When Roger Castleberry started at the Trenton Police Department in 1977 as a tall, dark and handsome 22-year-old with a rakish mustache, he was a small fish in a small pond. The little town had four policemen at that point and he was low man on the totem pole.
As he retires in 2017, he does so as Police Chief Castleberry, as high on the totem pole as a cop can climb in the department. And to keep mixing those metaphors, though Castleberry is now a decent-sized fish, the pond has expanded, too. The Trenton PD has more than doubled, with eight full-time and four part-time officers.
But Trenton's still a fairly little pond, and when The Planet visited the TPD earlier this week it was with the idea of interviewing Castleberry on his 40 years of small-town policing. The Planet particularly had in mind a 2010 episode that in memory had become the "Our Bear" Incident. On that occasion, Castleberry had tracked through downtown Trenton (and recorded for posterity with his car camera) a black bear that had come down from Sand Mountain. The bear did no one harm but furnished several residents some moments of high excitement--and afforded the Local Press a veritable feast of splashy metaphors along the Bear-Went-Over-The-Mountain line.
So that was the line of approach, but what The Planet found instead was that Trenton's top cop--who still has the jaunty mustache, though it, like his hair, has turned gray--had kept scrapbooks of his decades of memories. Those aging snaps and bits of fading newsprint were heady stuff, and the impression they left is that small-town policing can get seriously big-time at the center of the universe.
The scrapbooks cover Castleberry's early years at the department. After he was named police chief in 1994, he was presumably too busy to keep clipping and pasting. Even now, with the expanded department, he can still get called out in the middle of the night when an incident arises.
There was some folksy stuff in the scrapbooks. "What's this one?" asked The Planet. "Why did you take a picture of a tub on somebody's stove?"
"It's a moonshine still," said Castleberry.
The 'shine operation had not been in Trenton proper but out in the county somewhere, explained Castleberry. When he started, the Dade County Sheriff's Department was almost as small as the TPD, so that the two local law enforcement agencies worked together on almost everything, no matter whose turf it was on.
That, incidentally, is another challenge of being town police chief: establishing a working relationship with the county's head lawman, who can change every four years after what in these parts is often a tooth-and-nail election. "Of course, when a new sheriff comes in you deal with it, adjust," said Castleberry.
Politics--and anyone who thinks small towns don't have politics is living in Mayberryland--is the part of the job that Castleberry calls "just basic stuff."
"It's had its problems like any other job," he admits.
But back to the scrapbooks. Another black-and-white photo shows county and city officers working together at some remote site on Lookout Mountain. An airplane had been flying, Castleberry thinks in the late 1970s or early -80s, from Chattanooga to Fort Payne. It never got there. It ended up instead on the mountainside so twisted and broken it was hard to guess how large a plane it had been--except for the number of bodies on the ground beside it.
And those weren't the only fatalities referenced in the scrapbooks. Castleberry says his typical day is traffic, visiting schools, working minor accidents. Even when he attended the FBI National Academy in 1998--a high honor, afforded to only two police officers a state per year--the curriculum covered not just investigation but, as Castleberry put it, "a lot of report writing."
But the sobering fact is, even in a peaceful little town like Trenton, a lot of what a cop deals with day to day is life and death. The scrapbooks cover some fun stuff, like Castleberry posing with Mark "Luke Skywalker" Hamill while the actor was in Trenton filming The Night The Lights Went Out in Georgia. But they also include way too many I-59 deaths for comfort.
Once Castleberry had to chase a lady who was driving the wrong direction on the interstate and he had to watch her end the chase by committing suicide. "She intentionally cut over in front of a tractor-trailer," he said.
He never knew why she did it, but in a place this size of course he knew her. "She used to run a little restaurant here," he said.
Another scrapbook photo shows the ravaged remains of what had once been a Volkswagen Beetle. On the rearview mirror is a sticker of the Budweiser logo, a theme which Castleberry said was reflected in the litter of beer cans that surrounded the wreck. Two brothers had been partying down the highway. Now only one was left.
"The brother was sitting up here on the interstate crying, because his brother was laying there dead," said Castleberry.
Another driver had stopped to offer help. Seeing that it was too late, and seeing the beer cans and the mirror sticker, said Castleberry: "He leaned down and said, 'Well, what you think of drinking and driving now, asshole?' And the fight was on."
But not all the high-drama stuff was automotive. Castleberry remembers one case where an Alabama car salesman had been killed by a hitman.
("Who would hire a hitman to kill a car salesman?" asked The Planet. "Well, I think it came down to the car salesman's wife," said Castleberry.)
The parties were all from Alabama, but the murder had happened in Dade and the hitman was held in the old county jail, since demolished, while the crime was investigated. Castleberry used to have to go over there and unlock doors so the inmates could have their showers. Thus he often had conversations with the hired killer and it still strikes him as weird how un-weird these were.
"You would think that a hitman would be mean," said Castleberry. "But he was just like a normal everyday guy."
A 1970-something shot from Castleberry's first scrapbook. He's the one on the
far right. The others are, left to right, Eddie Kirkland, David Steele and J.C. Carter.
Castleberry also reminded The Planet of something not so normal and everyday, one of Trenton's most bizarre and unsettling moments, in fact. It happened in 1997.
A violent criminal named Scourterrious Lofton had escaped from prison in Huntsville, Ala., in a truck he had stolen from a guard. He crashed on I-59 behind Mountain View subdivision. He jumped a fence, came down into the subdivision, forced his way into a home there and took the occupants hostage.
Guards from Huntsville, the Dade Sheriff's Department and the Georgia State Patrol showed up for the subsequent manhunt and standoff. "Every agency we had around was on it," said Castleberry.
But so was the Trenton PD. "We're the ones who got him," said Castleberry. "As a matter of fact, he shot through the door at me. It wasn't pleasant."
Lofton had a rifle and a pistol, said Castleberry. He'd laid the pistol down on the kitchen bar to put both hands on the rifle. When he did that, the homeowner grabbed the pistol and shot the convict just after the convict had shot at Castleberry.
Lofton recovered from his wound and stood trial in Dade Superior Court. "He got three life sentences plus 400 years," said Castleberry.
All in all, it was a pretty big event for a small-town police department. The Planet had to admit it beat hell out of the bear.
Those are just a few of the memories Castleberry will take with him as he steps down. He says most them are happy.
"The city's been good to me. They took care of me," he said.
And he's tried in turn to take care of the city. He's proud to point out that Trenton is ranked the third-safest city in the tri-state area. "That makes you feel good," he said. "We've got great officers here. This county is blessed with the people we've got."
If you'd like to say goodbye--though don't worry, Castleberry says he's not going much further than Rising Fawn--you have until March 29, when Trenton's top cop officially retires.
But The Planet will go ahead and bid its own adieux in these pages. Here goes:
Over and out, Roger! We'll always have Our Bear.