Sheriff killed by sniper's bullet at political rally after giving campaign speech

Sunday, April 14th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SOMERSET, Ky. (AP) _ A rural sheriff who had just given a campaign speech at a political rally and fish fry was killed by a sniper, and a suspect then fled on a motorcycle belonging to one of the victim's election opponents.

The motorcyclist was charged in the slaying Sunday. Authorities said they were investigating whether he knew the owner of the vehicle, although they said the latter was not a suspect.

``The senseless murder or assassination of our sheriff, who always had a smile on his face and dedication in his heart, is devastating to the community,'' former county attorney Fred Neikirk said.

Sheriff Sam Catron was killed by a single rifle bullet Saturday evening as he was leaving the rally at Shopville, a small town about 70 miles south of Lexington among Pulaski County's rolling farmland and wooded hills.

Catron was struck in the face by a single bullet. He was known to wear a bulletproof vest because his father, then-Somerset Police Chief Harold Catron, had been shot and killed in 1964. He was wearing the vest and his uniform Saturday.

State Police Capt. Paul Hays said the shot came from ``a considerable distance.'' Police said a rifle was found but would not give details about the weapon.

Hays would not comment on a possible motive.

Police said a sheriff's deputy and firefighter caught Danny S. Shelley, 30, of Eubank, about five miles from the rally when he wrecked the motorcycle that belonged to Jeff Morris, one of four people challenging Catron, 48, in the May 28 Republican primary.

Hays said Morris, who had been at the rally, hadn't reported the motorcycle stolen. Asked if Morris and Shelley knew each other, Hays said, ``that's part of the investigation that we're following up on.''

Brian Perkins, a former classmate of Shelley, said he was ``a jolly kid'' who went to work in Georgetown, near Lexington, after graduating from high school. Shelley's high school yearbook called him one of the sweetest guys in Pulaski County.

Shelley was to be arraigned Monday.

Morris was a sheriff's deputy under Catron from 1996 to July 2001, said Jim McWhorter, the chief deputy sworn in as sheriff Saturday night. McWhorter wouldn't comment on Morris' reason for leaving the sheriff's office, but said he knew of no ill will between Catron and Morris.

Morris did not return phone calls to his home.

Catron, who had held office for 17 years, had given the campaign speech and bought two cakes. He had walked back to his police car with the cakes to put them inside when he was shot, Shopville-Stab Volunteer Fire Department Chief R.J. Riley said Sunday.

Somerset Mayor J.P. Wiles said Catron was known for dedication to his job and that it was not unusual to find the sheriff, who was single, still out on patrol with his deputies at 2 a.m.

``Law enforcement was Sam's life,'' Wiles said. ``That's what he lived and breathed and did well.''

Catron had trained as a pilot so he could search in a helicopter for plots of marijuana plants.

In September, Catron announced more than 70 drug arrests on 129 indictments in what he said was Pulaski County's biggest drug sting. Lately, he had been combatting an outbreak of methamphetamine labs, officials said.

Catron also had appeared on a segment of ``America's Most Wanted'' that aired Saturday about a former militia member who is wanted by police in eastern Kentucky. Rudzinski said authorities had no reason to believe Catron's shooting was related to that case.