By Jacob Bembry
Greene Publishing, Inc.
Sheriff Ben Stewart and Trooper Jimmy Fulford had many things in common. Like Stewart, Fulford was a devout Christian, a family man and a law officer. They both looked up to their neighbors and followed them into law enforcement. Stewart’s neighbor was former Madison County Sheriff Joe Peavy; Fulford’s neighbor was Trooper B.W. McDaniel.
Because of their common interests and upbringing, Stewart and Fulford became friends. That is one of the reasons that Stewart pursued obtaining a lease on the former Florida Highway Patrol station, which was named in honor of Fulford.
Both Fulford and Stewart worked for the FHP. Stewart, who had worked as a dispatcher for the Highway Patrol, left the year before Fulford began as a trooper. Fulford began with FHP right out of Florida State University, with a degree in criminology. Stewart left to return to work as a dispatcher for Madison County. On Feb. 1, 1992, Fulford’s leaving was far more sudden and unplanned. He was the victim of a bomb that had been planted in a microwave. The bomb was intended for someone else.
It was cold that day when Fulford arrived at work at 3 p.m. at the Madison FHP station. He went on a call to the rest area on Interstate 10 where he helped a woman who had locked the keys in her car. He then spotted a car headed west at 85 miles per hour and stopped the Mitsubishi Gallant in Jefferson County.
Fulford discovered that Lester Watson, the man driving the car, did not have a driver’s license. Fulford arrested Watson on charges of driving without a license and Watson was booked into the Jefferson County Jail. Watson’s passenger, Leroy Williams, asked if he could accompany Watson to the jail.
Fulford discovered that the car had been rented to Paul Howell, of Miami. He had the dispatcher call Howell, who said that he had given Watson permission to drive the car but had not told him to head north with it. During the phone call, Howell never told them that the package contained a bomb that he had intended to send to Marianna to silence a witness who could tie him to a murder.
At the Aucilla exit on Interstate 10, Fulford and Jefferson County deputies Wallace Blount and Robert Harrell searched the car.
Fulford looked through the trunk and saw an empty baby’s bottle and a gift-wrapped package. While waiting for the wrecker to come pick up the car, he searched the Mitsubishi again. He opened the package with his penknife and the bomb exploded, killing Jimmy Fulford.
Fulford’s lieutenant, B.J. Tinney noted that when officers were moving the car away from the blaze so that it would not catch fire, that Fulford’s radio was set to WAFT, a Christian music station in Valdosta, Ga. Officers also noted that Fulford’s watch had stopped at 4:34 p.m.
At Fulford’s funeral, a tape was played of him singing gospel music the First Baptist Church in Monticello, where he served as deacon.
Lester Watson was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to 40 years in prison. Patrick Howell was sentenced to 40 years in prison without possibility of parole for 25 years. Other members of the Jamaican drug posse involved in the murder coverup were sentenced to extensive prison terms. Paul Howell was sentenced to die for Fulford’s death.
The FHP building where Fulford was stationed was later named after the fallen trooper. Built in 1967, closed in 2011, Stewart feels that the building will be a perfect fit for the Sheriff’s Office.
Privacy and security concerns were two of the biggest factors motivating Stewart’s pursuit of getting the building. Added bonuses are that the office will be closer to the high school and to Greenville, if law enforcement is needed in those areas.
The Sheriff’s Office is located in the part of the Courthouse Annex that used to house Western Auto. Although they are losing some square footage, for Stewart, it’s quite a step up from the current location.
“The original plans had called for the office we’re using now to be a courtroom and boardroom,” Stewart said. “Plans were for the current boardroom to eventually become a driver’s license office.”
Stewart noted that the lease he had signed was for 57 years and the building is rent free.
“The only thing we will have to pay is the electric bill,” he said.
Somewhere in Heaven, Jimmy Fulford must be looking down with a smile because the building where he used to report for duty will still be used for law enforcement today.