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'Truly a calling'
After shootout, wounded deputies eager to be back on the job

COVINGTON - Two Newton County Sheriff's Office deputies who were recently shot in the line of duty appear to not only have survived, but are thriving, and both say they're ready to go back to work.

Deputy James Trent and Deputy Wesley Atha sat down to talk with media Thursday morning at NCSO headquarters and recounted their Aug. 3 ordeal that resulted in both deputies being wounded by an armed gunman who later killed himself.

"We pulled up in the driveway on a suicide threat call," Trent said. "I pulled in the driveway and Wesley pulled in behind me. Basically, from that point, it all went downhill."

Atha, a member of the NCSO for more than two years, was shot twice - once in the arm and once in the back - his bulletproof vest stopping that round from doing life-threatening damage.

Trent, a deputy since February 2008, was shot in the chin and the bullet exited through his neck.

The deputies went to the home at 360 Parker Road after they received a call that a man inside had a gun and was threatening suicide. Trent said knowing the man had a gun made them cautious, but they did not pull their weapons, nor were they even able to approach the man.

"When I exited my vehicle, we began taking fire from a window of the house," Trent said. "I had just enough time to get out and realize he was shooting. I could feel the bullet and was taking cover. It was kinda like a blur ... all (happening) at the same time.

"I hit the ground trying to take cover and went to the back of my vehicle ... I rolled over and tried to find Wesley. I saw Wesley at the back of his vehicle and at that time, he was realizing (what was happening), too, when he saw me go down. It's hard to say what goes through your mind. I was just trying to find him."

Atha said everything happened really fast.

"Pretty much by the time we hit the ground, (the shooter) was done. It was fast. I just stepped out of my car and saw (Trent) go down behind his car, so I did the same," Atha said. "The only round I actually felt hit me was the one in the back as I was turning to go behind my car. ... I fell down behind my car and slipped in the mud. I fell on my arm and when I went to push up, I couldn't push up on my arm. I thought I'd broken it from the fall, but when I looked closer, I could see the entry wound where the bullet went in."

Trent's radio wasn't working and it wasn't until much later that the reason for the malfunction came to light. The portion of the radio that the deputy wore around his waist was also struck by a bullet.

"Wesley kept radio traffic the whole time. He did a phenomenal job," Trent said.

Atha said he used what he called the "Holy-crap-everybody-come-I-need-help" button on his radio that is designed for officers to summon assistance in an emergency.

The men said they were doing their best to protect each other as they had no idea where the shooter was.

"A lot of it was reaction. There was a time when me and Wesley actually took cover together ... The problem was after he shot, we didn't know where he was ... We thought he might come out of the house and come around, so we just got back-to-back and covered each other until somebody got there," Trent said.

Atha said from what he could see of Trent, he was more concerned for him than for himself.

"He had made it over to some woods away from his vehicle. All I could see was him holding his neck and blood coming out. I didn't know where he had been hit," Atha said. "(I didn't know) if he'd been hit in that artery right there (in his neck) or not and I knew I might need to get over there and put some pressure on that neck so he wouldn't bleed to death."

The first EMS assistance came from Butts County, and they discovered Trent's wounds were miraculously not life-threatening.

"I thought I'd taken a straight shot to the throat because that's where all the pain was," he said, but the EMS crew was able to tell the bullet had clipped his chin, entered his neck and gone out. "I found the bullet in my shirt."

Atha said he still has the bruise on his back where the round hit his vest.

"I knew I was hit in the back, but with the arm, something to do with the nerves, I guess, I didn't feel it when I was hit," he said. Atha said he has felt it plenty since, however, and may need additional surgery. He is expected to make a full recovery.

The deputies were taken to Atlanta Medical Center during rush hour traffic, but fellow law enforcement officers saw to it there was no delay.

"Every agency up through there helped," Atha said.

"I can't applaud them enough - Butts County, Rockdale County, especially our county and Atlanta P.D.," Trent said. "From what I understand, they cleared the roadway. When we got to (Interstate) 75, they shut it down for us. There couldn't have been a better response or better camaraderie."

And although the deputies have been trained on how to respond to such a life and death situation, their families have not.

Atha's wife, Brittany, has recently gone back to work as a school teacher at Ficquett Elementary. Jennifer Trent was at the press conference and recalled her ordeal that afternoon.

"I was at home and people started calling me asking what's going on in the county," she said, adding that she'd heard cars going past her home and her son called and said he'd seen several NCSO units going out.

"People called to say it was on the news," she said. "This is how God works. I went in the living room and the cable was out, but I called a good friend that we go to church with who works in the jail, and he was on his way to my house to tell me."

She said the friend assured her that her husband was fine, saying only that he'd been in an accident.

"Of course, you think the worst ... I didn't know he was shot until (the friend) got to the house," she said. "I had my 17-year-old son with me, and he just stopped and said, 'Mama, let's just pray about it,' and we did ... that peace and calm came over me, and I knew he was going to be OK."

Jennifer Trent said she has no doubt that God was looking after both deputies, pointing out that an inch worth of difference either way could have been fatal for her husband.

"I was very, very thankful that God had his hand on both of us," James Trent said.

"These two boys love the Lord. They pray over their team every morning ... they're God's warriors, and I think he had exactly who he wanted, where he wanted and he used them," Jennifer Trent said. "If anything good comes out of this whole thing, it will be that God gets the glory for what he's done. We send our condolences to the other family. I know they're going through a lot.

"After I knew Jim was fine, I was so broken-hearted over that little boy (20-year-old Thomas Powell who turned the .22-caliber gun he used on the deputies on himself). I kept thinking, if he had just come outside and just talked to Jim for five minutes, he could have loved him through it."

And although NCSO Chief Deputy Jerry Carter said he sees the deputies as heroes, both of them shook their heads.

"Had we been able to save that kid, yeah," Atha said.

"These deputies are exemplary of the kind of men we want out on the road," Carter said, adding that he agreed with the comment Jennfier Trent had made earlier that law enforcement is a calling and not everyone can do what is required by the job. "They do a good job. They don't complain. This is truly a calling."

Barbara Knowles can be reached at barbara.knowles@newtoncitizen.com.