GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - A Cincinnati woman returned to South Mississippi this week to come to grips with a painful chapter in her life story. On Tuesday, Sherry Sexton and her family took their first tour of the new Gulfport Police station. She wanted them learn about the police department where her husband started his law enforcement career, and understand how it all ended so tragically.
Sherry Sexton had no intention of going inside the Robert Curry Public Safety Center in downtown Gulfport. She only wanted to show her daughter, her son-in-law, and two granddaughters a very special plaque in front of the building. It is engraved with the names of fallen Gulfport police officers. One of them was her first love Joe Douglas Spiers.
"We both went to Long Beach. We lived next door to each other and we were friends and played ball together," said Sexton.
Sherry and Joe were childhood friends who became high school sweethearts. When Joe graduated from Long Beach High, the couple got engaged.
Joe enlisted in the Navy and was sent to Vietnam. He served there for more than a year and came home in September of 1969 with two Purple Hearts. Joe and Sherry married a month later.
"We had our whole life planned out. He always wanted to be a police officer and I wanted to stay home and have babies. It's what you did then. Yeah, we had a lot of good plans," said Sexton.
Joe's dream finally came true. He joined the Gulfport Police force, working as a patrolman on the night shift. Then, on November 21, 1971, Sherry was awakened by her mother-in-law with some devastating news.
That day, officer Spiers was helping another officer transport a woman to jail. Marjorie Brai had been arrested for DUI. Police say Brai pulled out a hidden gun and shot officer Spiers in the head. He later died at the hospital. Joe Spiers was only 23 years old and had been a police officer for only 15 months.
"I really didn't hear that until I was in the cafeteria. Somebody walked up to me and said the word 'shot' and I thought he'd been in a car accident. I guess shock or something," said Sexton.
To add to her heartache, Sherry was three months pregnant.
"I think I stayed in shock for about five years. I did get remarried and I'm the type person that you have to be thankful. I was pregnant. I had a baby. you have to be thankful for what's left," said Sexton.
Sherry gave birth to a baby boy, who was described as a spitting image of his dad. She even named him Joe Douglas after her late husband.
But Sherry would not have her son for very long. 'Doug' as she called him died in a tragic car accident at the age of 23, the same age as his father when he was killed in the line of duty.
"If you're busy and you work and that's how I get through with things. I just stay busy," said Sexton, as tears filled her eyes.
Sherry moved to Cincinnati and had a daughter Laurie. This week, she brought her family back to her roots.
Chief Leonard Papania personally gave them a tour of the new Gulfport Public Safety Complex. He proudly showed them the black and white portrait of a handsome young man on the wall.
"Such a good person. Just hard to understand it, but, I bet he's proud of all this," Sexton commented as she stared at the picture.
And the chief took them to the training room dedicated to officer Joe Spiers.
"A lot of officers' lives are saved because of the training they receive in the Joe Spiers Room on use of force and how to drive a car," said Chief Papania.
Sherry never realized her husband left behind such a life saving legacy, and how much respect he has earned from men and women who never even knew him. In a way, the tour became part of her healing.
"How much he's loved and appreciated, what he did, who he is, all that, very proud," said Sexton.
Joe Spiers' family has attended every memorial service for fallen officers in Gulfport, however, Sherry Sexton said she has never been able to attend the events because she felt it would be too traumatizing for her. Sexton said after taking the tour and sharing her story with WLOX, she definitely plans on being there for the next memorial.