OLANTA — Stacey Watts recently got a gift she had been waiting on for 37 years.
The Town of Olanta officially recognized and honored her father, former Olanta Police Chief Robert F. Sexton, with the unveiling of a portrait that will hang in the new town hall.
The recognition comes more than three decades after Sexton was gunned down by another police officer on Olanta’s Main Street, but Watts said it’s better late than never.
“I really thought this day would never come,” Watts said. “It’s bittersweet. It means so .. I can’t even put a value on how much this means to me. Olanta finally taking the time to honor one of their own – it’s long overdue, but done right. He finally got the recognition he deserves. I just wish his mother could have been here to see it.”
Watts was just 2 months old the night her 29-year-old father was shot and killed on Main Street by another Olanta police officer.
His sacrifice went unrecognized until recently when Olanta Mayor Jimmy McCutcheon, Councilman Jack Hyman and Olanta Police Chief Jack Chamberlain decided to do something about it.
“The chief, myself and Councilman Hyman had the opportunity to attend the fallen officers memorial service in Florence a few weeks ago as part of National Peace Officers Day, which was fitting because one of our own was being honored,” McCutcheon said. “But through attending that, we came to realize there had never been any kind of memorial for Chief Sexton here in Olanta, and that wasn’t acceptable to us. We wanted to do something to try to rectify that injustice.”
Chamberlain said the portrait was a small gesture, but officials felt it was important to do something as soon as possible.
“We studied and did all the research and couldn’t believe nothing had ever been done,” Chamberlain said. “It was time to do something.”
McCutcheon said he doesn’t know why the town hasn’t done anything to honor Sexton in the past.
“I don’t believe there were any ill intentions, but it’s not a happy part of Olanta’s history,” McCutcheon said. “People have never accepted what happened that night. There’s a lot of doubt out there and a lot of rumors. But that doesn’t matter. Chief Sexton still needed to be recognized.”
Sexton was fatally shot in the face by then-27-year-old Olanta police officer Arthur Deleon Wilson.
According to statements taken during the investigation in 1976, Sexton’s death was the tragic culmination of an odd night that began when then-Olanta Mayor Kelton Floyd asked Sexton to stake out the drug store he owned on Main Street.
Sexton was off duty, at home asleep that night when Floyd stopped by about 10 p.m. to tell him some fuses at the back of his downtown drug store had been tampered with. Floyd said he feared the person or persons who tampered with the fuses may be coming back to burglarize the business and asked Sexton to stake out the store for the night.
Sexton agreed and drove to the downtown area in his family station wagon, leaving the town patrol car behind for Wilson, who was scheduled to work around midnight.
During a coroner’s inquest into the fatal shooting held in June 1976, Floyd testified he left Sexton in his drug store about 11 p.m. and returned home. The chief apparently left the store a few minutes later after talking with Wilson on the radio after he picked up the patrol car at Sexton’s house. At 11:40 p.m., Sexton showed up at the mayor’s house to get a key to the store, explaining he’d accidentally locked himself out while talking to Wilson.
Sexton and Wilson went back downtown and just after midnight, Wilson was banging on the fire chief’s door, reporting Sexton had been shot and needed help. Wilson later told investigators he and the chief were walking back to the police department from the drug store when Sexton suddenly said he saw a man with a gun emerging from one of the neighboring stores and ordered Wilson to shoot him. Wilson said he pulled his .38 out of the holster and fired, but Sexton got in the way of his shot and was struck by the bullet.
Autopsy reports indicate Sexton was struck right above the mouth, and the angle of the bullet indicated he was standing face to face with the shooter. Sexton bled to death and was pronounced dead upon arrival at the hospital.
Testimony during the inquest prompted many questions as to whether the shooting happened as Wilson described.
Sexton was armed with a shotgun that night. Why hadn’t he fired at the alleged intruder himself? Furthermore, there were two shotgun shells from his gun at the scene – one spent. Had he fired, and why hadn’t Wilson mentioned that?
Sexton’s wife testified that three strangers came to her trailer that night and warned her that her husband would be dead by daybreak. Who were the strangers and what was the warning about?
Sexton’s wife also testified her husband asked her not to tell Wilson where he was that night. She said she assumed he didn’t want Wilson to drive the police car to the location and alert people to the stakeout. But in hindsight, was there some reason he didn’t want the other officer to know where he was?
Wilson was charged with murder but eventually plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison and served less than a year. He is currently serving a 16-year sentence in federal prison for drug and gun crimes.
“I don’t think I will ever be able to get the justice for my father that he so rightly deserves,” Watts said. “But the Town of Olanta honoring him means something. Even though this took as long as it did, I feel like we’ve finally gotten him some of the recognition he deserves.”