Editor's note: Lisa Cooper's newest work can be found at douglascountyhistory.blogspot.com.
If you have read any of my meager offerings regarding Douglas County history you know I’m not originally from here. I grew up during the 1960s and 1970s in the South Fulton area, so I didn’t exactly know the daily news in Douglasville, but one person I did know about was Sheriff Earl D. Lee. Most people from this part of the state know who he was.
Some people take on a persona – they become a larger than life character – a person who ends up with so many stories swirling around regarding their accomplishments and exploits that it’s hard to know where the truth ends and the myths begin.
Sheriff Lee is such a person, and as far as most are concerned regarding him the delineation between fact and myth doesn’t matter.
Sheriff Earl D. Lee was a giant of a man and most certainly deserves the recognition of having a street named for him. Tomorrow the street leading to the new Douglas County Jail will officially become Earl D. Lee Boulevard in a dedication ceremony scheduled for 1:30 p.m. The ceremony will take place at the intersection of S. Cherokee Boulevard and Fairburn Road.
Sheriff Lee was a native to Douglas County born here in January 1931 to Eva Inez Couch Lee and Grover Clinton Lee, a Douglas County commissioner. Sheriff Lee attended schools in Douglas County including Winston Elementary, Mt. Carmel Elementary, and graduated from Douglas County High School in 1948.
Before becoming involved with law enforcement Sheriff Lee worked for Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, and in 1953 he began working for his father-in-law, Wade Belcher who owned a feed and grocery business in Austell, Georgia. Sheriff Lee had married Mr. Belcher’s daughter, Betty in 1950. Eventually they would have three daughters.
By 1964, the political bug had bitten Sheriff Lee, and he ran for Deputy Sheriff at the time Claude Abercrombie was running for Sheriff. While it seems a little strange to us today there was a time when deputies ran for office just as the candidates for sheriff.
Claude Abercrombie was elected and he and Deputy Sheriff Lee began their term on January 1, 1965. At that time the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office was located within the Sheriff’s residence which was provided by the county. It was located at 6730 Church Street.
Sheriff Lee resigned his position in April, 1972 in order to run for the office sheriff. Approximately 800 votes separated Lee and Abercrombie but the newly elected Sheriff Lee began his reign as Sheriff on January 1, 1973.
During the next several years the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office expanded greatly with Lee at the helm. He began in 1973 with eleven deputies, and one of his first moves was to do away with the sheriff’s county provided residence. He used the residence but not to live. He took the home and converted it to offices for the Sheriff’s Department.
While he served as sheriff, Lee attended workshops, seminars, and schools honing his skills as a lawman both at the state and national level. He attended the FBI.
National Academy in Washington D.C. and the Management School for newly elected sheriffs in Los Angeles, California. The training and education wasn’t just for the Sheriff though. Sheriff Lee also sent his staff to the FBI Academy and the National Police Institute.
Apparently Sheriff Lee was doing something right because the citizens of Douglas County elected him for another four-year term in August, 1976 followed by two more four-year terms in August, 1980 and August, 1984, and he was named Douglas County Citizen of the Year in 1973.
Several new divisions were set up during Sheriff Lee’s time in office including a Patrol, Communications, Detective, Warrant and Narcotic Divisions. A detective who handled the schools was also hired, and in 1976 the first female deputy to become a certified peace officer worked for the Sheriff’s Department.
1980 saw the first drug dog, Lt. Bandit, serving the citizens of Douglas County. At one point due to the efforts of Lt. Bandit and the department approximately $365,000 in drug related money was confiscated.
In 1983 the Sheriff’s Department moved into the facility they are moving out of currently. At that time the new facility was replacing a 30-year-old jail that was overcrowded and inadequate.
While in office Sheriff Lee assisted state legislators to update Georgia laws regarding standards and requirements for sheriffs around the state, and was the first sheriff appointed by the Governor to investigate another sheriff.
In this recent Douglasville Patch article current Douglas County Sheriff Phil Miller advises, “(Sheriff Lee) was a law man’s law man…I heard many FBI agents, many GBI agents and many law enforcement agents say, ‘If anything ever happens to me, I want Earl Lee to investigate it.’”
In a 2011 article written by Randy Rider, Lee was remembered by Rider …as one of the finest investigators that I ever met. He would run 72 hours and look behind him to see who was hanging in there. He would fall on the couch in his office take a few and off we went again. The man loved the chase and when it was over he would find a new one. Several times there were strings of crimes in neighboring counties and we knew he prayed for one to step over the line. “Stay out of Douglas County” meant something then.
Sheriff Lee took part in several high profile investigations including the Missing and Murdered Children in Atlanta. A 2008 Douglas Sentinel article details a few of the others:
Paul John Knowles, a serial killer whose 18 known victims included a Florida highway trooper. On December 18, 1974, Lee and GBI agent Ron Angel was transporting Knowles to a site where the killer claimed he disposed of the weapon used to kill the trooper. Knowles used a paper clip to free himself of his handcuffs and tried to take Lee’s gun. He was shot dead by Angel.