ERWIN — Several small plaques inscribed with names of law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty who either worked for the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department or are from Unicoi County sit at the UCSD. Soon, these plaques will be hung in the department’s hallway as a tribute to the men who gave their lives to protect the public.
UCSD officials thought they had identified all of the fallen officers, with plaques prepared to honor each. But this changed last week when the UCSD received information on Unicoi County Deputy Sheriff E.E. Gillis from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.
The NLEOMF is a nonprofit, Washington, D.C.-based organization whose mission, according to its website, is to “generate increased public support for the law enforcement profession by permanently recording and appropriately commemorating the service and sacrifice of law enforcement officers; and to provide information that will help promote law enforcement safety.”
Not much is apparently known about Gillis. A data form on Gillis sent to the UCSD from the NLEOMF to corroborate his service contains little information about him. His marital status is unchecked; his length of law enforcement service left blank.
NLEOMF Research Manager Carolie Heylinger said the circumstances of Gillis’ death came to the organization’s attention after an amateur historian sent information to the NLEOMF last year. This historian provided the NLEOMF with three brief newspaper reports from The Atlanta Constitution, the Illinois-based Rockford Daily Register-Gazette and The Dallas Morning News. All three articles ran on Dec. 26, 1913, and detail the circumstances that led to Gillis’ death.
According to the articles, on Dec. 24, 1913, Gillis had just taken Jack Edwards into custody in the remote Devil’s Creek area of the county. Edwards’ friends, Harris Tilson and Sam Grindstaff, attempted to free Edwards from Gillis’ custody.
“Edwards was under arrest on a minor charge when Tilson and Grindstaff attempted to liberate him. They closed in on the deputy with knives,” The Dallas Morning News article states.
A fight between the deputy and the three men ensued, according to the articles. Edwards was shot and killed by Gillis and, according to reports, both Tilson and Grindstaff received potentially fatal gunshot wounds. Gillis was severely stabbed during the altercation, the reports state. He died on Christmas Day, 1913.
“Deadly Work is Done by Devil’s Creek Folk,” the headline for the Atlanta Constitution report read.
The earliest death of a UCSD deputy that department officials knew of prior to becoming aware of Gillis was Deputy Frank Moore’s 1922 death by gunfire.
“We thought we had all of them, and (Gillis) was sent to us,” UCSD Administrative Assistant Robie Sullins said. “I don’t think anyone was aware of that one.”
Now, UCSD officials are looking to pay Gillis the same tribute they have with other officers killed in the line of duty. Unicoi County Sheriff Kent Harris said a plaque to honor Gillis will be made. The sheriff is also hopeful that some of Gillis’ family is still around, not only to provide more information on the deputy, but also to accept a plaque in his honor.
“My hope is we find out some history of him and who his family may be so we can get them a plaque also,” Harris said.