When Polk County Police Detective Kristen Hearne got out of her cruiser early Friday morning to assist a young officer investigating a stolen vehicle, she left her bulletproof vest behind. It was hardly worth putting on for such a routine call.
Minutes later the 29-year-old wife and mother was shot dead — ambushed, according Polk’s police chief — by a Walker County man with a long rap sheet. Police said Seth Spangler, 31, stole the Ford Escape that rookie cop David Goodrich, fresh from field training, had been dispatched to investigate.
“Just a dirt road off a paved road that goes back to the lake,” Polk County Police Chief Kenny Dodd said, describing the nondescript crime scene, located off Santa Claus Road and Ga. 100, roughly 70 miles northwest of Atlanta.
There they encountered Spangler and 22-year-old Samantha Ruth emerging from some nearby woods.
“We don’t know why they were there. They gave an officer a story about coming off the lake,” Dodd told reporters Friday.
Before they could finish their story, Spangler whipped out a gun, firing at Goodrich and Hearne at close range. Goodrich, wearing a bulletproof vest, survived unharmed.
“He drew the gun before they even knew what happened,” Dodd said.
Spangler and Ruth escaped on foot. GBI Director Vernon Keenan said Ruth didn’t get far.
But Spangler stayed on the run until 2:45 p.m., setting off a massive manhunt that included the first-ever use of Georgia’s Blue Alert, an emergency call put out by local law enforcement after the shooting of an officer.
The heavily tattooed career criminal, who Keenan said had active warrants for a probation violation, emerged from the woods naked and caked in mud. Spangler was convicted in 2015 in Walker County of methamphetamine possession and a weapons charge, and was released from the state prison in Reidsville in August 2016 after serving little more than a year.
He now faces felony murder and felony aggravated assault charges, Keenan said. Ruth also faces felony charges, he said.
Hearne was the first officer ever killed in the line of duty in Polk County, Dodd said. Hearne’s roots run deep in Polk. She was raised there, graduating from Rockmart High School.
“We’re such a small county, with 40,000 people. You think it’ll never happen here,” said Dodd, fighting back tears at a late afternoon news conference. “We’re just heartbroken.”
He described a day no police chief wants to experience. Before the news conference, Dodd spoke to his devastated officers. Polk sheriff’s deputies were brought in to take calls in their stead.
Before that, he drove Hearne’s husband home to break the news to family.
“Law enforcement ran in her blood and her family’s blood,” Dodd said.
Her husband, Matt, is a police officer in Aragon, a small town in Polk.
“My heart is broken into a million pieces,” Hearne’s mother, Trish Brewer, posted on Facebook. “My daughter was tragically shot and killed in the line of duty. I cannot begin to tell you how lost I feel, numb, and how my heart breaks wanting my daughter back.”
The focus of the Polk detective’s life was 3-year-old son Issac, whose cheerful face dominates Hearne’s Facebook page. He shares his mother’s big smile and blue eyes.
“Most of all, my grandson needs a mother,” Brewer wrote. “Please pray for us, her brothers, cousins, her child, husband, our whole family.”
Hearne, said Dodd, lit up every room she entered.
“You always knew when she was present,” he said.
Her loss is inexplicable to the young chief.
“I don’t understand why … no idea why he thought it was worth taking the life of a law officer who was just doing her job,” Dodd said. “I have no words for it.”