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DA Says Police Misunderstood Order When They Killed Elderly Man

March 20, 1988

GAINESVILLE, Ga. (AP) _ A prosecutor says police officers misinterpreted an order to ″go on in″ when they broke down the front door of a house, drawing gunfire from an 84- year-old occupant who was then shot and killed by an officer.

Police converged on the home of Dillard Free last Christmas Eve after getting a tip that a rape suspect was hiding there.

A grand jury on March 10 declined to indict the officer who shot Free. A Georgia Bureau of Investigation report on the incident remains sealed because of indictments against two people who directed police to the house and are accused of making false statements.

But in an interview published Sunday in The Times of Gainesville, District Attorney Andy Fuller said he had decided to discuss the GBI’s findings because ″the people of Hall County need to know this information.″

Fuller said the GBI found that six law officers who planned the approach on the Free home remembered that Detective Robert Gable directed them to use the normal procedure for serving an arrest warrant, that is, knock and announce: ″Warrant.″

But officers Lee West, Gary Lenderman and Kirk Williamson, who took up positions in front of the house, were not in the group given that instruction, Fuller said.

Fuller gave this account of the subsequent walkie-talkie conversation: Detective Russell Elrod told the officers: ″Go on in.″ Lendermen seemed surprised and asked: ″You want us to go?″ Elrod answered: ″10-4,″ police parlance for ″yes.″

Elrod meant for the officers to knock on the door, but the officers thought they were being told to enter the house, Fuller said.

West then knocked down the front door and he and Williamson entered the darkened living room while Sgt. Benny Patrick rushed onto the front porch, the district attorney said.

Fuller said Patrick saw a silhouette moving inside and shouted ″Police,″ but a shot was fired that narrowly missed his head. He said West, inside the living room, also shouted ″Police″ and the figure fired again, this time striking a door frame.

West then fired two shots, fatally wounding Free.

Free’s wife, Agnes, 73, was hospitalized suffering from shock. She died March 5, three days after suffering a heart attack.

The grand jury expressed outrage about the shooting despite its decision not to indict West, and called for a review of police procedures.

The Free family has hired a lawyer who said a lawsuit is likely.

The rape suspect the officers were seeking was arrested on Christmas Day in Texas.

Update hourly