LOGANVILLE, Ga. - Melinda Herman was at home, working upstairs in her office, when she saw a man coming to her front door. Her 9-year-old twins were off from school that day. Don't answer it, she yelled downstairs, as the doorbell rang several times. From her window, Herman watched the man return to his silver SUV. Instead of leaving, he pulled out a crowbar and turned back for the front door with the decorative wreath.
By the time Herman called her husband at work to say an intruder was in the house, she had rushed both children into an upstairs bedroom and locked two doors behind her. She also had retrieved a .38 from the gun safe. The only place left to hide was a crawl space that led to the attic, and that's where Herman crouched, with her son and daughter beside her and a revolver in her hand.
"Just remember everything that I showed you, everything that I told you, all right?" Donnie Herman told his wife, juggling phones. "Melinda, I'm on the phone with 911. They are dispatched right now."
Walton County sheriff's deputies barreled toward the subdivision off Sharon Church Road, but the intruder reached the crawl space first. When he opened the door, Herman fired six times.
The 37-year-old mother emptied her revolver as the national gun debate was reaching its most fevered pitch in the weeks after the school massacre in Newtown, Conn. Melinda Herman became an instant hero to gun owners facing new restrictions on firearms. While the intruder lay in a hospital, clinging to life, the National Rifle Association tweeted about GA MOM. The 911 tape of Donnie Herman yelling to his terrified wife, "Shoot him! Shoot him again!" played over and over on the news, fueling hours of programming on Fox News and radio call-in shows.
Here in Walton County, 30 miles east of Atlanta, there was no debate. People went out and bought guns. More conceal-and-carry weapons, and more "home guns for the ladies," says John Deaton, owner of Deaton's Gun Shop in Loganville.
Four months later, the satellite trucks are gone, and the man who broke into the Herman house is in prison. But far from closure, Walton County remains in a state of vigilance. The crime continues to occupy the imagination. Four months later, and still the first question asked when the Walton County sheriff speaks to the Rotary Club or Center Hill Baptist is about the Jan. 4 home invasion. Here where the subdivisions are hacked from red Georgia clay, among whippoorwills, T-ball and Olive Garden, the citizenry is ready.
'We don't want to become Atlanta," Walton County Sheriff Joe Chapman says, sitting behind his desk at the sheriff's office. His department's policy on apprehending people who try to outrun the law is simple: "We will chase you, wreck you and get you."
When Chapman, 49, was a boy growing up in the county, hunting in the mornings before school, the sheriff at the time had three deputies covering 330 square miles of rural territory between Athens and Atlanta. The general store in Good Hope still sells biscuits and jig head lures, but today, as sheriff, Chapman has 178 deputies covering what's now considered metro Atlanta, with 86,000 residents, many of them newly armed.
He holds up a flier. The Citizens Firearms Training Course offered by the sheriff's office has been oversold for four months. New classes fill instantly. "You can't even get on the waiting list," Chapman says. On the last Saturday of every month, he lets the public use the department's firing range, free of charge.
Six-foot-two and going silver, Chapman came to represent the gun-loving Deep South when the microphones were stuck in his face. "The guy from CNN asked me about assault weapons," he says, smiling. "To me an assault weapon is a Mark 19 grenade launcher." He is exaggerating. His basic point is that citizens have a right to protect themselves. He will do everything he can to ensure that they are trained and responsible gun owners.
'It's not natural'
After the home invasion, Chapman was deluged with mail at the sheriff's office. Most of it was for Melinda Herman. Please tell Mrs. Herman congratulations. God bless this mother. A man in New York wanted to send her a box of bullets. Another wanted to send her guns in case the government imposed new laws.
Herman never joined the fray. She has declined to speak publicly. All that stands is the account of her interview with sheriff's deputies, typed out on a single page in the case file:
Mrs. Herman stated the subject came in the bathroom and opened the crawl space door. Mrs. Herman stated she started shooting at the subject. Mrs. Herman stated she kept shooting at the subject and the subject started yelling please stop.
Mrs. Herman stated she realized she had shot all of her rounds in the weapon. Mrs. Herman stated she kept yelling at him to stay down. Mrs. Herman stated she told him if he tried to get up, she would shoot him again. Mrs. Herman stated she grabbed her kids and they ran downstairs.
The deputies' report does not mention the blood, the walls, the carpet or the screaming and crying. Nor does it say that the revolver Herman used was loaded with ammunition from a visit to a gun range a week before.
"Her husband had just talked her into learning how to shoot," says Capt. Greg Hall, chief of detectives, sitting across the desk from the sheriff. "You've got two little kids trying to hide behind mama. The lady did what any mother would do."
But Hall knows this is not true. Some people can't pull the trigger. They panic, they freeze, they drop the gun, they soil themselves, they struggle with the slide or they delay, and for this reason, he doesn't have much patience for the Dirty Harry jubilation that surrounds the Herman case. "It's not natural to shoot someone," Hall says. "It's not natural to poke holes in someone."
Herman fired six shots, missing only once. Paul Ali Slater, 32, an unemployed father of six, was shot five times in the face and torso. He made it back to his vehicle but crashed a few blocks away. He barely survived his injuries. Last month, Slater was sentenced to 10 years in prison. He told the judge that he thought the Herman's house was empty when he broke in to steal.
Sitting at his desk, Chapman says Slater sought out Herman and her children, bypassing a purse on a counter and a big-screen TV to reach the crawl space, breaking through two locked doors in his path.
"Mr. Slater," the sheriff begins, and then stops. "I hate to call a criminal 'Mr.' "
He tries again: "How 'bout 'perpetrator Slater,' 'dirtbag Slater.' "
Chapman looks over the latest numbers on concealed-weapon permits issued in the county. More permits have been processed in the first four months of this year - 1,434 - than in all of 2012. If anything positive has come from the home invasion, Chapman says, it's the public-service message: "It's telling the criminal element, 'I can get my ass shot up doing this.' "
'Crime is moving out'
Sharon Church Road in Loganville winds through subdivisions that slope off in big hunks of brick, flagstone, pine and crape myrtles. It's hard to tell one from the next. Anita Brown lives in Cedar Lake Estates, and she's "a hundred percent positive" of one thing:
"He came to my house before he went to the Hermans'," says Brown, 38. "I saw him drive up."
A hospital insurance specialist who works from home, Brown says she was in her office when she saw an SUV pull into her driveway. The man who got out was wearing a hoodie and baggy jeans, "clothes we would never wear," Brown says, meaning the residents of Cedar Lake Estates. She grabbed her phone and went outside before he could make it to her front door.
He said he was looking for a coach, according to Brown. He was vague when she asked for specifics. "Where's he coach at?" Brown asked. The man retreated to his vehicle and left. Brown went inside to cook lunch. She did not hear the gunshots a few cul-de-sacs away at the Hermans' house.
"If she hadn't shot him, we'd be having a murder trial right now," Brown says. "I firmly believe that."
Brown organized a meeting for shaken residents. Although she expected just a few neighbors, 113 people showed up, and the Sharon Community Watch Program was born. Brown now helps oversee what feels like a town unto itself: 14 subdivisions, each with sectional coordinators.
"Crime is moving out," Brown says. "It will not be tolerated. We want to keep our area nice."
The menace is hard to see. Outside, the streets are wide and empty. Garage doors are down, and driveways are vacant until about 6, when the red or blue or champagne-colored trucks with Bluetooth and GPS arrive home.