It has been a year since one of Mississippi’s longest-serving sheriffs died, but people in Warren County remember. Everybody has a Paul Barrett story. Most are about how he stepped up when they needed it most.
Exemplary in the face of crime or disaster? Yes. But that’s not how his career started. In one of those strange coincidences, it was Barrett’s passion for motorcycles that got him into law enforcement, and a motorcycle was at the center of an unceremonious end to his career.
Paul Lamar Barrett grew to maturity in a big family (13 children) of South Delta dirt farmers during the toughest economic years in American history. Nobody had anything; the Barretts had less.
In his late teens, the military beckoned, as it did many sons of the Depression. His experiences in the Army motor pool fired him up.
Discharged, he was casting around Vicksburg for any kind of work, really. Two good things happened. One is that he met Juanita, who loved him and supported him all his days. The other is that he heard Vicksburg was buying two Harleys for its police department. Might have been 1954 Police Specials. Anyway, that was that. He applied. The badge, gun and ticket book were secondary. The appeal of riding a motorcycle all day — and getting paid for it — was marvelous. It was as big a change from dirt farming as Barrett told me he could imagine.
Fast forward to 1994. Barrett had been elected sheriff six times.
He hadn’t ridden a motorcycle in a long time, but was still in love with them. A wealthy acquaintance in Virginia knew about his passion and shipped him a pristine Harley. Barrett, then 68, took it out for a spin, and, well, quickly decided to give it back.
The giver said, “No, it’s yours. Sell it if you don’t want it.” So Barrett did.
Not much later, the acquaintance got a ticket for having shotguns in the rack in his vehicle while parked in Washington, D.C. A big no-no. Rather than pay the fine, the person insisted the law didn’t apply to him, claiming he was a sworn deputy in Mississippi.
Barrett was called before a grand jury, appeared, and wrongly affirmed that the man was a sworn deputy (instead of a “special” deputy). He was asked about the motorcycle, too. He confirmed that he had received the generous gift and mentioned that he had sold it — but he said $1,500 instead of $15,000.
That wasn’t accurate. Barrett was under oath. A perjury indictment followed. Barrett admitted his error. Did not fight the charge. He got a year in federal prison.
All the facts were put out there.
What did the people of Warren County do? They re-elected him for a seventh term.
He was their sheriff. He had not been accused of misfeasance or malfeasance. Not a penny of public money was involved. In its story, The New York Times noted all this. Barrett, however, retired in light of a state law prohibiting felons from serving.
The Times used the local paper and other Vicksburg sources to recount a few stories of Barrett’s derring-do.
Arrests for bank heists were made in 6 to 30 minutes. No homicides went unsolved. If an armed robber wasn’t caught in 10 minutes, Barrett and his exceptional deputies would stay on the hunt night and day.
Less emphasis was given to his humanitarian acts. “The Sheriff,” as he was always known, would be just as diligent in recovering the body of a drowned person. The family needed that, he said. Families also needed his compassion when he knocked on their doors with news of horrible wrecks or accidents.
Long before cell phones, “social media” and surveillance cameras in every store and on every corner, Barrett had a network. There were 50,000 residents of the county all of them knew Paul Barrett or knew who he was. Amid civil rights turmoil, everyone depended on him to be calm and reasonable. There were a couple of attempts on his life, including one by the KKK when he politely declined a membership offer.
Paul Barrett never held himself out to be faultless. In his youth, he played as hard as he worked. Didn’t warm a lot of church pews, either. After he decided to take up golf, he wasn’t exactly accurate in his tallies.
But he never forgot how far he’d come from the destitute conditions of his youth. He wanted others to have better days, too.
Here’s hoping there are Harleys in heaven.
Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.