AUBURN - It was just after 1 p.m. on a sad Auburn Sunday when Tommy Dawson faced the hot television lights. The lines in his face said he had not slept.
Auburn Police Chief Tommy Dawson/Phillip Marshall photo
The night before, Dawson had arrived at University Park Apartments in Auburn to find that six people had been shot. Former Auburn football players Ed Christian and Ladarious Phillips and Auburn resident DeMario Pitts had been killed. Somewhere around 3 a.m., in head football coach Gene Chizik's office, it was left to Dawson to tell Christian's grieving parents that they had lost their son.
Dawson was hurt and angry at the loss of three young men who had yet begun to live, but his voice was calm and steady as he looked into the cameras and vowed that Desmonte Leonard, the alleged shooter, would soon be caught. He talked with heartfelt compassion about the pain of the families of the dead and the wounded, and about Leonard's family, also desperate in their grief.
And he silently remembered Lauren Burk, an Auburn freshman murdered in 2008. He remembered standing beside her father, who had he horrific duty of identifying his daughter's body.
By last Tuesday, Leonard had turned himself in and was in custody. Dawson at least could go to his home on the property where is great grandfather lived and sleep. Sitting in his office on Monday, nine days after the murders that stunned a community and a state, Dawson shook his head again at the senseless loss.
"I take the job of protecting these kids very seriously," Dawson said. "My daughter is here and in school, but she's here with me. I can't imagine if she were off at Alabama or South Carolina or Tennessee and I heard on the news there had been three students killed and three shot. I'd go absolutely crazy. I try to keep that in mind when dealing with other people's children."
Those children, college students who come from places near and far to attend Auburn University, are never far from Dawson's mind or his heart.
"It's a big responsibility to take care of those children," Dawson said. "We do the very best we can. We are very concerned about their safety. Something we'll always do at Auburn is take care of our kids, as well as the rest of our citizens. Sometimes when it's young people it's extra special."
It was getting close to daylight on that Sunday morning and detectives were still on the scene where the unthinkable had happened when Dawson's cell phone buzzed. It was a text message from Chad Burk, Lauren Burk's brother. Later in the morning there was a call from her father. They told him they were praying for him.
"That means a lot," Dawson said, "that they think enough of you to call you and tell you 'We are thinking about you and still behind you.'"
Everything about Auburn is special to Dawson. It's where five generations of his family have lived. It is his town, his home. It's in his heart. He's been an Auburn policeman for a quarter of a century, rising through the ranks to become chief in May of 2010.
Tim Jackson, Auburn's senior executive athletics director, was overseeing game operations and Dawson was assistant chief when they became friends.
"He's the ultimate professional," Jackson said. "He's very non-egotistical. You won't see him out front if he can help it. He takes his job very, very personally."
For Dawson, along with the sadness and the grief, there was frustration. He, indeed, did take it personally. Auburn, he says, is a safe place. But no place, he says, is immune to what happened on that fateful night.
"It can happen again tonight," Dawson said. "We try to be very strict on it. We patrol the areas as much as we can. We encourage people to hire security if they have a large party. But you can't prevent it. It can happen anywhere. That's one of the things about living in a free society. It can happen."
That it did happen in Dawson's city makes him angry and it makes him sad, but he must be strong. It's his job. And it's who he is.
"I feel like I need to remain calm and focused to set the example for the men and women that work for us at Auburn," Dawson said. "Also I think it's important that I remain calm and focused so that the families of the victims will see that we are out there working and we are strictly business and we are focused on the goal ahead of us, which is apprehending the suspect."
It's never easy, not when the circumstances are so horrific.
"You try to keep it inside as long as you can," Dawson said. "In all honesty, I'm not near as calm as I might look like I am."
Sometimes, Dawson says, the pain becomes almost too much to bear. He wonders if he can go on. But he always does.
"The people of Auburn have been very good to me and my family," Dawson said. "The city of Auburn has been much better to me and my family than I have been to it. I can never replay the administration and the way they've treated me and, more importantly, the citizens and the way they've treated me. I have so many letters and so many emails thanking me. That means more than the paychecks."
There was relief when Leonard was in custody, but it didn't and couldn't make the hurt go away, couldn't erase the memory of Christian's mother weeping hard.
"I'll never get over seeing her cry in Coach Chizik's office," Dawson said. "His daddy was taking it hard. The image of her crying and Ed lying there like he was, such a senseless waste of life, it's something you never forget. It stays with you forever."
Auburn athletics director Jay Jacobs was there, too, along with Chizik and assistant coach Trooper Taylor.
"As a member of this community, raising my family here, we are truly blessed by Chief Dawson's dedication and loyalty," Jacobs said.
As they left Chizik's office, Jacobs told Dawson he should go get some sleep. Dawson wasn't interested in sleep.
"I'll get some rest," Dawson told him, "after we get this guy caught."