DeKalb County dispatcher took unusual messages during career

The Huntsville Times


Tuesday, May 22, 2007
Times Staff Writer


HENAGAR - Among the long-time members of the DeKalb County Sheriff's Department, there is some debate about the most unusual call of Jackie Tanner's career.

Some favor the reports of the moonshiners and bootleggers in the days before Fort Payne, the county seat, approved the county's first legal alcohol sales. Others recall the chicken fighters and the bank robbery in Geraldine.

But Tanner, a dispatcher and chief clerk who retired last month from the department, chooses the case of the woman who'd never been kissed.

It was in 1981, Tanner's first year as a full-time employee in the department. Earlier that year, Harold Richards, the county's legendary sheriff, had hired Tanner, believed to be one of the department's first handicapped employee.

The story of the woman who called the sheriff's department because she'd never been kissed was told and retold after Tanner's retirement party in March at a Fort Payne restaurant

About 60 people were there, including some of the county's most influential politicians.

"He's from the old school," Tanner remembers DeKalb County District Attorney Michael O'Dell saying, "and that's a class I wish would never graduate."

Tanner, 46, was born in Chattanooga with cerebral palsy. He was the youngest of seven children born to Bill Tanner, a well driller from Henagar.

His father was a long-time friend of Richards, holder of six terms, the most of any official in county history. One day after Tanner had graduated from Sylvania High School, Bill Tanner drove his son to the DeKalb County Sheriff's Department in Fort Payne.

"This boy needs a job," his father told Richards.

Richards turned to Charles Houston, a sheriff's dispatcher at the time.

"Show this boy how to run a radio," Richards told Houston, as Tanner recalls.

Tanner had been interested in citizens' band radios since he was 12. He was 18 at the time.

"Pull up a chair," Houston told Tanner.

And then Tanner sat beside him.

"He knew every road in the county, and he almost knew everybody who lived on it," said Bud Oliver, a former mayor of Collinsville, in the southern part of the county.

For the next two years or so, Tanner worked part time, fielding calls from deputies who had found another stash of illegal liquor, among other things.

He was hired full time in April 1981.

"When I first started, they still raided bootleggers," he said. "It was nothing to get a load of whiskey or beer."

But his first months as a full-time employee were hardly routine. There was the call from Judith Ann Neelley in 1982.

On a September evening, Tanner was working second shift when he received an anonymous phone call.

"If you'll go to Little River Canyon and go to where the power lines are and look off the cliff, you'll find a body," the caller told him before hanging up.

Moments later, she called again. This time, a deputy answered. She repeated her earlier message.

Then she called a third time. Tanner answered again.

It was Neelley, later convicted in the kidnapping, sexual torture and murder of Lisa Ann Millican, 13.

"From what I was told, she was calling from a pay phone around Fort Payne," Tanner said.

There was also the case of the man who drove a dead woman around in the front seat of his car for several days. Not only was she dead, but her leg was cut off.

But for quirkiness, he still favors the call from the woman who phoned the sheriff's department because she'd never been kissed. At first, the woman reported she was being held hostage by her husband.

"He thinks I'm washing dishes, but I'm down here at a neighbor's house," she told Tanner. "He's got my car blocked. All I want to do is get my clothes and leave."

Tanner called a deputy, who went to the couple's home.

A few minutes later, the deputy radioed Tanner.

"We can't help her," the deputy said. "She wants us to put him in jail because they've been married all these years and he's never kissed her - and they have a couple of kids."