It’s been more than 40 years since the murder of beloved Coffee County Sheriff C.F. “Neil” Grantham but his life and legacy lives on through the memories of his friends and family.
While the strongest memory that most Coffee County residents have of Sheriff Grantham is his death, it’s his life that his son Kenneth Grantham wants to remember most.
“He was just a good old country boy,” Kenneth Grantham said of his father. “I don’t know that I ever heard anyone have a bad word to say about him. He was a better guy than me and I’ve tried to live up to him. I’m a blessed old man to say that I had Neil Grantham as my father.”
Sheriff Grantham grew up in the Curtis community outside of Elba and alongside his father – RC Grantham – worked farms and hauled produce. Then, the two started up their own “Rolling Grocery Stores” – portable grocery stores in the body of a truck – and eventually each had their own brick and mortar grocery stores.
RC Grantham’s grocery store sat on the Opp highway, while Sheriff Grantham’s was on the Troy highway next to the old radio station outside of Elba. Kenneth Grantham grew up working in and helping run that store.
“I grew up in the business and working there and helping him run the store,” Kenneth Grantham said. “I made a lot of friends that are lifelong friends that traded with us at that store.”
Later in life Sheriff Grantham decided that he had a goal that he wanted to reach for.
“I remember somewhere there, in the late 60s or early 70s, him saying one day that he wanted to be the sheriff of Coffee County before he died,” Kenneth Grantham remembers. “He had never run for anything in his life but he decided he was going to and he ran in the 1970 election after Sheriff (H.D.) Tillman retired.”
Neil Grantham came in third place in a field that had seven candidates and following the election the newly elected Sheriff Ralph Sparks approached him with an offer to be his Chief Deputy. The idea was that Sparks only wanted to serve for one term and then he would help get Neil Grantham elected as sheriff, according to Kenneth Grantham.
“Somewhere in there Ralph Sparks changed his mind and daddy resigned (as Chief Deputy) after about three years,” Kenneth Grantham said. “We were still operating the store at the time and he started politicking to beat Ralph.”
Neil Grantham unseated the incumbent Sparks and was elected Sheriff of Coffee County in the 1974 Election. After just four years on the job, Grantham become so well loved that he won his 1978 reelection in a landslide.
“I think the happiest my daddy ever was was November 1978,” Kenneth Grantham remembers. “I don’t even remember what opposition he had but he carried every box in the county except one I think.
“Daddy carried every box in Enterprise and the fact that he had only been sheriff for four years and completely carried Enterprise really meant a lot to him.”
Unfortunately, less than two months after he was sworn in for his second term, Sheriff Grantham was gunned down outside of the old Coffee County Jail in Elba.
His killer was a 27-year old Vietnam War veteran Billy Joe Magwood, who lived just outside of Elba on Route 4. It seems that Sheriff Grantham’s only sin that caused his murder was simply being the sheriff when Magwood was jailed in Coffee County.
“Daddy had not done a thing to Billy Joe Magwood,” Kenneth Grantham emphasizes. “He was just in the jail there and took offense to him because he was the sheriff.”
Current Coffee County Chief Deputy Ronnie Whitworth – who was an Alabama State Trooper at the time of Sheriff Grantham’s death – was a friend of the slain sheriff and said that Magwood was known by law enforcement in the community.
“I don’t remember exactly what they had problems with him for but he was known,” Whitworth said. “I had encounters with him on some traffic violations back then but that’s the only interactions I personally had with him.”
Elba Clipper Publisher Ferrin Cox said that prior to the shooting, Magwood’s home had been searched and Magwood arrested as a result. Magwood’s arrest was documented in The Clipper and another upstart publication in Elba called the Elba News. Magwood was extremely upset about the coverage but even more so that a picture of his wife was featured on the cover of the Elba News during the arrest.
“(Magwood) brought the paper into the office and I told him that it wasn’t the Elba Clipper and I even pulled our paper to show him that it wasn’t the same,” Cox said. “I could never get him to understand the difference and he never could get over it.”
According to court documents and media coverage at the time, Magwood devised a “hit list” of sorts of those that he felt had wronged him. Cox was on that list alongside Sheriff Grantham.
“You can go down that ‘hit list’ and see there was a judge that sent him to jail, the sheriff because he was in his jail, a lawyer that didn’t defend him well enough (in his mind) and a banker and car salesman for not financing and selling him a car,” Cox said.
According to court records, former Coffee County Jail inmate Billy Ray Cooper testified that Magwood stated in 1977 that he would “get even and kill that S.O.B.” in regards to Sheriff Grantham and at one point struck a jailer and attempted to go downstairs “to get the sheriff.”
Another Coffee County Jail inmate, James Kenneth Holder, testified that he heard Magwood claim that he had no reason to be held in the jail and that he would “get even one way or the other.”
On Thursday, March 1, 1979, Magwood struck out to “get even.” Sheriff Grantham had a morning ritual in which he parked in the same spot every morning and then threw away trash next to his parking spot before heading into the jail.
“Part of law enforcement training tells you not to get into a routine of doing things,” Whitworth said. “Back then things were different, though, and Neil had a routine.”
Part of Sheriff Grantham’s Thursday routine was eating breakfast with Cox at the jail but that part was broken on this day.
“I told him that I would have to skip that morning and he drove off,” Cox remembered. “The next thing I knew he was shot.
“I often think about that. When we were riding together and he would have to get out (of the car) he would say, ‘Now, remember if I get into trouble there’s a pistol in that pocket of the car’ and would ask if I knew how to use it.
“I often wonder what would have happened had I gone with him. Had I gone with him would I have waited for him (as he threw away his trash) or gone ahead of him and been shot first? What would have happened?”
Magwood parked his vehicle across the street from the jail at a stop sign overlooking the entrance. As Sheriff Grantham approached the jail, Coffee County jailer Thomas Weeks testified that Magwood approached Sheriff Grantham and shot him three times at close distance, with a .38 caliber revolver, killing him.
“That was a very trying time,” Cox said of the murder. “It shook the entire community and me especially.”
Magwood fled as Weeks opened fire on his vehicle. Moments later Whitworth – who lived just down the street from Sheriff Grantham – was one of many law enforcement officers that got the call on the manhunt for Magwood.
“I was asleep when I got the call, I had just worked a shift the night before, and I jumped up and grabbed some clothes and got in my car,” Whitworth described. “I knew a man that lived out west of Elba that had a car that fit the description.”
Officers descended on a dirt road outside of Elba where a vehicle with the same description had been spotted and Whitworth made his way there, as well. There he and three other officers stopped and began talking about a plan as it had been revealed by then that Magwood was their suspect.
Then, a woman walked down a nearby driveway and simply asked the officers to “not hurt him.”
“I asked her, ‘Don’t hurt who?’ and she just walked away,” Whitworth said. “She started to get in her car to leave but I asked her again who she was talking about and she said that Billy Joe was up in the house at the end of the driveway.”
Whitworth and the other officers cautiously approached the house when they heard a voice calling from just inside the front door.
“I heard a voice hollering, ‘Here I am, come and get me,’ and when he said that I figured it was going to be a shootout with the way he said it,” Whitworth continued. “He was sitting in a chair and kind of in the shadows, so you couldn’t really see him. Finally we made visual contact with him and I called to him and he again told me to come and get him.”
Whitworth said that Magwood completely complied with all of his commands, wasn’t armed and gave arresting officers no problems.
“He only said one thing to us (after the arrest),” Whitworth said. “I told him several times who I was because I was in civilian clothes and he looked at me and said, ‘Trooper Whitworth I know who you are,’ and that was really it.”
There was concern over where to take Magwood due to the nature of the murder and what might happen to Magwood now. Whitworth and Sheriff Grantham were friends and now it was his job to protect his friend’s murderer.
“When you’re in law enforcement you take an oath and I did my job,” Whitworth said. “My job at that point was to protect him.”
As Whitworth drove into Elba, downtown was covered in onlookers.
“People were lined up down the streets, all in front of the bank that’s now the police station in Elba, and Neil’s dad was even standing out there,” Whitworth said. “People were everywhere.”
After talking with a judge inside the courthouse, it was decided to transfer Magwood to the Pike County Jail for his safety.
After being indicted for first-degree murder shortly after his arrest, Magwood was ruled competent to stand trial in 1980 after spending more than eight months at Searcy Hospital being evaluated. During Magwood’s competency hearing his sister testified that he “just wasn’t the same after he was wounded in Vietnam.”
Magwood’s mental state became a key argument for the defense at his trial in 1981 as Searcy Hospital Psychiatrist Dr. William Rudder diagnosed Magwood with “paranoid type schizophrenia” and stated that he “would be considered ‘crazy’ under any definition in any part of the world.”
As a rebuttal, Elba Dr. Donald Cook interviewed Magwood in June 1979 and said that he exhibited no symptoms indicative of schizophrenia. Dr. Cook also testified that he had treated him on a number of occasions over a 15-year span and had seen no indication of mental illness during that time. Another Elba physician – Dr. Bancroft Cooper – testified that Magwood was sane.
A licensed psychologist Douglas McKeown also testified that he believed Magwood knew the difference between right and wrong before the murder. He did believe that he was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, however.
In 1981, Magwood was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death, but that death sentence would become a 30-year long battle. In 1980 a law was passed in Alabama that the murder of a law enforcement officer could face a maximum sentence of death.
In 1979, however, the law required “aggravating circumstances” that would have to include an additional crime along with the murder to earn the death penalty. The judge in Magwood’s initial trial cited the recent court ruling that the murder of a law enforcement officer was an “aggravating circumstance” itself.
For years Magwood appealed a number of things including his conviction and eventually his sentence. Finally, in 2009 the U.S. Supreme Court overruled lower court rulings and the sentence was changed to a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
“I wasn’t surprised,” Cox said of the court’s decision. “I was expecting it but the reasoning behind it is laughable in my opinion, but I’m not the one that makes those decisions.
“I certainly would not have made that decision but at the same time I would have trouble being the one to flip the switch on him, too. I believe that you and I and everyone else should obey the law and to argue that no one told you that killing a law enforcement officer could get you the death sentence doesn’t sit well with me.”
Whitworth was also displeased with the ruling but understands it’s a part of the system that he fights to uphold everyday.
“It bothered me but I believe in the system,” Whitworth said. “I disagree with what the system does sometimes but I do believe in it. I think he should have been put to death but there was a technicality with the sentencing there.”
Kenneth Grantham said that it certainly hurt the Grantham family when the court made its decision but there was a silver lining in it, no matter how small.
“I would be lying if I said otherwise,” Kenneth Grantham said of his displeasure with the ruling. “Even though it’s not what I wanted and it’s not what should have happened, at least for his three sisters – and our family – it brought a little bit of closure.
“I got to where in the 80s – with all of the appeals – it got to where I just stopped going. We’d heard it over and over again and it was like having a scab that’s about healed and then you have to go to court again and that scab is ripped off and bleeding again. I just got tired of hearing the same things over and over and reopening those wounds over and over again.”
Cox said that he was caught off guard a few years ago when Magwood reached out to The Clipper to find out how much it would be for him to subscribe and have it mailed to him in Holman Prison.
“I never responded because I guess we really just didn’t need him as a subscriber,” Cox flatly said. “It definitely caught me off guard.”
Magwood, however, has never reached out to the Grantham family in the past 40 years.
“He’s never reached out,” Kenneth Grantham said. “I always thought that I would love to be able to sit down across from Billy Joe at some point before I die and let him tell me whatever he wanted to tell me but he’s never reached out.”
Kenneth Grantham had a hard time searching for the answer on whether he could ever forgive Magwood even if he asked for it.
“I have two children and neither one of them ever got a chance to know my daddy,” Kenneth Grantham painfully said. “All they know him from are old photos, old videos and old stories. He took that away from them and that is hard to forgive.
“I would try to forgive him, I think I would, but I don’t think I ever totally could because he took my daddy away from me when was I was just 28 years old. Again he has never reached out, though. The Lord has to forgive him.”
Kenneth Grantham said that on the day in 1979 he didn’t just lose his dad, he lost the best friend he’s ever had.
“When I lost my dad I lost my best friend,” he emphasized. “A lot of sons can’t say that for various reasons. I really lost my best friend that day.”
In past years the life and legacy of Sheriff Grantham have been kept alive as the highway where Grantham Grocery once stood was rechristened Neil Grantham Drive and in 2019, the county celebrated Sheriff Grantham’s life with a day of remembrance.
Sheriff Grantham’s legacy also lives on in the Coffee County Sheriff’s Office as his friend Whitworth now serves as chief deputy, the same position he served as before becoming sheriff.
“Ronnie and I have talked about that,” Kenneth Grantham said. “There are a lot of ties there and it’s ironic how things have played out and now he’s in the chief deputy position. He’s a good guy and has been a friend of the Grantham family for a long time.”
Kenneth Grantham said that when he thinks back on his father he has a simple but effective way to describe him.
“He was just an old country boy that done good,” Kenneth Grantham says as a smile creeps across his face. “That’s how I would describe him. He was just a good guy all around.”