Originally created 05/23/01

Residents, officers mourn slain deputy



STATESBORO, Ga. - The American flag outside the Bulloch County Sheriff's Office flew at half-staff Monday, and deputies wore badges on their belts in remembrance of one of their own.

The impact also was felt outside the law enforcement family.

In Statesboro, where many of the 22,700 residents know one another, a homicide is rare. Even more rare is the death of a law enforcement officer, with last weekend bringing Bulloch County's first in recent memory.

Sgt. Wilbur Berry, 53, died after being shot four times, and fellow Deputy William Black was wounded in the shoulder while trying to arrest a suspected auto thief Saturday evening, authorities said. A third deputy shot and killed the suspect.

With 30 deputies on the force and a low turnover rate, the sheriff's office is a close-knit family, Capt. Lee Harris said. He said Sgt. Berry's death has officers and residents in disbelief - a "numbing effect."

"It's not something that was going to happen in this community," he said. "It's different here - the community likes the sheriff's department."

Capt. Harris said the office has been flooded with phone calls and flowers from residents and friends of Sgt. Berry.

"He was a full-service officer. I have never heard of anyone having a problem with him before. He would help anybody out."

A Candler County native, Sgt. Berry moved to Statesboro and joined the sheriff's office about 20 years ago.

David Colley, the owner of Boyd's Bar-B-Q and Country Cafe, serves officers lunch every day and said he developed a strong friendship with Sgt. Berry over the years.

"The whole town was shaken," Mr. Colley said. "They knew Wilbur. He was never a stranger. He knew everyone."

Mr. Colley said Sgt. Berry enjoyed the lunch buffet, especially the fried catfish. As much as Sgt. Berry's presence will be missed at the barbecue restaurant, Mr. Colley said he will miss Sgt. Berry when driving home every day, as the two often would pass each other coming from and going to work.

"Wilbur was as good as gold," Mr. Colley said.

But it is not just locals who are banding together to remember Sgt. Berry.

Law enforcement officers from across the state and as far away as North Carolina will honor him at his funeral this afternoon. There will be a procession to Sgt. Berry's house, and he will be buried in the back yard.

Sgt. Berry was shot four times by Early Thomas Lanier, 42, according to reports.

Sgt. Berry and two other officers, Capt. Howard NeSmith and Deputy Black, were acting on a tip and responded to a report of a residence that appeared to have been burglarized and a truck that had been stolen.

The three officers were able to handcuff one of Mr. Lanier's hands, but while struggling with deputies, he was able to pull Deputy Black's gun from his holster and shoot Sgt. Berry before firing twice at Deputy Black.

Capt. NeSmith returned fire, killing Mr. Lanier at the scene.

Although funeral proceedings for law enforcement officers usually are formal, the sheriff's office is asking fellow officers to wear short-sleeve T-shirts and to leave the ties at home.

"If you wanted to get him riled up, all you had to do was tell him he had to wear long-sleeved shirts and a tie," Capt. Harris said.