BY JOE BUCK COATES
Twenty-seven years might seem like a long time for some people. “I graduated from high school 27 years ago . . .can you believe that?” or, “We’ve been married 27 years” or, I’ve worked for ABC Company for 27 years” are sentences that many of us have said or heard, more or less, in our lifetimes. We use such language to relay and impress on others the enormity of that length of time. Twenty-seven years. . .
The headline of front page the Copiah County Courier from Wednesday, March 28, 1984, said “State trooper, assailant killed in shootout here Friday night.” A photo under the headline showed a smashed up state trooper vehicle, three individuals who were investigating or surveying the damage and a white box at the bottom of the photo, placed there by then-editor Jim Lambert as a concealing mechanism. Behind the white box is the body of the assailant of 30-year-old rookie State Trooper Steven K. Gardner, lying in a pool of his own blood on Hwy. 51 at Sinclair Street on the south end of Hazlehurst.
Trooper Gardner had been shot several times around 10:30 p.m., Friday, March 23, 1984, by a man named Herman L. Ayers, 36, of Crystal Springs. Gardner had stopped Ayers earlier in the day for a traffic violation. The article said that Ayers “. . . had a history of mental problems”. Another sidebar article said that Ayers had spent time at Veterans Administration Medical Center in Jackson for treatment for paranoid schizophrenia.
Lambert went on to tell that Ayers had stalked Gardner that day after the traffic stop. Later, upon discovering that Gardner was a sitting duck in his parked trooper car along Highway 51 at the southern end of Hazlehurst, Ayers rammed his older model Chevy into the back of Gardner’s vehicle at a high rate of speed.
After the accident, Gardner radioed he’d been rammed, gathered his senses and got out to check on Ayers–whom Gardner did not recognize at the time–asking “are you hurt?” A witness at the scene reportedly said that Ayers replied “Hell yeah, I’m tore up.”
As Gardner turned to his vehicle to call for help, and Ayers took advantage of the opportunity, firing all shots from his .22 caliber pistol, striking Gardner four times and knocking Gardner down.
Gardner, who was wearing a bullet-proof vest, was not dead when he fell to the ground after Ayers shot him several times. The first bullet struck Gardner’s left side, just inside the unprotected part of his body under his left arm. The bullet penetrated all the way to his lung.
One of the bullets struck and broke the officer’s right, or firing, arm. Ayers came over to Gardner, most likely to finish the job. When Gardner turned over, he lifted his right arm with his left, aiming dead at Ayers’ head. Gardner squeezed off only one round from his .357 Magnum service revolver, striking Ayers right between the eyes and killing Ayers instantly. Moments later, police officers and medics arrived and began working on Gardner and transported him alive to Hardy Wilson Hospital. But the four gunshots he received–one in the stomach, one in the right arm, one in his left side and one to his head–were fatal, and he was pronounced dead–four months to the day he graduated from the academy– only 30 years old.
The funeral procession for Steven was “at least five miles long,” said his father, Jimmy Gardner. “Every trooper, every police officer of every type was at the funeral and in the procession that day,” he added.
Steven’s body is interred in Terry Cemetery.
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When Steven joined the Mississippi Highway Patrol in 1978 he was too short to be a trooper, so he took a position in the communications end of the agency.
“He so wanted to be a trooper, but he was just glad he had a job with MHP,” Jimmy explained.
Some years later, MHP relaxed its admission standards so that they could widen their recruiting field. Steven jumped at the chance and applied to the state trooper academy.
On his application he wrote, “The prestige of a state trooper is far greater than any other law enforcement agency. I hope to be able to serve the people of Mississippi in the capacity. May 31, 1983”
Not only was he accepted to the academy, but he also graduated in the next class and soon after began patrolling the roadways of the state.
Copiah County Sheriff and former state trooper Harold Jones remembers Gardner as a special friend and for a very special reason–Gardner took over Jones badge number, M11, after Jones had been promoted to another position.
“I had just talked to Steven a few days before he died and asked him if he was taking good care of my old badge number and just to check on him,” Jones said. “Of course he said, ‘Yep, sure am’.”
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Jimmy Gardner turned 84 on May 20. He lives in a modest, 90-year-old two story farm house on about 100 acres on Lebanon Pine Grove Road northeast of Terry–the same one he’s been in for 45 years. The place is quiet, away from the noise and bustle of I-55 and the thousands of vehicles that take the Terry exit each day.
He used to raise soybeans over in Hermanville to make a living for himself, his wife Jamie and his two sons, Steven and James, Jr. Hard times caused him to relinquish the farming and now he keeps his property tidy with a few of his old tractors and bush hogs. He even has a runway, or landing strip, on the back of his property that he maintains. He also raises homing pigeons.
Many days you may catch him and his helper working on one of the tractors. Most recently, he had pulled a gear box out of the rear of an old Case and was awaiting an $800 gear to arrive from Minnesota so he could repair the tractor and get back to clipping.
He was a little irritated that the grass on his property was several inches tall because of the broken tractor. “It has never been this high,” he grumbled.
He’s had one knee totally replaced, but is in excellent shape.
“I can get around pretty well. The new knee took some getting used to, but I haven’t had any pain since the operation,” Jimmy said.
He has always worked to provide for his family. “Jamie hadn’t worked in years. She stayed at home raising the boys and taking care of the household and such,” Jimmy explained, as if it were never an issue.
Jimmy was in the middle of building a new home for the two–a simple ranch-style plan–a few hundred yards behind the old home, when Jamie died of cancer in 2009.
“It came on quick. They thought it was in her breast and took measures to correct it. When she wasn’t getting better after a while, she went back in, and they discovered the cancer was in her knee,” Jimmy said. It was too late for any kind of medical intervention at that point, and Jamie died shortly after that,” Jimmy added.
“I miss her, you know,” Jimmy said. “She was a very sweet lady who loved us all.”
Recently, he has begun working on the new home again, hoping to get it finished by fall.
Steven’s brother James Clell, worked for Texaco for several years and has recently retired.
“Both of my boys grew up and succeeded and took care of themselves,” Jimmy added.
Each year the Department of Public Safety holds a memorial service at the Terry cemetery in honor of Steven. A larger one is held in downtown Jackson as well. “That’s where they read all the officers’ names that have been killed in the line of duty,” Jimmy said.
The Gardner’s neighbor and friend of almost five decades, Connie Bynum, looks in on Jimmy from time to time. Connie also was a major care-giver to Jamie in her final days. She’s seen the toll that Steven’s death has taken on the couple.
“It has been very hard on both of them, understandably. They just have never gotten over it,” Connie said.
Jimmy has been alone since 2009 after Jamie’s death. “He misses her so very much, but he knows that she is not suffering anymore,” Bynum added.
Twenty-seven state troopers have been killed in the line of duty.
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Twenty-seven years ago Trooper Steven K. Gardner lost his life in the line of duty. No official marker has been placed, nor in any other way has his sacrifice been recognized, at the site on Hwy. 51 on the southern edge of Hazlehurst where Steven was killed in 1984. (Visit his online memorial page at (http://www.odmp.org/officer/5283-trooper-steven-k-gardner.)
That will all change come next Tuesday, June 7. Through the efforts of Rep. Greg Holloway, the state legislature, the Hazlehurst city board, Highway Commissioner Dick Hall, Tommy Bell of Crystal Springs and Courier publisher Joe Coates, new signs will be unveiled, renaming Hwy. 51 “Trooper Steven K. Gardner Memorial Highway,” between the north and south city limits of Hazlehurst.
An official ceremony is scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. The highway will be closed at the intersection of 51 and Monticello Street. The public is invited.
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In September of 2010, while serving as president of the Hazlehurst Chamber of Commerce, I had appeared on the local radio show In Touch Tuesday to promote the upcoming Rockin’ Railroad Festival.
After the program, I got a call from Mr. Tommy Bell from Crystal Springs, who need some help. “I heard you say on the radio that the Chamber serves everyone and to contact you if I needed assistance with anything,” Bell told me.
“Yes sir, that’s what I’m here for,” I replied.
“Back in 1984 a highway patrol officer was killed in Hazlehurst and nothing’s ever been done about remembering him,” Bell said.
“You know, you’re right. I remember when that happened,” I replied.
We continued to talk for a while. Bell reminded me of the slain trooper’s name, Steven K. Gardner. He told me that Jimmy was still living “somewhere in Hinds County near Terry” but had no idea how to contact him.
Sometime later, after the September 25 festival and nearing November, I bumped into Dist. 76 Rep. Gregory Holloway. We talked about what could be done to properly honor Officer Steven K. Gardner, M-11. He immediately offered his services as a state representative, and as a friend.
A few more weeks went by as I researched the article that Jim Lambert had written and the accompanying obituary for Steven in that week’s paper, making several inquiries online as to the whereabouts of Steven’s parents. All came up short.
“Dang it, this is never going to get done!” I thought on several occasions late in 2010 and early in 2011. I had several other interests pulling me away from focusing just on the project: Christmas was nearing; we were very busy around here; basketball games were in full swing; and, we were enjoying the Christmas season with friends and family.
Greg and I took the task back up after the New Year. He went to session with the rest of the legislature. And, during the typical slow January time, I was able to put a little more focus on our project.
We printed a newspaper article about our mission to honor Officer Gardner a few weeks later, hoping that we could indirectly reach some of his kin.
Then came a break. Connie contacted us to tell us she read the article in the paper and told Jimmy about what we were doing. “We are just so thrilled that y’all are doing this for Steven,” she said during that first conversation.
I was able to finally hook up with Jimmy in mid-May for this interview. In the meantime, Representative Holloway attached the language in HB 251 (in shaded box) that was passed by the legislature and signed into law by Governor Barbour, opening the way for the Mississippi Highway Department to rename Hwy. 51 through Hazlehurst in Steven’s honor.
Greg also is responsible for lining up the VIP’s who will be speaking – Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall, Department of Public Safety Commissioner, Albert Santa Cruz and others. He has been an invaluable resource.
“I am very proud to be involved in something as honorable, historic and significant as the renaming of Highway 51 through the city limits of Hazlehurst as the Steven K. Gardner Memorial Highway,” Holloway said recently. “This tribute is so special because this man lost his life protecting others. Mere words cannot express my gratitude for his sacrifice.”
He added, “I am thankful to have been able to introduce the legislation honoring this outstanding state trooper.”
I, too, am grateful for the opportunity to have worked on this project. Although I was only 13 when Steven was killed, the incident made an impression on me that will last a lifetime.
BY JOE BUCK COATES