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Limestone deputy going out with a bang
Retiring captain wants to spend time with grandchildren, farm, attend auctions

By Holly Hollman
hhollman@decaturdaily.com · 340-2445

LESTER — A Limestone County sheriff’s captain whose co-workers call stingy — he prefers the term frugal — retired with a bang after 25 years.

At Capt. Johnny McDonald’s retirement party, Sheriff Mike Blakely gave McDonald, 63, a fake gun that fires a flag with “BANG” on it.

The two disagree on the validity of the bang story.

“I’ve let the sheriff tell that lie for years,” McDonald said.

Frugal reputation earned

According to Blakely, McDonald was one of his best drug investigators, often perching himself in a deer stand to conduct surveillance on marijuana patches.

“In the early 1980s, we had tons of marijuana growing in Limestone County,” Blakely said. “Back then, we weren’t as busy, and if there was one stalk growing, Johnny had it under surveillance. We were catching the heck out of folks.”

The bang story evolved when a snitch helped investigators set up a sting. The drug deal went down at night, and the snitch wanted it to appear he also was under arrest.

“This is where truth gets stranger than fiction,” Blakely said.

To make it look real, McDonald chased the snitch and was to fire into the air.

“Well, I’ve got this dope dealer with my gun stuck to his ear. It’s a thug from Iron City, Tenn.,” Blakely said. “Then I hear Johnny hollering for our snitch to stop or he would shoot, and then I heard him holler, ‘Bang! Bang!’ I know he didn’t want to waste his bullets.”

McDonald denied hollering vs. shooting.

“I didn’t scream that, but I know it makes a good story,” McDonald said.

Blakely said things were chaotic and McDonald probably didn’t realize he had hollered.

“When we got back to the jail I told him to look at his gun and there were no bullets missing,” Blakely said.

McDonald’s wife, Betty, said his co-workers would believe he didn’t want to waste bullets because he got his frugal reputation from going two or three payroll periods without cashing a check.

“Well, if you haven’t gotten your money yet, nobody can get it from you, can they?” McDonald countered.

Family man, hard worker

One area where no one can call McDonald stingy is the time he spends with his grandchildren. That’s the main reason he retired.

His only child, Tammie Davis, has two daughters, Audra, 8, and Ashton, 4.

“My granddaughters love ripping and romping all over the farm,” he said. “And they love playing in the hay. I want to be able to spend more time with them.”

The McDonalds own a 96-acre farm with 60 head of cattle at Lester near the Tennessee line. McDonald grew up on a dairy farm in eastern Limestone County. He worked as a bag boy and then assistant manager with a grocery chain before becoming a deputy.

“I started riding with deputies as a reserve, and Sheriff Hollis Hogan asked me to go to work for him,” he said.

He worked as deputy, drug investigator, investigator and patrol captain.

“The hardest part, my pet peeve, is when someone bothers a little person or old person,” McDonald said. “You have to get tough-skinned to do this job, but I have a hard time understanding why someone would mistreat somebody who can’t defend themselves.”

The saddest day was Jan. 2, 2004, when the late Farron Barksdale shot and killed two of McDonald’s friends, Athens police Sgt. Larry Russell and officer Tony Mims.

“I was on my way to work, and I heard that on our Sheriff’s Department radio,” he said. “The farm is a good way for me to deal with those bad days. I enjoy hard work. It helps take my mind off bad things.”

45 years of collecting

Another activity McDonald turns to is auctions. He collects arrowheads and bar signs for his barn and basement walls. Flip switches and neon signs advertising cigarettes and beer light up his basement.

Their home, which McDonald and his friend Paul Sutton completed, is a showcase of the couple’s interests from baskets to bar signs to Coca-Cola merchandise. They’ve had 45 years to amass these items.

Betty McDonald said they met at East Limestone High School during the junior play. Their 45th wedding anniversary will be Oct. 19.

“In all those years, I have never listened to the scanner,” Betty McDonald said. “It would have scared me to death to hear what was going on, and made me nervous all the time.”

Shot in the chest

She was unaware her husband got shot until Blakely’s wife, Debbie, came to her workplace at Kroger and told her.

“That was a pretty scary time,” she said. “I didn’t know how bad he was hurt.”

McDonald said he was the first deputy who responded to a call at Tanner about a man threatening children with a shotgun.

“He pulled his gun on me, and then other officers arrived, and the guy shot at us from his trailer,” McDonald said.

Shotgun pellets hit McDonald and deputy David “Red” Hargrove.

“I got four pellets in the chest area,” McDonald said. “The doctors said it would be better to leave them there, and they’ve never bothered me. I was back at work the next day. You can’t be a police officer and be afraid of what is going to happen.”

Story about Blakely

And now that he is retired, McDonald is not afraid to tell a story on the sheriff as payback for the “bang” anecdote.

“The sheriff is not mechanically inclined,” McDonald said, “and during a trip together, he had to help change a flat tire.”

McDonald told Blakely to tighten the lugs, and then McDonald saw the tire sticking out past the truck’s fender.

“I said, ‘What are you trying to do, make a dually out of this?’ He had put the tire on backwards,” McDonald said.

A dually is a pickup truck with a double set of rear wheels.

“That’s a true story,” Blakely said. “I don’t remember where we were going, but we were in a hurry, and I wasn’t paying attention. We had to get the tools out and crank the spare down, and I was getting mad.”

Despite the ribbing McDonald has endured, he said he’ll miss seeing the sheriff’s staff on a daily basis.

“I’ve gotten a lot of cards and phone calls congratulating me. Maybe they’re happy to see me go, but I want to thank the entire department for all they’ve done and all they mean to me and my wife,” McDonald said. “I won’t be stingy about giving them my thanks.”

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