Hendron’s actions helped save lives

Published 3:45 pm Saturday, June 20, 2009

Joel Hendron, a 14-year veteran with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division, was enjoying a day off from his Conservation Enforcement Officer duties in Geneva County earlier this spring when a chance visit to his work truck changed everything.

Little did he know that Michael McLendon, 28, had gone berserk and was in the middle of Alabama’s worst mass shooting rampage in history.

“I just happened to go out to my truck,” Hendron said. “We had range the next day and I’m one of the firearms instructors. I heard the county call for help. (McLendon) had just shot at a trooper on (Highway) 52. So I jumped in my truck and headed that way. I came across him on 52 going into Geneva. I fell in behind him with the trooper and a couple of officers.”

As McLendon drove into Geneva, Geneva officers Lt. Ricky Morgan and Chief Frank Lindsey executed a PIT maneuver to try to make the suspect’s vehicle spin out. The maneuver did spin the car, but McLendon came out firing. He poured numerous rounds into the two Geneva Police vehicles, jumped back into his car and sped off. Lindsey suffered shrapnel wounds. Lindsey was lucky. Six people, several of them McLendon’s relatives, had been gunned down on their front porch, a fact Hendron wasn’t aware of until after the ordeal had ended.

Still several cars back in the chase, Hendron followed McLendon to Reliable Metals in Geneva, a place the killer had worked until 2003.

“He made a sudden turn in there,” Hendron said. “He went in the middle gate. I had to go around everybody and went to the north gate. I could see him driving through the parking lot headed for the north end. The chief deputy was close behind me. He went to the back of building. There’s one door on the back of the building and he pulled right up to the door. I didn’t have time to get into a tactical position. There were some cars parked to the side of the building, so I got behind them. Then the chief deputy pulled into the parking lot to my left. The guy just started shooting the chief deputy’s (Tony Helms) truck up with that AR15. He put 20 rounds in Tony’s truck. Then he switched to an AK-47. That’s when I opened up.”

However, it quickly became obvious that Hendron’s return of fire was not coming from a handgun. He, too, had an AR15, the semi-automatic civilian version of the Army’s M16.

“I had to get out in the middle of the parking lot,” Hendron said. “That’s when I returned fire. Tony had returned fire with his pistol. I couldn’t see (McLendon) because he was hunkered down behind his car. I was just shooting into his car, trying to hit him. With me shooting at him and Tony shooting at him, I guess he just decided that was enough. He dropped his rifles and the AR-15 was still loaded. He had over 800 rounds of ammunition on him and in his car. He went inside the building and shot himself.”

Geneva Mayor Wynnton Melton believes Hendron’s selfless actions put an end to what would have likely been more bloodshed.

“I hope and pray that no one has to go through a day like we did in Geneva County on March 9,” Melton said at the Alabama Conservation Advisory Board meeting in May. “I remind everybody that there’s no safer place to be than your front porch in Samson, Alabama. But that’s where six of these victims lost their lives. None of us are immune. None of us are exempt. But we cannot live in fear. We can respect danger, but we can never be governed by these threats or this fear. But it’s a very comforting feeling that we have these conservation officers out there – people who put their lives on the line every day for us. It makes life a little more comfortable, a little easier. So I join with you in your salute to Joel. Geneva County appreciates you so much.”

The Alabama Bureau of Investigation officers who investigated the shootings agree that the rampage ended when it did because of Hendron’s return of fire.

“When we engaged him – he was shooting everybody and this was the first time anybody had shot back at him,” Hendron said. “The ABI agents think that’s what happened. Everything we’ve been taught in the active shooter classes, one of the things that happens when they get confronted and start getting return fire, they lose that control, that power. The way it usually works is the officers wind up killing them or they kill themselves. When they tried to PIT him in Geneva, he shot their trucks up and hit one of their officers with shrapnel. He was feeling pretty powerful until we started returning fire.”

McClendon’s rampage started when he killed his mother and tried to burn the house down in Coffee County. He then drove to Samson and Geneva. By the time he was confronted by Hendron and Helms, a total of 10 people lay dead.

When Hendron joined the chase nobody knew the extent of McLendon’s rampage.

“All I knew was that he had shot at Mike (the trooper) with a rifle,” Hendron said. “I was just helping out as best I could. We were just trying to figure out how we were going to stop him. It was 4 o’clock in the afternoon and a lot of traffic out. I didn’t know he had killed anybody until after he was dead.”

When McLendon pulled into Reliable Metals, Hendron knew it was time to end it.

“I knew there was another entrance,” Hendron said. “I just wasn’t going to let him out of that parking lot. He wasn’t going to leave. He was going to stay one way or another.”

Hendron’s matching firepower, as well as Helms’ handgun rounds, quickly snatched control from McLendon. He momentarily took refuge inside Reliable and then, facing overwhelming odds, ended it.

“He had a lot of shrapnel wounds,” Hendron said of McLendon. “The bullet fragments were getting to him. The shrapnel wounds were in the left side of his body, which would have been consistent with where he was squatted down behind the car. I couldn’t see him. I knew he was between his open door and his rear tire. I was just putting rounds in his car to try to pin him down because he was just tearing up Tony’s truck.”

However, Hendron and Helms didn’t know the ordeal was over right away.

“We never heard the shot,” Hendron said. “We regrouped and were ready to go in after him. Right before we went in, one of the (Reliable) supervisors ran out and said (McLendon) shot himself right inside the door.

“This is where the firearms training pays off. Practice does help. Tony and I shoot together all the time. My rounds were on target and Tony put four rounds from a .45 into (McLendon’s) car from 165 feet.”

At the aforementioned Advisory Board meeting, Hendron was honored by the ADCNR and the Alabama Conservation Enforcement Officers Association (ACEOA).

“Without question, Officer Hendron played a pivotal role in bringing this tragedy to an end and saving many lives,” said Corky Pugh, Director of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, before Hendron was presented a certificate of appreciation by Assistant Conservation Commissioner Hobbie Sealy. “Without his courage, skill and preparedness, the killing would likely have continued.

“For his conspicuous valor and the distinguished manner in which he represented the Department, it is with great pride that we present him with this token of our esteem and respect.”

Rusty Morrow and Chris Jaworowski of the ACEOA presented a plaque to Herndon, who seems a little shy about all the awards and the attention.

“I appreciate it,” Hendron said. “We were just doing our jobs. Any of our officers would have done the same thing if they were there. I’m no more of a hero that any of the other officers. We’re just glad we were able to put a stop to it before anybody else got hurt.”