When Cpl. Eric Sanders, a conservation ranger with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, came upon an illegal dump site in an unfinished Rockdale County subdivision in January, it appeared typical. Someone's personal belongings lay in a heap. Sanders figured a house had been rented or sold and the former occupants' items cleared out and left for trash.
Then, Sanders kicked open a book and out fell savings bonds.
"I thought 'Please don't let it be what I think it is,'" Sanders said.
Thus began Sanders' investigative journey that ended in a financial bonus for an elderly person and a highly coveted law enforcement award for Sanders.
In August, the Peace Officers Association of Georgia presented Sanders with the 2009 Peace Officer of the Year for Meritorious Service award for his efforts in finding $10,000 in savings bonds and locating the person to whom they belonged.
"It means a job well done. I did what I took the oath to do - protect and serve," Sanders said.
Sanders said immediately after finding the bonds, he verified that they remained active, and then he visited the address he found amidst the belongings at the dump site. There he found even more unexpected information.
The person to whom the bonds belonged was Mary Morris, who now lived in the Yellow Brick House, an assisted living center in Lithonia. Her relatives had paid someone to clean out the house and had no idea that the belongings were dumped illegally.
"I showed them the $10,000 in bonds. They were very excited. They had no more money and were trying to come up with money to keep (Mrs. Morris) in (assisted living). This allowed them to finish remodeling the home and keep her in (assisted living)," Sanders said.
In March, Sanders presented Morris with the savings bonds and a watch he had also found at the site. The watch had been given to Mrs. Morris by her late husband George Morris for their first anniversary.
"When I gave her the watch, she was overwhelmed," Sanders said.
The two have since struck up a friendship and during a recent visit together at Yellow Brick House, Sanders and Morris chatted about an upcoming barbecue at Union Methodist Church and how they know members of each others' families.
"I was happy," Morris said about Sanders finding the bonds. "We used it to fix my house."
An employee of the Georgia DNR for 27 years, Sanders said his position requires him to cover Rockdale, DeKalb and Gwinnett counties, with most of his work being complaint-driven. Residents primarily call to report illegal hunting and dumping, though Sanders has been known to arrest drug dealers and armed robbers while making his rounds.
The corporal also responds to emergencies across the state and even out of state. Because he volunteers on the Georgia Body Recovery Team, formed after 9/11, he served in New Orleans after Katrina, locating and extracting the remains of those killed in the storm.
Between responding to calls, Sanders educates the public, including school, church and civic groups, on issues related to the environment, and he appears in television programs related to the outdoors that air on Channel 23.
Sanders' supervisor, Sgt. Lee Brown of the Georgia DNR, nominated Sanders for the Peace Officer of the Year award. He said Sanders pays particular attention to illegal dumping and is adept at investigating sites to determine the culprits.
"Eric is an exceptional employee. He is willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done," Brown said.
A Newton County native, Sanders lives in Rockdale County with his wife, Jill, and four sons - Justin, 22; Joshua, 20; Tyler, 16; and Patrick, 14. He said he enjoys the flexibility and variety involved in his job.
"I love my job and I love the outdoors," said Sanders, an avid hunter and fisherman.
For Sanders, this is not the first honor he's received from the Peace Officers Association of Georgia, a nonprofit professional organization representing law enforcement. In 1990, Sanders earned the Peace Officer of the Year for Valor award for saving three people from the Broad River in Elbert County.
"Now, I've completed the cycle," said Sanders of the awards.
The Peace Officer Association honored Sanders at an annual convention on Jekyll Island in August and he'll be recognized by the Georgia House of Representatives and Senate.
When asked if the award provides any financial compensation, Sanders chuckled.
"My bonus is that Miss Mary is being able to live in a nice assisted living home. You just couldn't give me any more money than that," Sanders said.