ATHENS, AL (WAFF) - Fifteen years have passed since two Athens police officers were gunned down while on duty.
The anniversary of their deaths brings back a lot of emotions for the police force and the community.
Ronald Ultz is a retired Athens police lieutenant and like many in the department, he will never forget Jan. 2, 2004. That’s the day the agency lost Sergeant Larry Russell, 42, and Officer Tony Mims, 40.
"There's very few days that I don't think of Larry and of course, Tony was a friend of mine also. Larry, I married his sister, and I knew him when he was three feet tall and knew him all his life. We were lifelong friends. I miss him. I know his family misses him," Ultz said.
Both officers' pictures, along with the other officers killed in the line of duty, are on display in the lobby of APD Headquarters.
Russell and Mims were shot and killed while responding to a call of a man who requested to speak with police. The caller was Farron Barksdale. He opened fire on each of the officers with a rifle as they pulled up to his home on Horton Street.
"Officer Mims was shot before he got out of the car and the car was still in gear, but in soft grass. When Sgt. Russell pulled in to back him up, he climbed out of the car and saw the officer there, not realizing that anything had happened and basically walked into an ambush," Ultz explained.
"He had some mental illness and got into his head that he was going to do bad things. He called them out there and basically in an ambush, killed both officers," he added about Barksdale.
Barksdale was convicted and died less than a week after being transported to a state prison in Montgomery.
The consequences of that one decision are still being felt 15 years later.
“When you lose two officers in a small department in one day, we’re a close knit bunch and it was devastating. And it was not only devastating to the police department and the officers, but the whole city. The city council and the mayor, we were all in a state of shock. It had been a long time since an officer had been killed in the line of duty but nothing as brutal as that,” Ultz stated.
The officers are buried at Roselawn Cemetery in Athens. Two dark granite tombstones mark their graves. Their tombstones are both personalized with different etchings- a tribute to the men and their service. Sgt. Russell’s stone has an engraved picture of him and the Athens Patrol Car he drove. Officer Mims' headstone has his badge number and a wildlife scene because he liked to hunt.
Every year during Police Week, the Athens Police Honor Guard replaces the American flags flying over their grave sites.
"Their day started off like everybody in law enforcement. You're here to protect the city and its citizens and they lost their lives tragically and risked everything to serve people they didn't even know, but it's your job. In my opinion, they're heroes," Ultz said.
It was a tragedy that continues to impact the community and police department.
“Athens never really recovered from the loss of those officers. That was a major blow,” Ultz added. “Every call we answered from that time forward, it goes through your mind, wondering if you’re going to get shot going to the doors. It was one our minds, I can tell you that, all of the officers.”
The officers' legacy lives on.
“I knew Tony for years. I believe his son still works in 911. Larry, his two boys are both in the Air Force. One of his boys followed in his dad’s footsteps and he’s in the military police in the Air Force,” Ultz said. “Larry is looking down from heaven and I know he’s smiling at his boys because I know he’d be proud of them.”
Athens Police Chief Floyd Johnson commented on the anniversary on Wednesday, stating: “Thank you for remembering our fallen officers. It was truly a sad day for our department and one the ones of us that were here will never forget.”