Georgia prosecutors say they are trying to determine whether to charge a homeowner with a crime after he shot an elderly Alzheimers patient as the man was trying to get into his house during the middle of the night.
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The man who fired the shot had moved into the neighborhood just days earlier, police said. The victim had been wandering in the cold for hours with his two dogs, and after he was shot one of his dogs laid across his body protectively and had to be pried away by animal control.
In the coming weeks, authorities from the Walker County District Attorney's and sheriff's offices will meet to determine whether to file charges against Joe Hendrix, 34, who fatally shot Ronald Westbrook, 72, on Nov. 27.
The controversial "stand your ground" law may play a role in the prosecutor's decision. The Georgia version of the law was enacted in 2006 and states that a person has no duty to retreat and can use deadly force when they feel their lives or property are endangered.
Walker County Sheriff Steven Wilson told ABCNews.com there was no doubt that Hendrix "perceived a threat" when he fired four shots at the elderly Alzheimer's patient. However the decision on whether to file charges will be left to the district attorney.
"It's a very unfortunate set of circumstances and we're just trying to gather the facts and the evidence," Wilson said.
Alzheimer's Patient Left Home With Dogs
Around 1 a.m. last Wednesday, on the eve of Thanksgiving, Wilson said Westbrook, who suffered from advanced Alzheimer's, slipped out of the home he shared with his wife of 51 years.
Dressed in a windbreaker and straw hat, Wilson said the retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel took his two dogs with him and wandered outside for hours on one of the coldest nights of the season.
Around 2 a.m., the sheriff said a police officer found Westbrook by a mailbox and asked him what he was doing.
Westbrook replied that he was getting his mail. When the officer asked where he lived, the sheriff said Westbrook pointed to a well-lit house at the top of a hill where people were sitting on the porch.
"Come to find out, this was a home where Mr. Westbrook had lived many years previously to this," Wilson said.
After the officer left, the sheriff said Westbrook continued walking until he reached a residence at the end of a cul-de-sac where Joe Hendrix and his fiancee had moved in just 11 days earlier.
"Around 3:50 a.m., they were awakened by their dog barking really loud and aggressively," Wilson said. "They got up and made their way to the living room and could see a man at the front door jiggling and turning the door knob and also ringing the door bell."
During the time Hendrix's fiancee was on the phone with 911 dispatchers, Wilson said Westbrook left the porch and returned before disappearing again into the darkness of the night.
Around 4 a.m., before police arrived, Wilson said Hendrix armed himself and went outside where he ordered the person he believed was a prowler to stop and identify himself.
When Westbrook didn't respond and continued walking toward him, Wilson said Hendrix fired four shots. Three missed, but one fatal shot hit the veteran in the chest.
"He perceived a threat and that is why he fired his weapon," Wilson said. "He then came back inside and told the dispatcher he shot the man."
Wilson said Westbrook was pronounced dead five minutes later by deputies who arrived on the scene.
One of Westbrook's dogs, a rottweiller, had laid down on his body to protect him and had to be physically removed, the sheriff said.
Wilson said Hendrix and his fiancee have been "fully cooperative and we believe completely truthful from the very beginning."
Hendrix was unable to be reached for comment at a listed phone number. It was unclear if he had hired an attorney.