Sheriff helicopter

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Missing couple search reveals absence of sheriff’s helicopter

By Billy Davis

The Panola County Sheriff’s Department is no longer in possession of an OH-6 helicopter that was being purchased from DeSoto County, The Panolian was officially told last week.

Sheriff Hugh “Shot” Bright announced last month that the Panola sheriff’s department possessed the helicopter and was awaiting final approval by a federal agency for the transfer.

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After supervisors’ First District meeting Monday, however, Supervisor Gary Thompson and County Administrator Kelley Magee said they were told by Bright that the helicopter was returned to DeSoto County after its sale was rejected by the federal Department of Defense.

Law enforcement authorities last week lamented the lack of an available helicopter, and partially blamed local media for its absence, when an elderly couple was feared to be lost near Como.

Authorities were searching north Panola County for Benny Brooks and wife Viola when they received word that the couple had safely reached their destination in Philadelphia, Miss.

The use of the helicopter would have helped in the search, sheriff’s investigator Mark Whitten told a reporter after the incident.

“Contrary to the beliefs of a small group of citizens in this county and some media, this is a situation where a helicopter would have been a useful tool,” Whitten said in a statement.

Two Memphis-based TV news stations had sent helicopters to help in the search, he said.

While the search was ongoing, Chief Deputy Otis Griffin chided a reporter for news coverage that he said had been negative, and also said that a helicopter would have helped authorities find the couple.

The statements from Whitten and Griffin were the first on-record comments from sheriff’s department employees that the department had given back the helicopter to DeSoto Sheriff Bill Rasco.

The last Panolian story written about the helicopter was published Tuesday, November 4. In the story, Panola supervisors authorized a bid advertisement for a used helicopter even though the DeSoto County helicopter was already in use by the Panola sheriff’s department.

Board of Supervisors president Gary Thompson said in the same story that he was unaware of its transfer from DeSoto County.

The bid opening for a used helicopter was set for yesterday in Sardis, but no bids were received, said board attorney Bill McKenzie.

Prior to the November 4 story, The Panolian reported on October 7 that Bright wanted to borrow $150,000 from the county’s general fund to purchase the helicopter because drug-seized funds he had hoped to receive were “tied up” in federal court.

Supervisors did not object to the request but were advised by County Administrator Kelley Magee that financing for the purchase was proving difficult to find.