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Veteran lawman retiring
Deputies benefited from his experience
2 Cagle mug

A veteran lawman with nearly four decades of service will take off his badge for the last time Dec. 31.

Dawson County Sheriff's Lt. Col. John Cagle recently announced his retirement with an eye toward spending more time with his grandchildren and aging parents.

"My parents are in not too good health and they need me more, and I've got a couple grandsons," he said. "I think it's time, after 35, 36 years, I've done my time."

Cagle began his law enforcement career at age 24 as a narcotics agent with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. From there, he climbed the ranks, retiring from the bureau in 2008 as special agent in charge of the region.

Within weeks, Dawson County Sheriff Billy Carlisle had brought in Cagle to command his agency's criminal investigation division.

"He's been a great asset to us," Carlisle said. "I think our officers have learned a lot from him.

"He came in with the knowledge he has and the experience, and he's turned around and taught our investigators and other officers that same mindset and those abilities."

That experience and know-how has enabled the sheriff's office to take on cases that in the past required assistance from other agencies.

"Because what he's been able to teach all of us is that we don't have to rely on outside agencies as much as we used to, because we have learned a lot of things from him and brought the department up another step, another notch," Carlisle said.

From day one with the sheriff's office, Cagle said he has aimed to help young officers develop into career law enforcers.

"One of my objectives, and I told the investigators who were there at the time, was to ensure they had opportunities to get experience and to work a wide variety of cases that perhaps in the past they had not had the opportunity to work, like murders, violent crimes and more serious events," he said.

The local criminal element played a role in helping Cagle accomplish that goal. There were several major crimes in the county as his tenure began.

"I'm not suggesting it was a good thing that a murder happened," he said. "But if a serious crime does happen, and our investigators have an opportunity to work it ... they saw they could do it very easily with a little bit of effort and a little bit of understanding of how to do certain things.

"Once they did it, they were able to stand taller and have the confidence level that they needed to move forward. And I think that's where CID is now, because they've had those opportunities."

In March 2011, Cagle was promoted to undersheriff, responsible for day-to-day operations with a focus on accountability.

"Anytime you start raising the bar with expectations, you have some people that rise with it and some people that don't," he said. "We're much better off, I believe, after we raised it and we have those that decided they could rise with it and do a good job. We've seen that happen agency-wide."

While Cagle said he has enjoyed the time he spent in administration, he'll miss the thrill of getting called out at 2 a.m. and the challenge that follows as an investigation unfolds.

"I'll miss the excitement," he said. "I met a lot of good people here. I've met a lot of good friends, made a lot of good friends. Once you kind of get in that groove, it's hard to leave, but I think it's time."

As for his crowning achievement through the years, Cagle said he can't name just one, aside from "lasting this long."

"Every little boy when they grow up, they play pretend, whether it's cowboys and Indians or cops and robbers. I was always a cop," he said. "When you have the opportunity to do that and get paid for it, that's the big time.

"I can't single out one particular case, though. There's been so many that I've enjoyed so much, working the Olympics, the G8 Summit, Democratic Convention, I could go on and on."

But there always seems to be one case that stands out for a veteran officer, one that haunts them years later.

For Cagle, it's the murder of Meredith Hope Emerson, who was killed in the Dawson Forest Wildlife Management Area in January 2008 by Gary Michael Hilton, a man Cagle refers to as "an animal."

"I don't know that I would have done anything different investigatively," he said. "You always think back, ‘Should I have asked for more people?' I think throwing people at a problem sometimes complicates it rather than helps.

"The biggest thing I wish for would have been a different outcome. I don't know that we did anything wrong, but you always in those kinds of cases ... just wish for a different outcome."

Carlisle last week said he has no immediate plans to replace Cagle come Jan. 1.

"I don't know what I'll do yet. We'll just have to wait and see," he said. "We really have to look at the department as a whole and see where we're at, what would be the next step to move it forward and what the county needs."