Monday, April 21, 1997

Raid on a still means death for a lawman

Second of a four-part series
By Pat Reese
Staff writer
What started out as just another hot July day in 1921 was to become a nightmare for two hard-working, God-fearing farm families.

Alfred Jackson Pate, whose family farmed and operated mills in Gray’s Creek for many years, was going to die.

Marsh Williams, son of a politically strong farmer from Godwin, was going to be charged with murder.

It was no secret that Williams was making liquor in the northern part of the county. But stills were hard to find in the dense woodlands and swamps around Godwin and the young man had never been caught.

Sheriff N.H. McGeachy evidently knew exactly where Williams was working a still at the edge of a swamp about half a mile from Godwin. He and Pate had been in Godwin the day before. Testimony later revealed that Williams believed one of his hired hands told McGeachy where to find the still.

On July 22, a Friday, McGeachy and four of his deputies -- Pate, C.H. Driver, Bill West and George West -- crowded into a car for the 12-mile trip to Godwin. George West was driving.

It was about 6:30 p.m. when they parked beside the Godwin-Falcon Road, just east of Godwin. McGeachy told George West to stay with the car while he and the other officers slipped into the swamp. They pushed through underbrush until they could see the still in a clearing not far from a cotton field.

A Fayetteville Observer reporter wrote this account of the raid:

“As they got within seeing distance, three men were plainly seen at the place. Suddenly a voice was heard, ‘Halt! Who is that?’

“But the officers were too close on them to stop. McGeachy said it was a case of stopping and being all killed or make a dash on the operators. So they sprang up through the bushes within a few yards of the still and the three men fled. Two big Army rifles were left behind as they departed.”

McGeachy and his deputies destroyed several barrels of fermenting mash and beer. They seized a copper pot cooker, the cap and coil and about 35 gallons of liquor to take back to town.

The sheriff sent for George West to drive up as close as he could to make it easier to load the contraband into the car. They put the copper pot on the back seat, but were unable to close the door on the right side. Pate stepped up on the running board and sat on top of the pot.

George West cranked up the car and drove slowly out of the woods, steering between the small pines and bushes that had partly hidden the still. McGeachy and Deputies Bill West and Driver led the way on foot, watching for rocks, logs and potholes in the fading light.

Gunfire erupts

Suddenly, the swamp exploded around them as shot after shot was fired at the officers and the car. McGeachy dropped to the ground. Bill West and Driver quickly followed suit.

An Observer reporter wrote: “The first bullet almost grazed the tip of the sheriff’s nose. The second came so close to Bill West’s face that it burned him. The third bullet struck Pate in his right side just above his waist line and passing through his body, coming out near his heart on the left side. The bullet severed the main artery on his right side.” The fifth bullet cut a hole through Pate’s hat as he toppled over.

A couple of bullets hit the steering wheel of the car. “How George West escaped remains a mystery,” the reporter wrote.

When McGeachy, Driver and Bill West dropped to the ground, George West bailed out of the car. The sheriff later was quoted saying the officers wanted the sniper to believe they had been hit.

When the firing stopped, McGeachy “came around the car to where Pate was leaning over, to inquire if he had been hurt. He said he took hold of Pate’s arm and shook him, calling to him at the same time, but no answer came back. Then he called to the driver to get out as rapidly as possible and get the wounded officer to a doctor.”

They rushed to Dr. J.A. McLean’s house and carried Pate inside. McLean felt for a pulse, examined the wound and told McGeachy that Pate was dead.

McGeachy drove back to Godwin with the guns his officers found at the still. He went to Williams’ home and showed the weapons to his young wife, asking her if she could say whether they belonged to her husband.

“I told his wife to tell him to come and give himself up, that we were looking for him,” the sheriff said later at a coroner’s inquest.

McGeachy picked up Williams’ brother-in-law, Columbus McClellan, and a man named Ezell for questioning. Ezell was a partner with Williams in a blacksmith shop in Godwin and most people knew the shop was used to build the copper pot cookers for Williams’ stills.

A newspaper story said McClellan and Ezell were accused of “spiriting” Williams away after the shooting. Although they were never arrested, the story said they “were questioned closely.”

Williams surrenders

The questioning apparently got results. Williams surrendered at noon on the next day. His father, J. Claude Williams, and McClellan had persuaded him to meet the sheriff and deputies in Godwin.

(Williams probably was pulling the leg of a reporter years later when he was quoted in an interview: “We made arrangements to meet at this spot but I didn’t go by myself. I had sights trained on every man there from my men around the place. All it would have taken at any time was for me to take my hat off and drop it on the ground.”)

Williams’ father was a political ally of the sheriff. He was influential in the Democratic Party and was a former member of the county Board of Commissioners. In 1921, he was serving on the county Board of Agriculture. He had been an elder in the Old Bluff Presbyterian Church for about 31 years and was teaching a young men’s Bible class.

The arrest was peaceful and Williams was driven to the jail in Raeford. McGeachy was concerned that the Pate family might try to get even.

A big funeral

Pate’s body was taken Saturday to his antebellum farmhouse on Raeford Road, across from Dobbin Avenue in Haymount.

The funeral was on Sunday at 5 p.m. Pate was buried in the Gee family cemetery, a small burying ground on Fort Bragg Road. His body was moved to Cross Creek Cemetery next to his wife’s grave after her death. His tombstone is almost hidden under branches of a large bush planted beside the Pate family plot.

“One of the saddest features of his death is the fact that his daughter, Ellen, who was married a week ago, is off on her honeymoon,” The Observer reported the day after Pate’s death. She married an Army sergeant who was stationed at Camp Bragg.

The newspaper reported: “One of the largest crowds that ever attended a funeral paid tribute ... to Al J. Pate, the deputy who went to his death at the hands of an assassin while in the performance of his duty.”

The Rev. Joel Snyder of First Baptist Church conducted the service.

The reporter covering the funeral wrote on July 25: “Not only was the outpouring a tribute to a faithful officer of the law who had been slain but it was a demonstration of disapproval of the reign of lawlessness that is now rampant in the land.

“And when the minister demanded that justice be meted out to the man who slew the officer while in the line of duty, silent promises must have gone up from the hearts of his hearers that law and order shall henceforth prevail and violators punished.“

The coffin was carried from the house to a waiting hearse, “between two lines of his comrades, including all of Cumberland County’s deputies, all courthouse officers and lawyers of the city.”

Snyder walked out onto the porch of the Pate home -- “Sweet Tarborough” -- as the mourners got ready for the short trip to the cemetery and spoke again to the large crowd. “If I were a lawyer, I would not lend my influence or go into court and defend the assassin who took the life of a faithful officer while he was fulfilling his duty,” he said.

A few months later, though, a team of six lawyers stood behind Williams as he faced trial in Pate’s death.

Click here for Page 3