REMEMBERING: "A PURPOSE FOR EVERYTHING UNDER THE SUN" - McDonald Recalls Sheriff's Tragic Death In 1976


The pastor of the Brooksville
Baptist Church, C. W. "Mac" McDonald of Big Bend, a retired
state policeman and former Calhoun magistrate, recalls the tragic death of Sheriff Park Richards - November 18, 1976

By Bob Weaver 2006

"I believe there is a purpose for everything under the sun," said former state policeman C. W. "Mac" McDonald, "But what happened over 30 years ago is part of my life that I wish never happened."

He was speaking about the tragic death of former Calhoun Sheriff Park Richards on November 18, 1976, following an exchange of gunfire that left Richards and a mentally disturbed man dead.

"This is the first time in 30 years I've talked in detail about what happened, the beginning to the end," Mac said.

A Grafton native, he served in the US Navy for four years, was a State Police officer for 21 years, 15 years in Calhoun. During his 17-year retirement from the State Police, he has served as a Calhoun magistrate for 11 years. A devout Christian, he entered the ministry and is now pastor of the Brooksville Baptist Church.

"I came to Calhoun early in my career as a new trooper for the State Police, and fell in love with the place," he said. Coming to Calhoun as a police officer was a relief, having served as an undercover officer for two years with several close encounters.

In 1976, Park Richards had just been re-elected to a second term when he called Mac for help to serve a lunacy warrant, the forerunner of what is now a mental hygiene warrant.

Richards was buried near his family
home in Big Springs Cemetery, dead at age 63

"I encountered John Fitzgerald a couple weeks before (the shooting)," said Mac, answering a call to Levering's Store at Russett where Fitzgerald had created a disturbance. "I talked with him in the cruiser for a few minutes about the problem, and he was really polite. No problem. But I had been told he might be 'burnt out' on drugs or had problems."

Neighbors reported Fitzgerald had moved to Calhoun from the Washington DC area about two years before the incident to get away from a drug problem, describing him as a troubled loner.

A complaint had been filed against Fitzgerald by C. M. Smith, who lived in a trailer near Fitzgerald. The subject had been living under a rock for about two months, a "cave dwelling," with about 50 chickens. A barn in which he had been living had burned to the ground.

Smith said that Fitzgerald had threatened to kill him, complaining about 'imagined trespassers' on his land. Smith said he had warned the officers Fitzgerald might cause trouble.

"Park and I walked across the creek that morning to find the man, and take him to Spencer State Hospital for an evaluation," Mac said.

"I took my shotgun, but there was nothing unusual, although I told Park we should separate, part of my training, before we encountered him."

"He saw us coming. He had a high-powered rifle, crudely painted red with mud caked on it, even on the end of the barrel. He was standing across the creek, cooking something over an open fire."

"He had the gun in one hand and an ax in the other," when Mac began to tell Fitzgerald why the officers were there.

With Fitzgerald about 30 feet away, the situation began to take a turn for the worse.

"He was looking straight at me, the gun pointed in my direction. I could see that mud on the end of the red barrel, but he lowered the gun and began to walk away, calmly."

Fitzgerald walked toward his cave, behind a large rock out-of-sight with Mac following him. "I looked for Park, but he was no longer in the area beside me."

"Coming around the rock there was Fitzgerald and Park, and immediately a shot was fired," the sheriff being the target. "I aimed my shotgun at Fitzgerald and shot, as Park emptied his .357" at his assailant.

Fitzgerald fell dead to the ground as Richards collapsed, quickly dying. "I went to Park's side, to see what I could do, but I knew it was over," Mac said. "I thought I shot once at Fitzgerald, but the autopsy said I fired three times. It was the worst experience of my life." It was the only time he shot a person in his career as a police officer.

Mac ran from the scene to call for help, but radio communication was really poor at that time, and he failed to get a response. He then went to the Smith house and phoned for help.

The FBI investigated the shooting and found no wrong-doing.

"Park was well-liked by the community, always available and took his job seriously," said Mac.

Reflecting on the event, he said "I have learned a lot from my life experience, and have had lots of second thoughts about doing things differently that day, and why I was spared and Park was not. I lost a dear friend."

Mac will joined some members of law enforcement, local officials, family members and community residents for the dedication of the Park Richard's Highway, Route 16 from Grantsville to the Ritchie County line.

Park Richards 1913-1976