MOULTRIE — In a time when other women were tying their apron strings, Betty Gaines was strapping on her pistol and pinning on a badge.

She was one of the first women deputy sheriffs in the state, perhaps the first, she said, at least around these parts.

“That’s what I understand,” said Gaines, 77.

Gaines was born and raised on the horse farm on which she now lives on Adel Highway until she reached age 13 at which point her father, Eddie Gordon, joined the Moultrie police force and moved to town. Growing into adulthood, she went to Moultrie High School and then on to Norman Park College before beginning work at the courthouse for Tax Receiver Shelton Sharpe.

“Back then the tax digest was written by hand. ...Mr. Shelton Sharpe would call it out, the name and whatever the property was, and there was three of us writing. It all had to balance, you know,” she said.

By 1953, the people elected her father sheriff, and it was then she got into law enforcement as a road deputy.

"I wouldn't say I was the first one, but they always thought so," she said.

She was 23 and had just had her first child, Ronnie. (Her other child, Jean Oliver, was born after Gaines went off the job.) In fact, the first eight years of Ronnie’s life were spent at the jail. In those days, the sheriff and his wife lived at the castle-like jail, now the chamber of commerce downtown.

Gaines shook her head sweetly at the thought of her young son. When Superior Court Judge Lily would have court in town, he'd stop by the jail to have lunch with the sheriff and his staff. Much to the amusement of all, Ronnie would pat down the judge when he came to visit, just as he had seen officers search suspects countless times before.

"One time he got on the two-way radio that went all over the area to the state patrol and all. 'Mama. Mama. Call in to the office. Mama.' I called into the jail and told the cook you get him off that radio," she laughed.

The first four years in office, Sheriff Gordon ran his department off a fee and fine system. Those convicted would pay fines and fees, and that amount would be divvied up among the sheriff's office, the clerk's office and the county.

"He had to furnish everything — automobiles, pay the deputies, everything," she said.

The last four years of his two terms, the department was funded through the county budget.

"Back then, it was moonshine that we had to worry about — certainly not drugs," she said. "It was moonshine and government liquor, which was illegal in this county."

Gaines recalled one enterprising woman she busted.

"She was selling it by the drink, and they couldn't catch her, so they called me on the radio and said, 'Meet us out front.' So I met them out there and went to the house, and I told her, I said, 'Pull off your blouse.' She said, 'All the way off?' And I said, 'All the way off.' And she had it under her bra strap, a pint of moonshine. What she was doing was reaching in there and pouring it out and putting it back," she said.

Another woman, a mother of 12 children, was caught over and over again bootlegging but was put again and again on probation, Gaines said. Finally, the judge had enough and gave her some time, she said. Gaines took the defendant to the jail, but about dark a man came with all 12 children. The sheriff called the judge and told him he was going to take them to his house.

"He said, 'You turn her out now,'" she said.

Busting stills was a regular part of the job. The deputies would poke sticks with a long nail at one end to find stills buried under the ground. One still she remembers in particular was crawling with rats all in the mash.

"But it was dripping out just as pretty as you'd ever see — just as clear as it can be," she said of the illicit product.

Her father would take the haul back to the jail and pour it down the gutters in front of the old jail house.

One man lamenting the waste, shook his head and said, “Pouring all that out and as much flu that's going around,” she recalled.

Several men even got down on their hands and knees, she said, to lick up the shine as it flowed down the gutters.

Gaines never had to pull her gun on a suspect, but she encountered her share of characters. It seemed she was the one called out for all incidents involving females.

One woman was bound for the state mental hospital in Milledgeville, but was thwarting all comers with a knife. So, Gaines was called out to her house. She and another deputy went in.

"She was sitting on the bed. I called her name. I said we got to go back to see Dr. Pidcock. She said OK, and she stood up as pretty as you'd ever see and then she ran. She ran by every one of them outside. I was behind her. So, we take off down that dirt road, and I caught her," she said.

Another woman bound for Milledgeville had pulled off all her clothes and had ripped them up and had nothing to wear. Gaines went to her house and found a dress that would fit her and had the woman put it on. The woman was placed in the back of a Black Mariah, a panel truck with bars and benches in the bed. Then Gaines and her husband, Morris, struck out for Milledgeville.

At one point, she wanted a cup of water. They found a drug store in Sylvester to get her a drink, but when they gave it to her, she poured it out and proceeded to undress and fold the dress and put it on a bench beside her. Later, she put it back on. All the way to Milledgeville, she'd dress and undress, all the while carefully folding Gaines' dress.

"I don't know why she called me Mabel, but she named me Mabel. She said, 'Mabel, I like you.' My husband, he hasn't said anything. He was just driving. She said, 'I don't like him, but Mabel I like you,'" Gaines said.

"She'd shake them bars and I thought Lord, I'm glad they're welded. Her eyes would get so big, you know, and just before we got to Milledgeville, she pulled off everything and there was a truck right behind us — she mooned them," she said in her storyteller voice.

Gaines keeps a lawman's mementos: A pair of handcuffs (which now thanks to her granddaughter are snapped shut on the legs of a keepsake rocking chair) and a well-worn box of murder scene photos and copies of investigatory work. She pulled out a box and said during her father's time in office, they investigated more than 30 murders.

"Back then, we didn't have forensics and DNA and all that stuff," she said.

One horror Gaines remembered well was the 1954 double murder of Captain Tom Rowland, warden at the county farm, and his wife Gladys by a parolee. The said irony was that Gladys Rowland had vouched for the inmate to help secure his parole. The inmate had been working for the couple doing odd jobs around their house.

Captain Rowland was found under the flue of a tobacco barn off the house. He was beaten to death. Mrs. Rowland was found in the bedroom of the house.

A nearby storeowner identified the murderer. The defendant had cut him while fleeing the scene. The offender was later executed in Georgia’s electric chair. Nothing appeared stolen, she said, and the motivation for the murder was puzzling.

Just as haunting, she said, was the 1957 murder near Doerun of a grandmother and two children by a family member, Otho A. Adams.

"Me and my dad were the first ones there. When you see something like that, you never get over it. The baby was 11 months old and hit in the head with a hammer," she said as she pulled out a photo of the child in his crib.

A 4-year-old was thrown against the back door and killed. He was left where he fell on the porch. The murderer's sister, the grandmother to the boys, was laid eerily across the back steps.

"He wanted liquor," Gaines said.

An older sister to the slain boys got off the school bus, and Adams "got after her," she said, but she escaped him by scrambling under the house.

"She'd watch the way he'd go, if you know what I mean, and that's the only thing that saved her," she said.

For all the gruesome and ugly sights Gaines was exposed to, her father never displayed apprehension about his young daughter's choice of profession.

"He was real cool, calm and laid back, just good-natured as he can be," she said. "I reckon he had confidence in me, I guess is all I can say."

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