March 1974: Sheriff's department goes without leader after sheriff, coroner both die


A potentially tricky situation arose a few years ago when Sheriff John Mark Tirey announced that he would step down a few months before his fifth term was set to end.

It was not clear who would succeed Tirey at the time of the announcement. 

A section of the code of Alabama states that the coroner is to discharge the duties of sheriff when the office is vacant and until a successor is qualified. However, it was an election year, and the man who would be asked to step in, J.C. Poe, had been a candidate for sheriff in the GOP primary and had lost to eventual winner Jim Underwood in a runoff.

In the end, Gov. Robert Bentley appointed Chief Deputy James Painter to serve as interim sheriff for two months, and Underwood was sworn in two weeks after the election.

Walker County experienced an even trickier situation in March 1974 when Sheriff Howard Turner and Coroner Joe Kilgore died within 24 hours of each other.

Kilgore passed away on Wednesday, March 6, and Turner passed away on Thursday, March 7. Both died of prolonged illnesses, according to an article in the March 11, 1974, edition of the Daily Mountain Eagle.

The article cites the same state code that empowers the coroner to discharge the duties of sheriff. In this case, the question was whether Deputy Coroner Bob Green was de facto sheriff following the deaths of Turner and Kilgore.

Some said that since the deputy coroner was appointed by the coroner, Green was not in the legal line of succession.

District Attorney Gerald Colvin told the Eagle that he had reached out to Gov. George Wallace for an answer to the question and had yet to receive an answer because Wallace had been in a staff meeting all morning. 

"There is some question as to the workings of the Sheriff's Department while the mayor office is vacant, but the officials see no difficulty if the problem is ironed out in the near future," the Eagle reported.

No mention of the leadership vacuum was made in an article from the same issue announcing that a jailbreak had been attempted in the early hours of Monday, March 11.

Deputies Gene Barron and J.R. Myers confirmed that at least two of six prisoners in a third floor cell of Walker County Jail had been spotted while trying to escape through a window around 1 a.m. 

They had broken out of their cell by breaking off a piece of the iron bunkbed and using it to pry the lock from the cell door. They then tied several bedsheets together for rope and started to leave through a third floor window that had been used in a previous escape attempt.

Jailer J.H. Martin heard the lock pop off and immediately called the Jasper Police Department. 

Barron said the jail was surrounded by city and county police within minutes of Martin's call. Jasper Police Lt. Sonny McClellan arrived within three minutes. Barron and Myers, who had been on patrol in Curry, were on the scene within five minutes.

Deputies had not been able to determine which two were at the window or how many of the six were involved in the plan. All six had refused to comment.

Wallace appointed Deputy Lavernus "Bunny" Cottrell as interim sheriff on Thursday, March 14, one week after Turner's death. 

Cottrell, 50, had been with the sheriff's department for 11 years. 

Cottrell had qualified for the upcoming sheriff's race but withdrew less than a week later. He told the Eagle that he would resign after the Democratic primary so that Wallace could appoint the person who won the Democratic nomination. 

Jack Trotter beat three other men in the May 1974 primary. Trotter would be elected four times and was still serving as sheriff at the time of his own death from cancer in December 1988.

In this case, Coroner Fred Burke did assume the duties of sheriff until Bill Ingram took over and served out the remainder of Trotter's turn.

Trotter was the county's longest-serving sheriff until Tirey was elected to five terms, which brings this column full-circle.

Jennifer Cohron is the Daily Mountain Eagle's features editor.