But Brown describes how it used to be. She and her husband, a machinist, and their teenage son would go to sleep at night in their $180,000 brick house without locking the solid-mahogany front door. Closing it was good enough. Brown can't remember when they even used the locks. "We'd be on vacation in Panama City," she says, "and one of our neighbors would call, and I'd say, 'Where are you?' and they'd say, 'I'm standing in your kitchen.' "
Now the Sharon Community Watch Program is a part-time job. Born in Louisiana, Brown is honey and steel: lovely and gracious and in possession of several firearms. She treads a fine line on guns in the watch program. "If you don't understand a gun, having one is more dangerous than not having one," Brown says. "For instance, my mother-in-law couldn't pull a trigger if she wanted to. Now, Miss Peggy and Mr. Don behind me, they are strong believers in the NRA. After the incident, they took an elderly group to the gun range to practice."
Miss Peggy and Mr. Don are among the watch members who want to invite the NRA to speak to the homeowners. So far, Brown has resisted, concerned that the NRA might politicize the group. Instead, she brings in law enforcement officers, gun-safety instructors and home-security sales reps. "Options are important," Brown says.
Above all, she stresses vigilance, which is new for a lot of people here. Brown knows almost all the vehicles in her subdivision of about 50 homes. She has trained herself to be aware of bumper stickers and other identifying characteristics. She knows who belongs in Cedar Lake Estates and who doesn't, and the man she says stopped at her house in a silver SUV did not belong. "We know everyone who's from here," she says.
"The other week, we had a van come though," Brown recalls. From her living room window, she counted five occupants - "three males and two females" - who fanned out into the neighborhood selling OxiClean disinfectant wipes and products. Brown was outside, in her yard, before the first man could reach her front door. "He had that little wipe in his hand," she says. "I said, 'We don't do that here.' "
'Daddy broke the law'
Eight miles from Sharon Church Road, in a subdivision of more-modest homes, the silver SUV is parked in the driveway of a two-story brick house.
The Mercury Mountaineer has never handled right since the sheriff's office released it to Slater's wife, a 37-year-old elementary school teacher.
"Let's go," Zakia Slater calls to two of her sons, who have just inhaled dinner and are 20 minutes from the start of basketball practice. They load into the SUV. As Zakia backs out of the driveway, the steering wheel shimmies.
"Mom, it's obviously not safe," the 9-year-old boy says.
"It certainly isn't," Zakia says, trying to conceal one more frustration in a life now built on them.
Suddenly she is on her own with six children, and her husband is known as "that guy who got shot by the lady." She owes a lawyer $7,500. Her phone rings with collect calls from jail.
"I want to see Daddy," her youngest daughter says. "When are we gonna be able to see Daddy?"
"Daddy broke the law," she says.
The community that Paul Slater upended includes his own family. His wife of nine years was so frightened by the public outrage that she slept with a knife under her mattress. She spent her days in her classroom with "The Legend of the Bluebonnet" and her nights in a chair at the hospital for five weeks. This went on as teachers and colleagues from school came to her house with casseroles, lasagna and red velvet cake. One crocheted a scarf for her. "We're praying for you," they said.
She has prayed a lot herself. Zakia can't explain why her husband broke into a house with a crowbar. She imagines Herman and her children, "scared out their minds," she says. But her husband said he was looking for jewelry, not people. Her fiercest conviction is that he had no intention of hurting anyone. "I can never imagine him doing anything like that," she says.
To which Capt. Hall of the sheriff's office says, "Bless her heart."
Slater had been charged with theft one other time. He also had been charged on two occasions with assaulting his wife.
"I told him that's not acceptable," Zakia says, realizing the contradictions of the relationship. Not long before the home invasion, she told him, "This is your chance to do better."
She believes that he was so close to doing better. In her bedroom are photos of Paul Slater with his son's basketball team and a crayon drawing that says, "I love you mom and dad."
On the day of Paul Slater's sentencing, Zakia doesn't go to the courthouse.
She goes to work. She needs a job.
She also decides that her family needs a system if it is to function. Paul Slater worked sporadically, but he took care of the cooking, laundry and driving kids to karate. Zakia gathers everyone in the living room. The youngest is 8, and the oldest, a freshman at a nearby college, 18. "Here's how it's gonna be," their mother says: Each school night will follow a schedule, from homework to chores to dinner to prayers to showers before bed. Grocery shopping will be done once a week - "No more $350 trips," she announces - and purchases will be based on the menu for the coming week. Everyone who can is drafted into helping with dinner. Zakia makes chicken curry. Her 16-year-old son makes spaghetti. Her 11-year-old daughter makes fish sticks.
About 9 one school night, she's working on lesson plans when she hears foolishness upstairs. "Be firm with them," she calls up to the 16-year-old, a bookish junior at a math and science magnet high school who would rather be on his computer than corralling younger siblings. "Shower and bed, that's it."
Next to her is a worn copy of "A Lineage of Grace" by Francine Rivers. It's about five women chosen by God to overcome extraordinary challenges. "I read this a lot lately," she says, with a weary smile.
On Zakia's laptop, she still has the letter she wrote to the Hermans from her husband's hospital room. He was on a ventilator, shot in the liver and lungs, with a shattered jaw and broken teeth.
Dear Family, the letter begins.
My six children and I would like to sincerely apologize for my husband's intrusion in your home. We regret that you and your children had to endure this tragedy and be put in a situation you never would have imagined being in. We understand you felt you and your children's life was threatened and took appropriate action, but we believe his intentions were not to harm you in any way.
She never sent the letter.
As time has passed, the same unease that affects the rest of Walton County has settled in her.
Deciding that a knife under a mattress wasn't enough, she went to a pawnshop and bought a gun.