SAVANNAH — A Georgia sheriff died after crashing his patrol truck on a rural highway while helping chase a suspect who had fired gunshots at other law enforcement officers, authorities said Tuesday.
Montgomery County Sheriff Ladson O'Connor, 42, was killed in a single-vehicle wreck as deputies and Georgia state troopers tried to stop the fleeing driver, said Special Agent Eve Rodgers of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
O'Connor was a newcomer to law enforcement who was midway through his first term as sheriff after being elected in 2012, said Terry Norris, executive director of the Georgia Sheriffs' Association. Norris said he believes O'Connor is the first Georgia sheriff killed in the line of duty in more than 20 years.
"I talked to him last week, and he was dedicated to being the sheriff," Norris said. "He was honest as the day is long and he worked hard."
The fatal crash happened on Georgia Highway 56 near Mount Vernon, about 100 miles west of Savannah, in the rural region of southeast Georgia where farmers grow famously sweet Vidalia onions.
Rodgers said the chase began late Monday shortly before midnight in neighboring Toombs County. Deputies assisting a motorist on the roadside noticed an approaching vehicle turn suddenly as though the driver hoped to avoid being spotted, she said. The driver fled when the deputies tried to stop him.
The fleeing driver fired gunshots at three law officers during the chase, which O'Connor joined when the pursuit crossed into Montgomery County, Rodgers said. The sheriff crashed and died at the scene, she said. No other details about the wreck were immediately available.
The chase ended when officers used spiked strips to deflate the tires of the fleeing vehicle, which crashed, Rodgers said. A passenger, 36-year-old Nicole Dixie Best, was arrested at the scene. The man who had been driving ran away.
Hours later, deputies arrested 35-year-old Jim Edward Lowery and charged him with three counts of aggravated assault on a law-enforcement officer and with attempting to elude authorities. Rodgers said charges against Best were pending. It was not immediately known if the suspects had defense attorneys.
A woman who answered the phone at the sheriff's office Tuesday said no one there could speak with a reporter.
Norris said he believes the last Georgia sheriff killed on duty was Sheriff Marcus Lee Hall Sr. of Jeff Davis County. Hall died June 21, 1992, in a shootout with a man suspected of killing his own wife. Authorities say Hall returned fire and killed the gunman.
Norris said he met O'Connor a few times since the sheriff took office 2 ½ years ago. He said O'Connor frequently called to ask for advice, estimating they had spoken up to 30 times by phone.
"He was learning on the job," Norris said. "I think the real basis for his success was his character. I think he wanted to make things better for the people in Montgomery County."