From 1980 until 2008, Jackson County residents knew one man as their sheriff.
But the story of the trials and tribulations John McDaniel faced during his 28-years in office spread far beyond Jackson County’s border, to an entire nation.
In December 1980, John Perry McDaniel III, better known as “Johnny Mac” was about to take office as the new Jackson County sheriff.
But, his new job started early, with a murder investigation that he would never forget.
“Twenty eight years of sheriff started out with my father’s murder,” said McDaniel.
He said it took five years to solve the murder of John McDaniel, Jr..
It was a random attack performed by serial killers, Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole, who were already on death row in Texas.
As painful as it was to lose his father, McDaniel understood what it was like to experience murder as a cop and a victim.
He said it helped him understand how to be a good sheriff.
Like helping someone change a flat tire, being a confidante to someone needing a sympathetic ear, or delivering the news that someone has died.
“To be the sheriff of a county, you have to learn to be everything to everybody. You have to turn your head when you shed a tear to not let them know that you’re that human, but you can’t get calloused against death,” said McDaniel.
That, he said, is the hardest part of being a sheriff.
“To see a tear roll down a mama’s eye, those things will kill you,” Mcdaniel said.
So, McDaniel and his deputies did what they could to bring as much peace as possible to families victimized by as many as 50-murders during McDaniel’s tenure.
Some are still a mystery, like the McCray case in Graceville.
“We had all kind of people working that case and of course it’s still an unsolved case, much to my sorrow,” said McDaniel.
Another cold case took place earlier in his career at a bar, before today’s high tech investigation techniques.
“If you can imagine trying to pull latent prints out of a lounge that fifty people been in and no eyewitnesses to what happened and we didn’t have dna and the labs and all that,” McDaniel said.
McDaniel said he handled five or six unsolved murders, and others that were never solved legally, but closed for other reasons.
“The suspect in the case may die with a heart attack or may get killed in a car wreck. We knew that’s who did it but we had to clear it exceptionally. Some of the cases were done that way,” said McDaniel.
It was one of those type cases that resulted in a horrific tragedy for McDaniel with the entire nation sharing his grief.
“Course, over the period of years I dealt with a lot of victims and families. But then on January of 2007 I had to deal with it myself,” said McDaniel.
That afternoon of the January 30th, McDaniel’s wife, Mellie, who worked at the sheriff’s office, called Johnny Mac over a radio phone.
She said someone was following her home from the grocery shopping. Then she screamed.
McDaniel dispatched the closest deputy, Michael Altman, to their Marianna home. Then he and other officers quickly followed.
“And then two minutes later, me and Joey and another officer, all three of us was here and a wild shoot out took place here,” McDaniel said.
When the shooting ended, four people, including Mellie McDaniel and deputy Altman, were dead.
“We had had a murder case where a fellow was a suspect in murdering his wife and we kept working it. We couldn’t actually prove it because he had an alibi that we couldn’t crack,” said McDaniel.
60-year-old, Lionel Sands, was the primary suspect in the 2001 death of his wife.
McDaniel believes Sands and his accomplice 54-year-old Daniel Brown began stalking McDaniel and his wife, after a court hearing that didn’t go Sands’ way.
“We found out later he had made several calls learning my habits, when I was going to be home, when I wasn’t going to be home and so forth,” McDaniel said.
Johnny Mac returned to work, but he soon decided he was at a crossroads.
“Then I got to thinking about it, well maybe, maybe I’ve been here long enough and maybe its’ time to go home,” McDaniel said.
He retired in November of 2008.
“Now, I’ve got a regular routine of nothing that is important,” said McDaniel.
He keeps himself busy with little projects in his woodwork shed.
Though he cherishes his days as sheriff, he also understand the personal cost.
“I paid the price, I paid the price,” said McDaniel
He also said that even though he retired 10-years ago, people in Jackson County still call him “Sheriff”, and many still call or stop by when they have a problem.”
Earlier this year, John McDaniel published his life story entitled ‘The High Sheriff’.
It’s available on amazon at https://www.amazon.com/High-Sheriff-John-Perry-McDaniel/dp/0998746002