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Charles Hammer Accused Of Killing Herbert Proffitt, Retired Police Chief And Sheriff

Police Chief Dale Ford holds a photo of his mentor
Herbert Proffitt on Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012,
in Tompkinsville, Ky. 
TOMPKINSVILLE, Ky. -- Their paths had crossed before: the career lawman and the man known around their small Kentucky town for having a mean streak.

Now authorities are investigating whether a slow-burning desire for revenge that began with an arrest a decade ago was behind last month's death of Herbert Proffitt, 82, who was gunned down in his driveway while he went to fetch the mail.

Charles Hammer, 81, is accused of killing the former police chief and sheriff, who arrested him in 2002 on charges of harassment, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.

"It appears that there was an ax to grind," said Trooper Billy Gregory, a spokesman for Kentucky State Police post handling the investigation. "It appears to me to be revenge."

The slaying has staggered people in Tompkinsville, a tight-knit town in the hills of south-central Kentucky, about 120 miles south of Louisville. The Proffitts' only child, Jeff, is mayor.

Five days after her husband was killed, Bernice Proffitt died. Family friends described the cause of death as a broken heart. Hundreds turned out for the funeral of the man known affectionately as "Sprocket," a nickname that stuck since his teenage days of fixing bicycles at a service station.

"The town for a week had no direction," said City Attorney Reed Moore, a family friend. "Nobody around the (town) square got anything done. They just walked around with a blank look on their face."

During his law enforcement days, which spanned more than a half-century, Proffitt was known for using his wits to defuse plenty of dangerous situations in the Appalachian foothills, his friends said.

"His best weapon was his knowledge of people and how to handle them," said Tompkinsville Police Chief Dale Ford, who worked under Proffitt and considered him a mentor.

But Proffitt never worried that someone he had put away might someday seek revenge, they said.

"He was never the type of person who would look over his shoulder," said Ricky Richardson, a city commissioner.

Monroe County Judge-Executive Tommy Willett said Proffitt was willing to extend a hand to those he once cuffed.

"If he put somebody in jail, he'd be friends with that person – if they let him – when they got out," he said.

While town residents mourned Proffitt, they also shared stories about the man accused of killing him and his troubled past.

Hammer's initial court appearance is scheduled for Tuesday. Court records turned up no sign that Hammer has lined up an attorney, but a brother came to his defense.

"I don't think he did it," Jerry Hammer told The Associated Press in a phone interview. "I think he's covering (up) for somebody." He declined further comment before hanging up.

Bev McClendon, another former local sheriff who said he was friends with Proffitt and Hammer, said Hammer harbored feelings for years of having been wronged. He said Hammer once remarked that McClendon had never barged onto his property, unlike others in law enforcement.

"Sometimes people in these hills and hollows carry a vendetta if they think they've been mistreated," McClendon said.

Ford, the police chief, said Hammer had a history of violence that led to his arrest on several occasions. Arrest records show Hammer had several times been picked up for alcohol intoxication, disorderly conduct and harassment, among other charges.

"I feel like he probably thought everybody was against him, and everything that happened to him was not his fault," Ford said. "He didn't want to accept the truth of who really put him in the position he's been in in life, and he wanted to blame that on somebody else."

Wanda Cleary, who lives near Hammer's farmstead in rural Monroe County, said he had a reputation for being mean.

"I didn't know him that well, but I knew him enough that I didn't want to be around him," she said.

Now, investigators say it was Proffitt who arrested Hammer in 2002. Records show he was charged with harassment, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. He was eventually convicted of harassment. He was acquitted of resisting arrest, and the disorderly conduct charge was dismissed.

State police say they found copies of Hammer's arrest citations when they searched his home after Proffitt's death.

Years earlier, Hammer was convicted of wanton endangerment and sentenced to a year in state prison. He served less than two months under a policy called shock probation.

Hammer comes from a big family that includes three brothers who live in the area. He is divorced and two of his daughters live in the area – one is a school teacher, the other works at a bank. He lived on a family farm near town, but what he did for a living was a mystery, residents said. Up until the Aug. 28 shooting, Hammer was routinely seen around town but kept to himself.

"You could meet him on the streets and he wouldn't acknowledge you, he'd just keep on a going," Ford said.

Cleary said Hammer once asked her out on a date, a few years after her husband had died.

"I told him I didn't need no man," she said.

The outburst of violence involving two men both in their 80s added to the shock of the tragedy.

"Usually a man gets religion," McClendon said. "He has a fear of God and he decides to change his life if there was an old feud a going on. I've seen it happen so many times. ... But sometimes people don't let grudges go."

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