The worst day of Todd Entrekin’s law enforcement career came 20 years ago today.
Entrekin, now sheriff of Etowah County, was assistant chief deputy then, when the routine serving of a search warrant resulted in an ambush by the suspect and the death of Chris McCurley, commander of the county’s Major Crime and Drug Task Force.
“It changed law enforcement in this county,” the sheriff said.
The officers who went to the door of that house on Briarcliff Road in Rainbow City didn’t have on bulletproof vests, Entrekin said, not even Rainbow City Sgt. Gary Entrekin, who was in uniform that day, assisting because the warrant was to be served in Rainbow City’s jurisdiction.
Gary Entrekin was seriously wounded — shot several times in the legs — while two other officers, Reserve Deputy Rick Correll and narcotics agent Khris Yancey, suffered less severe wounds.
At the time, the sheriff said, wearing vests to serve a warrant was not the norm; it is now.
“None of our officers had long guns,” Entrekin said. The suspect, Ezra George Peterson, came to the door with an AK-47, pulling the trigger on it so that it was like an automatic weapon.
“Our guys had pistols,” he said. “He had an AK-47 with a 90-round drum.”
In the aftermath, Entrekin said, staff members got out and held roadblocks and groups raised money for bullet-proof vests for all officers, and all officers were equipped with long guns.
“We had problems with communications then. None of the officers could get back to their cars to the radios, and they didn’t have hand-held radios,” Entrekin said.
Entrekin’s predecessor as sheriff, the late James Hayes, described the location at the time as a dead spot for radios.
“Gary was able to get out a 10-00 call,” Entrekin remembered, meaning an officer was down, for all units to respond. “Our officers had to go to neighbors’ houses to call the sheriff’s office.”
Gary Entrekin’s call brought former Rainbow City Police Chief Morris Alexander and Entrekin’s partner, Tommy Watts.
Watts had just finished firearms qualifications at the Gadsden police range that morning. He’d cleaned his shotgun and put it in the back seat of his car, according to a Gadsden Times story in 2008. He stopped his car at the end of the street, pulled on his bulletproof vest and grabbed the shotgun. He ran at least 100 yards, he said, and saw Gary Entrekin lying on his back.
Then he saw a man come out of the garage “shooting at anything that moved.” Peterson was leaning over Gary Entrekin, but ran back in the garage without firing at the already seriously injured officer. That gave Watts time to get in position.
The man had on a bulletproof vest, so Watts went for his legs. He surrendered after he was shot, ending the 12-minute confrontation.
Hayes said at the time of the incident that officers went to the residence and got no response. They were making entry when Peterson opened fire on officers. Hayes said he fired from inside, then came out and fired at officers when they were down. He was wearing body armor; so was his girlfriend, who would be accused of helping him reload his weapon.
“Chris was one of those who would always go in ahead of his men,” Johnny Grant recalled. “That’s what happened to him.”
Grant was head of the Etowah County Detention Center then, having worked in the sheriff’s office and previously as an investigator with the district attorney’s office. He is currently a member of the Etowah County Commission.
While the county’s officers at the scene were not wearing vests, both Entrekin and Grant said they didn’t be think it would have mattered; the injuries McCurley suffered were too severe. An autopsy showed he was shot 12 times.
At any rate, Entrekin said the officers did not believe they faced a special threat from Peterson — living in a nice residential neighborhood in Rainbow City.
“Chris had done his homework,” Entrekin said. “From all the information he’d gathered, he didn’t find anything to indicate he would be a threat to officers.”
“I can’t think of anything that could have been done differently that would have changed things,” Grant said.
Both Entrekin and Grant can recount the events leading up to the ambush; both would have been there but for circumstance.
Entrekin said McCurley had called the day before and said he was going to serve the search warrant, and they talked about how much meth Peterson was selling. “I came in and was going to go with them,” he said, but McCurley told him he first had to talk to a doctor about a prescription case; that the search warrant had been pushed back. Entrekin wasn’t able to go then.
Grant said McCurley came to him at the jail and asked if he knew anything about the suspect. Grant didn’t, but said he would go when they went to serve the warrant. However, when time came to go, Grant had people in his office and he was not able to leave.
“I was still at my desk when the call came in,” he said.
When Grant arrived on Briarcliff Road, the injured officers were still on the ground. “It was hectic getting ambulances in and escorting them out,” he said.
Entrekin said he’d gone home to change clothes when he heard all the radio traffic. He called the sheriff’s office; Hayes told him he was heading that way and told him that it was bad. Entrekin headed to the scene as well, getting there as ambulances were loading the wounded.
Peterson was injured, too, and they had to get him to a hospital for treatment.
“If there’s anything good that came from this, it’s that our officers are better equipped and better trained,” Grant said.
Entrekin said the county hadn’t had much of a SWAT team; now it partners with other law enforcement agencies in the Joint Special Operations Group — a well-equipped unit that is dedicated to training.
But while talking about the changes in local law enforcement after McCurley’s death, Entrekin said he can’t help thinking about the changes McCurley could have made if he lived.
“We’ll talk about it sometimes, ‘if Chris was here, what would he think,’” the sheriff said.
In his time with Etowah County, from 1985 to 1997, he’d already made a number of changes that bettered the office.
Entrekin said computers were just getting to be a big thing, and McCurley was on top of learning to use them in law enforcement. “He was taking classes, and teaching himself,” the sheriff said. “I really believe he would have helped to make the office better.
“He was a special person,” Entrekin said. “He could do anything.”
Grant said he worked with McCurley a lot in his time in the district attorney’s office; he was always making people laugh and was a good man, as well as a good law enforcement officer.
Entrekin also remembers McCurley for his sense of humor, and his dedication as an investigator. He’d been moved to his position as commander of the drug unit not long before the ambush.
It was a career-advancing move, but McCurley expressed some regret to be leaving investigation because he felt the team was making strides against burglars in the county. Those cases might not have gotten the big headlines of a drug bust or murder investigation, but they touched the lives of many people in the county.
In an interview about the time Peterson’s girlfriend was up for parole, McCurley’s widow, Donna McCurley, offered an example of how her husband touched the lives of others.
On Christmas Day 1996, she said, he told her he had to leave for a couple of hours to work. She recalled being mad that he was leaving on Christmas Day; he never explained what he was doing.
After he died, she said, she got a sympathy card from the wife of a man McCurley had put in jail. The man’s wife explained how McCurley had gone to the jail that Christmas Day and taken the man home for a couple of hours that day to spend time with his wife and children.
Peterson had a long criminal record before he ended up in Rainbow City. He was convicted of capital murder and three counts of attempted murder, and in August 1998 was sentenced to die.
He’d already attempted suicide in jail before he was brought to court for sentencing. In February 1999, he hanged himself in his cell at Kilby Correctional Facility.
Peterson’s girlfriend, Connie Tozzi, pleaded guilty to charges of murder and three counts of attempted murder and was sentenced to 40 years in prison. She’s been denied parole thus far and remains in Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women. She will be considered for parole again June 1, 2018, according to the Alabama Department of Corrections website.