CHICKAMAUGA, Ga. — The last walk that Ronald Westbrook took began as early as 1 a.m. when he slipped unnoticed from his North Georgia home with his two dogs.
It ended three hours later when Westbrook, a 72-year-old who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, knocked in the dark on a stranger’s door last month. Police said a man inside that home, 34-year-old Joe Hendrix, got a .40-caliber handgun, went outside to investigate and shot Westbrook in a horrible mistake.
The unlikely collision between two strangers — one deeply confused, another perceiving a threat — illustrates both the difficulties that caregivers face in keeping loved ones with Alzheimer’s safe and the consequences of miscalculation in a state that celebrates its gun culture.
Westbrook’s widow struggles to comprehend how she lost her husband of 51 years and discussed what happened in an interview in her house this week, sitting on her couch beside her Bible.
“I can’t imagine him feeling threatened by my husband, that’s what surprises me,” said Deanne Westbrook, 70. “Because Ron wasn’t like that. He probably, I think he was so cold. He was looking for help when he was ringing that doorbell at their place. I think he just wanted somebody to help him.”
Hendrix declined to comment because of the ongoing investigation. His attorney, Lee Davis, described his client as distraught. The local district attorney has not yet decided whether to press criminal charges against Hendrix for what happened on Nov. 27.
“He is not a gun-toting rights activist who’s saying, ‘Keep off my property,’” Davis said. “He’s a man who thought he had to take action because of what he believed to be a real and imminent threat.”
A retired nurse who once cared for dementia patients in a nursing home, Westbrook’s wife was perhaps better equipped than most to care for a spouse with Alzheimer’s. The progressive disease results in memory loss, impairs judgment and can leave its victims disoriented.
She installed door alarms to alert her if her husband tried wandering away. She was already making plans to get more advanced care at home as the disease progressed.
“I don’t feel angry,” she said. “I just feel sad. I never would have thought he would’ve (come) to an end like this. I was prepared for the Alzheimer’s to get worse and for me to take care of him here. And I was going to do it.”
Others can sympathize. Marylou Hable, who works for A Place for Mom, helping match families with care and living facilities, said she works with Alzheimer’s patients and their families every day. Yet she still struggled when her husband’s uncle came to live with them.
She took all sorts of precautions to protect him, but one night he wandered out after midnight. She and her husband were exhausted and didn’t hear the alarms. Alzheimer’s patients often seize on a past memory, and the uncle was trying to find the streetcar to go home to Cleveland, Ohio, even though he had moved to Michigan. He was beaten up and robbed, but luckily police contacted Hable and her husband when he turned up in the hospital.
“Here I am in the industry and I couldn’t keep John safe,” she said.
An incident in mid-November may have set the stage for the fatal error. Shortly after Hendrix’s fiancee moved into her new rental home, a man appeared at the door just before midnight on Nov. 19. He pounded on the door while Hendrix’s fiancee was alone with two children, and he demanded to see someone whom Hendrix’s fiancee did not know, Davis said.
She called Hendrix, who was in nearby Chattanooga, Tenn., who told her to call 911. By the time sheriff’s deputies and Hendrix arrived, the man was gone. Davis said what happened was documented in a police report.
Afterward, Hendrix took a Glock handgun that he kept in his apartment and brought it to his fiancee’s home.
The following week, Deanne Westbrook woke up and noticed that her husband and the couple’s two dogs were missing. Not long after, a police officer arrived to deliver the news, and the dogs were returned to her.
For reasons that are not clear, Westbrook left his home and started walking. A deputy sheriff noticed him along a road around 2:20 a.m. and stopped to ask what he was doing, Walker County Sheriff Steve Wilson said. Westbrook told the officer that he was gathering mail and then planned to return to his home up a hill. While Westbrook’s answers were curt, nothing about the conversation alarmed the deputy.
Wilson said barking dogs woke up Hendrix and his fiancee in her home sometime before 4 a.m. Westbrook had walked to their house, the last in a cul-de-sac. He rang the doorbell, knocked on the door and tried the handle. In what may have been a startling move, Westbrook left the front of the home and moved out of view.
The woman called 911, and Hendrix got his gun.
While the woman was on the phone with a dispatcher, Westbrook returned to the door a second time, Wilson said.
Hendrix left the house and found Westbrook outside in the dark. He told police that Westbrook ignored commands to stop, identify himself and raise his hands. The sheriff said Westbrook approached Hendrix, who fired four shots.
“Obviously, in hindsight, it’s very easy to say, ‘Why didn’t you stay inside? Why didn’t you keep the door shut?’” Davis said. “But the reality is, how long are you supposed to wait until somebody comes through your door? And had the person come through his door with his fiancee there, then what would have happened?”
Under Georgia law, people are not required to try retreating from a potential conflict before opening fire to defend themselves from serious imminent harm, said Russell Gabriel, director of the Criminal Defense Clinic at the University of Georgia. State law allows people to use lethal force to stop someone from forcibly entering a home if those inside reasonably fear they are going to be attacked. Deadly force can even be used to stop someone from trying to forcibly enter a home to commit a felony.
“Different people have a different understanding of what is reasonable,” Gabriel said. “Reasonableness is a classic jury question.”