County's heroes honored
Valor Awards bestow first Purple Hearts

DULUTH - Heroes emerge from the depths of tragedy and loss.

Take, for instance, Gwinnett County Department of Corrections Officer Timothy Capes.

Headed home on Interstate 85 last March, Capes bore witness to a violent crash up ahead, parked his car and hustled in to help. He found Lt. Don Kirkpatrick, a veteran local firefighter, trapped in his vehicle and critically injured, his arm pinned.

Capes took charge. He ordered someone to call 911, launched first-aid efforts while he tried to administer CPR, but couldn't quite reach the trapped man.

Capes held the firefighter's head in his hands as Kirkpatrick expired.

For his efforts, Capes, alongside a handful of his death-defying brethren, was recognized Friday as Gwinnett's Public Safety Official of the Year. The annual ceremony, held this year at the Gwinnett Place Marriott, took stock of the county's most heart-breaking tragedies of the previous year and showered those who brought them under control with the recognition many said they deserve.

Glowing, the accolade in hand, Capes thanked his wife.

"She was there when this whole thing happened," he said. "She's given me moral support ever since."

The event's most rousing applause came after the announcement of Gwinnett police Officer James Huth as recipient of the Gold Medal of Valor, the highest award for bravery and heroism.

Huth is credited with rescuing his longtime counterparts - Sgt. Mike McKeithan and Cpl. Bill Hoch - during a shootout with a wanted man in a Sugar Hill home in January 2008. Last year, Huth also received the Governor's Public Safety Award, among the state's top accolades, for his actions.

The officers Huth rescued made history themselves. Both were awarded Purple Heart Awards, a first in the program's history.

"I'm humbled by the award," McKeithan said. "A lot of training came into play, and a lot of sacrifice."

Charles Bannister, County Commission Chairman, called protecting the residents of Gwinnett priority number one. More than 135 employees are in the works to be added to the public safety department in the next year, despite economic hardship, he said.

"It's OK to say 'thank you' to these people," Bannister told the hundreds on hand. "Give it a try."

Other notables

· Gwinnett County Department of Corrections Officer Amiziah Smith took home the Silver Medal of Valor. Transporting inmates in a bus last year, Smith witnessed a vehicle crash and pulled two people from the burning car;

· The Bronze Medal of Valor went to Lt. Doug Morphis, K-9 Officer Craig Dallape and Officer Adrian McKinnon of Norcross police. The officers played a key role in an attempted homicide and suicide involving an infant at a Norcross home;

· Gwinnett police Officer Eric Charron earned the Lifesaving Award for rendering CPR and stabilizing a man who had a massive heart attack at an area gym. Officials credit Charron, who was off duty, with saving the man's life;

· Snellville Police Department's special operations unit took home the Public Safety Unit of the Year Award. The team's efforts have reduced traffic crashes by 18 percent since 2006. Serious injuries have dipped by 35 percent, officials said. "It's almost as if they can read each other's minds," Snellville police Lt. Tommy Taylor said. "They function as one."

· The Medal of Merit, awarded to agencies whose volunteer efforts positively affect the community, went to the Fire Department's CPR/AED and First Aid Program. The group has administered classes to more than 29,000 residents in the last decade;

· Michelle Kenney was named Communications Officer of the Year for talking murder suspect Anthony Terrell Jr. into remaining at his Lawrenceville home until police arrived last March. Terrell, 18, is accused of fatally shooting his mother, a Gwinnett County Sheriff's Deputy, and his two younger sisters.