In Franklin County, folks thought things at the sheriff’s department couldn’t get any worse after scandal-tarred sheriff Ewell Hunt eeked out a narrow election victory by less than 250 votes in November 2007.
A year later, Hunt was under arrest — charged by a county grand jury with keeping faulty records. He beat the rap and remained sheriff.
Under Hunt’s questionable brand of “leadership,” Franklin County’s law enforcement agency became a laughing stock — a surreal scene where the sheriff’s teenage daughter ran amuck — terrorizing other senior officers, carrying a gun and inserting herself into criminal investigation.
Ashley Hunt went to work for the sheriff’s department part-time at 14 — while her father was a deputy and before he became sheriff. While still a minor she entered into what the grand jury delicately called “an inappropriate relationship” with 29-year-old deputy Jonathan Agee.
When Hunt became sheriff, he expanded his daughter’s role in the office and — the grand jury report said — gave his only-child daughter unprecedented power over the department’s 70 deputies and staff. The teenager’s temper tantrums earned her the nickname “Hurricane Ashley.”
Meanwhile, Agee remained on the job instead of facing the kind of criminal charges that are normally lodged against older men who get involved with an underage girl. Agee — divorced and involved in a bitter custody dispute with his ex-wife — was “a time bomb waiting to go off,” according to one close friend.
On Monday — Memorial Day — the time bomb went off. Agee left his home in Boone’s Mill with an assault rifle, telling his current wife — Roanoke deputy Julia Angell — that he planned to drive to Salem where his ex-wife lived and kill her.
Angell called 911 in Franklin County and reported that her husband was on his way to Salem to kill his ex-wife. The Franklin County dispatch center contacted Sheriff Hunt who told them to not put out an area-wide “BOLO” (Be On the LookOut) alert. Instead, he called the Salem Police Department and asked that an officer call him back.
The initial 911 call to the Franklin County Dispatch Center came in at 11:07 a.m. Fifty-six minutes later, Jonathan Agee pulled his patrol car into the Sheetz’s Parking Lot at Orange Avenue and Williamson Road in Roanoke where his ex-wife had gone to meet a friend. Witnesses say he pulled out his assault weapon and opened fire on Jennifer Agee as she got out of her pickup truck. Agee’s daughter watched in horror from the pickup as her mother fell to the pavement, dying.
According to witnesses at the Sheetz, Agee then got back into his patrol car and headed west on U.S. 460 (Orange Avenue). State Police Sgt. Matthew Brannock, alerted to be on the lookout for a Franklin County Sheriff’s Department patrol car, spotted Agee driving on U.S. 460 and turned on his lights. Agee responded by turning on his emergency lights and speeding off.
The chase continued to Christiansburg where Agee turned back towards Roanoke on I-81. Brannock forced the deputy to stop at mile marker 125. The two exchanged gunfire and Agee sped off again, leaving Brannock wounded in the leg. Two other state police cruisers chased Brannock with police and suspect firing at each other from moving vehicles on the Interstate clogged with holiday traffic.
Agee — wounded multiple times — finally brought his cruiser to a half halfway up the exit ramp at the Ironto exit on I-81. He remains hospitalized in critical condition. Brannock’s condition from the leg wound is listed as “non life threatening.”
As state police investigators work to unravel the incredible string events that led to the death of a young woman — killed in front of her child — the wounding of both a state trooper and the suspect who is also a police officer, a number of serious and disturbing questions remain:
- Why was Jonathan Agee still working as a deputy sheriff after being involved in a relationship with an underage girl that would have landed a civilian in jail?
- Why was Ewell Hunt — a sheriff who played fast and loose with the rules and the law — still in office?
- And — most importantly — if Sheriff Hunt not tried to keep quiet the fact that a loose-cannon deputy was on a mission to kill his ex-wife instead of allowing the broadcast of an area-wide alert, would Jennifer Agee still be alive?
The answers to all of these questions are — sadly — unknown but one thing is clear.
The citizens of Franklin County needs a new sheriff and they need one now.
(This article is based on interviews in Franklin County and Roanoke and information published in The Roanoke Times)