” he said.
He was in a wheelchair for months after that, but Sanders said his recovery was swift. Soon he was well enough to apply for a position as a dispatcher with the sheriff’s office, and his career in law enforcement officially began.
He worked briefly as an Augusta city police officer before returning to the sheriff’s department, where he moved up through the ranks, working in road patrol, vice and narcotics and violent crimes, until becoming chief of police.
Over the years he has remained good friends with sheriffs Strength and Webster, talking with them and keeping tabs on the sheriff’s office almost daily, he said.
Although he hasn’t worn a badge in more than two decades, he says he still remembers what it was like to have that shield on. Becoming sheriff would complete the circle.
“It has always been in the back of my mind,” he said. “I think when I told (Strength) he was shocked beyond belief.”