Originally created 05/17/99

Home front: Work in slaying praised



Tiny high-top sneakers sat perched before the dozens of images of a grinning little boy while sweet songs of remembrance bellowed from above, leaving not one dry eye.

Except for Lee Wetherington's.

At a moment when the community was grieving most for 6-year-old Keenan O'Mailia -- at his memorial service -- the police officer spearheading the efforts to find the boy's killer was just plain mad.

"As the song Jesus Loves Me played, it was the first time I got really angry. I could feel my jaw quiver and my temperature rising." said Chief Wetherington, director of the North Augusta Department of Public Safety. "I just couldn't understand how someone would do that to a child. Dogs don't do that to each other."

The spotlight has dimmed considerably upon the small, family-oriented community of North Augusta since William "Junior" Downs, 31, of Augusta, confessed to molesting and strangling Keenan on April 17. Prosecutors plan to seek the death penalty against Mr. Downs, who is jailed at the Aiken County Detention Center.

It was one of the most chilling homicides North Augusta had ever seen and only the third in less than three years.

And Chief Wetherington, recounting the details of how the horrific tale unfolded, gave a much more relaxed interview in the comfort of his office -- without the scrutiny of television cameras, microphones and tape recorders.

"It was certainly traumatic," he said of the killing that shocked the community. First, it was reports of a missing boy -- a common occurrence; children wander from home, get caught up with friends. Then it was hours of searching that turned up nothing, worrying the chief. Finally, Keenan's body was found.

"It really didn't sink in until I saw him," he said. "But I couldn't afford to get too emotional. There was so much work to do."

While residents began to grieve for the boy, a detailed investigative plan was implemented, sending dozens of officers following leads, developing suspects and processing evidence.

It was a plan always in existence in the event it was needed, said City Administrator Charles Martin.

"We've been working, funding and building for years to have a public safety department as efficient as possible," Mr. Martin said. "We knew we had it good. But sometimes you don't know how good a thing it is until you see them under fire. And I think you saw it."

The "chief" in Chief Wetherington has been 27 years in the making, having worked as a public safety officer, sergeant, investigator, lieutenant and captain before becoming chief nearly two years ago.

Born in Augusta, Chief Wetherington grew up in North Augusta and followed in a family tradition of law enforcement. His grandfather, father and uncle were police officers.

A black-and-white photograph of his father and uncle -- twin state patrol officers -- hangs on his office wall and above it, a framed quote: "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God."

"I look at law enforcement as not just enforcing the law, but keeping the peace," Chief Wetherington said. "We try to solve difficulties between people with the least amount of force.

"We try to treat people as nice as we can, and that went for the O'Mailia case, too. We treated (Mr. Downs) with a little bit of dignity, and I don't think anyone has ever done that before. I think that's why he ultimately wanted to be cooperative."

Not only did Mr. Downs admit to Keenan's killing, but also to the 1991 strangulation of James Porter, 10, whose body was pulled from Augusta Canal. His death initially was ruled an accidental drowning but the case was reopened when evidence surfaced against Mr. Downs.

Chief Wetherington, although criticized by some for being too open with the media, said the media attention in the case greatly contributed to Mr. Downs' confession.

"We used the press in this case. We wanted to put the pressure on," he said. "And that brought it to a head."

After less than a week of heavy news coverage of Keenan's assault, Mr. Downs left his job abruptly and went to Warner Robins, Ga., to see a relative, whom he told he needed to get out of town because the police were after him, the chief said. When the relative asked why, he showed her newspaper clippings of the killing. When arrested, Mr. Downs had with him a week's worth of newspapers chronicling the killing.

Word got back to North Augusta investigators that a man in Warner Robins told someone he was involved in the homicide, and that was when Chief Wetherington saw the first real break in the case.

What he called an "emotional roller coaster" came to an end when Mr. Downs confessed.

"I'm ready to have some closure on it," the chief said. "We all have our ways of dealing with it. I talked to my pastor a lot and talked a lot to the behavioral scientist, and that really helped.

"It was more of an obsession -- to do as much as we possibly could. It was an emotional roller coaster. We would develop a suspect, run down leads, and it would look good and then it would be a dead end. I talked a lot with my peers -- used them as a sounding board. That was really the best therapy I could have."

Chief Wetherington is recuperating from much-needed back surgery after rupturing a disc in January during a fall from a fire truck.

And just last month, he became a college graduate, earning a bachelor's degree in public administration from the University of South Carolina Aiken. He also has completed the 13-week course at the Southern Police Institute at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. The course will go toward a master's degree he's now seeking.

The 20-hour workdays have ended, and only a few state and federal officials remain on the task force investigating Mr. Downs.

And since the arrest, Chief Wetherington has been Monday-morning quarterbacking the investigation.

"I don't have any regrets. I had said before that there is no fence between here and Georgia, but I am not naive enough to believe that this couldn't have just as easily been someone living right in the community," he said. "We've been inundated with calls of praise and thanks, and we were getting that from the beginning. We've got a good community that came together for a lady (Nina O'Mailia, Keenan's mother) who had only been here for two months. I don't know better people.

"These guys (investigators) did an excellent job. I wish I never had to find out that we could do it, but I feel a whole lot better knowing that we can. I consider this case a feather in our cap."