Sheriff commandeers Katrina ice truck, speaks out for the first time

Sheriff commandeers Katrina ice truck, speaks out for the first time

FORREST COUNTY, MS (WDAM) - Forrest County Sheriff Billy McGee's "Ice Truck" story has only been legend since it happened in 2005. The sheriff not only refused to publicly discuss it with local media outlets, but national outlets as well. For the first time since the storm, Sheriff McGee shares the story in his own words on-the-record.

When Hurricane Katrina made landfall, it took just hours to wreak havoc all across the Pine Belt region of Southeast Mississippi. For days after that, the slow speed of bureaucracy left thousands in the area without the basic supplies they desperately needed.

Forrest County, which is just 70 miles directly north of the Gulf Coast, was no stranger to that need.

Trucks filled with ice, water, tarps, and other supplies were traveling from Jackson to Hattiesburg to send immediate relief. It is a common route for people in this area and a direct route along Highway 49, but for reasons that vary depending on who tells the story, the loaded 18-wheelers were not making the trip down south as quickly and regularly as some needed.

Forrest County Sheriff Billy McGee had enough of the absence of supplies on about Day 4 after the storm.

"I needed ice now," McGee said. "I don't need the ice tomorrow. I need the ice now."

What the sheriff did to get the ice not only became somewhat of a legendary story in the Pine Belt, but it was also illegal.

McGee, who was first elected in 1992, was informed that Camp Shelby, a military training base located off Highway 49 in Forrest County, just south of the Hattiesburg city limits, was a Federal Emergency Management Association staging area for supplies. Knowing that the other trucks from Jackson would not be coming to the area that day to deliver ice and water, McGee sent a deputy to the base to find out where the supplies were assigned, and if they weren't, if he could take them to the people who had been calling him in need.

"It was a FEMA staging area, and they had portable morgues, they had portable hospitals, they had ice, they had 18-wheelers of ice, 18-wheelers of water. They had all kinds of supplies down there," McGee recalled.

The deputy sent to Camp Shelby was given two phone numbers by the FEMA representative there, and he was instructed to tell the sheriff to call those numbers to request the ice from that area to distribute in the county. McGee called several times and was greeted by no answer.

Later that afternoon, the sheriff rounded up about five deputies, two of which had a commercial driver's license, and they headed to the base to get the supplies.

"I tell my guys, 'If I come back on these steps and give you the signal, that means get the truck, and let's go,'" McGee said.

No guns were pulled, but McGee said there were words exchanged between him and the FEMA representative. When the sheriff was told the ice wasn't assigned to a specific location, he was told that he "had an ice problem," and the FEMA representative had a "communications problem."

"I said, 'Well, I tell you what,'" McGee recalled of his conversation with the FEMA representative over the trucks, "I'm going to work on my problem, and I wish you some luck with yours."

McGee walked out of the FEMA trailer, worked up over the conversation but determined to get the ice he came for. He signaled his deputies, and just as they went to instruct the truck drivers to help them get out of the base with the ice, an armed guardsman tried to stop them.

"We asked him to get off the truck, told him we were taking the truck, that he was obstructing," McGee said. "He refused to (get off), and so we removed him from the truck, handcuffed him, put him in a patrol car so we could all get out of there."

McGee's deputies did not have to drive the 18-wheelers, although one driver half-jokingly said he needed some proof that the sheriff was making him do this because people back home would not believe his story. The trucks split routes, with one headed to the high school in the southern part of the county and the other going to the neighboring town of Petal.

Forrest County Agricultural High School served as a staging area earlier in the week, but just like the other staging areas, it had been without ice and water for some time.

Then the Sheriff arrived with a truck, and a Black Hawk helicopter was flying over him.

"I can tell you one thing, everyone was excited," volunteer Debbie Burt remembered about that day.

Burt, who was handing out supplies at FCAHS since the storm hit, said there was a long line that day because people had been waiting for another load to come around, but they had no idea the controversy behind how the ice got to them that particular day.

"They followed the same process," Burt said of the people in line, who came by the truck in their cars just like a fast food drive-thru. "They were just glad to get ice."

It wasn't until Burt saw a car coming in the wrong way that she began to realize who helped the trucks get to the high school. It was Sheriff McGee.

"I thought, 'How responsive and how diligent a person that was," Burt recalled.

It only took a few hours for all of the ice from that load to be distributed, and just after the work was done, Sheriff McGee's phone began to ring.

An FBI agent was on the other end when the sheriff answered, who told him to meet him at the sheriff's office. McGee obliged and was interviewed by the agent, asked about the circumstances of what he did and why. Shortly after that meeting, the second call came in to McGee's phone.

This time it was the adjutant general of the Mississippi National Guard, who wanted to meet with McGee when he came through town just before midnight.

McGee met with him and offered an apology to the guardsmen whom he handcuffed for interfering with the trucks earlier that day. That man was only ticketed, according to McGee, but the incident led to a bigger battle for the sheriff.

Sheriff McGee went six months before he heard from anyone else, but a conversation overhead by a deputy between then-Governor Haley Barbour and the U.S. Attorney at that time gave McGee a heads up that he wasn't off the hook just yet.

McGee was told Barbour told U.S. Attorney Dunn Lampton he wanted McGee's "ass to be taken care of for what he did."

"I think it's kind of stupid that he would take that approach for those actions," McGee said of the governor's comments.

Governor Barbour himself was praised for his own response after Hurricane Katrina. At a time when the federal government had gravely disappointed thousands of people along the Mississippi Gulf Coast and in the New Orleans area, Barbour was seen as a hero in his own state. But McGee was also considered a hero in his own right in Forrest County.

"I felt good that the people who needed ice at the time that we serve, that we are sworn to protect and serve, were getting what they deserved," McGee said.

Ten years later, Barbour called the incident "water under the bridge."
"It's behind us," he said, "but I do believe if you have suffered from a mega disaster, law and order is even more important than it is on an average day because the risks are so high for the people that didn't get that ice."

McGee's expectations of hearing from the U.S. Attorney followed through. Lampton worked with McGee and his attorney, the well-known local attorney Jim Dukes, to enter a guilty plea.

The sheriff's case was set to be heard at the federal court in Hattiesburg, and the guilty plea did not have anything to do with the ice, rather a misdemeanor for interfering with a federal officer, which was for the incident with the guardsmen attempting to block McGee from taking the truck.

Luckily, he was the only one charged, not the other deputies who assisted him in getting the ice trucks.

"I wouldn't have been able to live with myself if those guys had gotten in trouble and lost their career," McGee said. "I couldn't do it."

The day before his trial, Lampton called McGee's attorney, Jim Dukes.

Lampton, who is now deceased, told Dukes his client would not be allowed to speak to the media after he entered his guilty plea. He assured Dukes he would talk highly of the sheriff, but Dukes, who knew McGee for many years while representing Forrest County, told Lampton that wouldn't be necessary.

"I know him much better than you do," Dukes said. "I can't make him shut up. If he wants to say something tomorrow, he's going to say it."[1]

McGee did speak to the media, but it was prior to the plea hearing. A reporter with the local newspaper asked McGee what he thought about the situation, and he was honest with the reporter.

"I told her I was disappointed in the government," McGee said. "I was disappointed in Dunn Lampton. I felt like he was trying to make a statement for the Guard on their behalf."[2]

The news quickly traveled to Lampton, who was in the federal courthouse in Hattiesburg for a separate case. The reporter went to the courthouse to relay the message from McGee.

After Lampton heard what the sheriff said about him, he called Dukes and told him the plea deal was off.

"I'm sending this case to Washington, D.C. and see if I can have him indicted on a felony," Lampton said.[3]

The case eventually ended up in the federal court in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, but what happened when the case got there, is unknown.

"I waited for the next round, and I'm waiting still today," McGee said.

Dukes said he was advised at the time that no action would be taken on his client's case.

"They had more significant things to deal with," Dukes said nearly ten years later.

He still claims there was "insufficient evidence" to prove the sheriff violated the law, and when asked what the statute of limitations was on the case, he repeated that it was taken care of.

"It was the right thing to do in my mind that day, and it's the right thing today," McGee said. "And if I had been wise enough to know the repercussions, I think I still would have done it."

During the investigation, petitions were crafted in support of McGee and money was raised by prominent businessmen to assist with legal fees for the sheriff. Bumper stickers were made in jest that read "Billy McGee for Governor: Unafraid to Lead." While he said he never considered running for the state's top position, that slogan was used in his two successful runs for sheriff since Katrina.

"I was amazed at the people of Forrest County that stood up and supported me and were willing to do anything that they could," he said.

While he may not have had the support of all, he had it of many. Lord willing, another Katrina will not happen, but if it does, McGee knows what his response would be.

"I would certainly do it again."

[1] McGee paraphrased this quote by Dukes during the interview, which was a recollection of the events of approximately Spring 2006.

[2]  McGee said Lampton was a retired officer in the Mississippi National Guard and a judge advocate for them.

[3] All quotes from Lampton are paraphrased by McGee. Dunn passed away in 2011.