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Chambers County reacts to Girl’s Ranch tragedy

LaFAYETTE — Sheriff Sid Lockhart and officers with the Chambers County Sheriff’s Office are heartbroken over Saturday’s tragic accident on I-65 and the deaths of eight children from the Tallapoosa County Girls Ranch. 

“I fell in love with the ranch back in 1973 when I was a county deputy with the sheriff’s office,” Lockhart said. “I put down the carpet in the first home built there and have supported it ever since. The girls who have come through the ranch are like family to me. We have had some girls from Chambers County who have been there over the years … The Alabama Sheriff’s Youth Ranch program is very close to my heart.”

Lockhart presently serves on the state board for the youth ranches.

Thursday, Lockhart and Major T.J. Wood went to Gulf Shores to take part in a birthday party for Director Candace Gulley’s three-year-old son. 

“His birthday was going to be next week, but they wanted to celebrate it while they were in Gulf Shores,” Lockhart said. “We had the party at Tacky Jack’s, and everyone had a great time. All the kids were laughing and carrying on.”

The three-year-old was killed in the Saturday accident along with his sister and two of his cousins.

A bystander saved Gulley’s life by pulling her from the burning van. She’s in stable condition in a local hospital with some broken bones.

According to the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, 17 vehicles were involved in the multi-vehicle pileup. Seven of them were on fire when emergency personnel arrived.

The massive accident took place at approximately 2:30 p.m. CDT, as Tropical Storm Claudette was moving across Alabama, dumping from five to eight inches of rain and spawning a few tornadoes.

The girls were on their way back from a trip to the beach. The entire party traveled in two vans. The first van made it back to the ranch safely in a little more than three hours. 

The multi-vehicle pileup shut down the north-bound lane of I-65 for several hours.

The victims ranged in age from three to 17. Four of the girls were students at Reeltown High School, all remembered in a memorial service at the school on Sunday.

According to a story from Al.com, one girl spoke at the service about the girls who died.

“When people hear about the ranch, they usually assume that the girls have done something wrong or bad to get there. But that’s not the case,’’ she said, via Al.com. “These girls have been through so much, and they were such strong, wonderful, kind family members and it was my privilege and my honor to be their big sister.”

“No one could have said it any better than that,” Lockhart said. “People think because they are on a sheriff’s ranch that they must have gotten in trouble, that they are bad girls. That’s just not true. They get there because there’s no place for them to go. Usually, it’s their parents who have gotten in trouble. These girls are some of the best young people you can ever meet. Many of them go on to productive lives. I know of an attorney in Montgomery who came through the girls ranch. There’s a number of nurses, teachers and other professionals who were there when they were in school.”

Lockhart took his cooking trailer to the ranch on Sunday and cooked for the girls. There’s a photo on his Facebook page of a young girl hugging his neck. 

“Something like that really gets to you,” he said.

Lockhart urges everyone to keep the ranch, the staff, and the families in their prayers. 

“People should remember first responders when something like this happens,” he said. “Those people who worked the wreck on Saturday will never forget what they saw.”

Also killed in the accident were Cody Fox, 29, and his nine-month-old daughter, Ariana.

“We were real close to everyone at the ranch,” Wood said. “This is a tragedy that has affected all of us.”

Earlier this month, a Jason Fuller Memorial Motorcycle Ride raised a total of $8,665.25 for the ranch.

Lockhart said people can help by making donations to a GoFundMe page that has been set up for the ranch. 

“They can also make checks to the Tallapoosa County Sheriff’s Youth Ranch and drop it off at our office in the courthouse or at the annex in Lanett,” he said.

The girls’ ranch straddles the Tallapoosa-Lee County line near Camp Hill.