As Troup County’s first female road deputy on a March night in 1987, Joy Burnham was laying in a puddle of blood after being shot with her own .357 Magnum by a man she had pulled over for speeding — yet she considered herself “the luckiest woman alive.”
Burnham was just preparing to break for dinner when the speed radar at the rear of her patrol vehicle began to sound.
“By the way the radar was sounding so high-pitched, I knew someone was coming up pretty fast,” recalled Burnham. “The speed limit was 55 [mph] back then, and he was going 96 [mph]. That was pretty fast, so I thought ‘Dinner can wait a little longer.’”
She caught up to the driver who immediately pulled over on the side of Interstate 185. The driver acted suspiciously when asked for his license, looking for it all throughout the car.
“Men know where their license is at all times, it’s normally in their back pocket,” she said. “I knew something wasn’t right.”
The driver eventually brandished his wallet where Burnham had noticed a yellow slip of paper inside of it to be a traffic ticket, in which he had informed her that he had just gotten out of jail in Columbus for running a stop sign and for driving on a suspended license, though he told her the license charge was an error.
Burnham began to proceed towards her patrol car to check on his license validation, when the driver, identified as Edward Spencer Washington out of Atlanta, had admitted to having a suspended license.
“He said ‘No, come back, it’s suspended,’” she said. “So I turned around and I remember thinking that I should get a night stick from the car since it was getting dark and then I thought ‘Well the man did kinda cooperate,’ so I just decided to go ahead and get him out of the car.”
Once Washington was out of the car they walked to the back of Burnham’s patrol vehicle, where he became irate about what would happen to his car after his arrest. He seemed more concerned about his car than his arrest, said Burnham.
That mere traffic stop began to take a turn for the worse.
After Burnham had searched Washington, who was propped against the rear of the patrol vehicle, she attempted to open the rear door of the vehicle to put him in. Washington had jumped from the car and punched Burnham in the chest before running back towards his car.
“At that point I began thinking of what I was told as a female officer at the (LaGrange) Police Department by other females: “You’ve got to do it better than any man and if your partner ever gets into a fight you’ve got to prove yourself today, tomorrow the next day and the next day.’” Burnham explained. “The mentality I had when he ran off I was like ‘No you’re not going to do that to me. I don’t think so.’ I was gonna have to call in and look embarrassed that I can’t arrest my own people. So I took it as a personal insult.”
Not wanting her assailant to get away, she ran after and tackled him where the two began to roll across the roadway in a tussle. She eventually gained control of the man and was reaching behind her back for handcuffs, when Washington freed one of his hands to reach for Burnham’s gun as he yelled, “I’m gonna blow your (expletive) head off.”
“And I really thought the he wasn’t gonna get the gun out because of how our holsters were made and how he was positioned, but within seconds he ripped the gun so hard from the holster,” said Burnham. “And we both slowly stood up and I was looking right down at the barrel he was pointing at me.”
Burnham grabbed around the cylinder of the gun and twisted it, hoping to prevent it from discharging.
“I looked into his eyes and I knew this wasn’t the same man I had pulled over,” she said. “It was so hideous. It must’ve been so incredible that I let go of the gun and right when I did, I knew that I was flying through the air.”
Washington smiled and grinned as he pointed the gun at Burnham. She felt like she was on fire and realized that she had been shot. Washington continued to walk up to her, and she, unable to move most of her body, kicked him between his legs, causing him to fall almost head to head next to Bunham.
“Lord you’ve got to let him leave because as long as he’s here I don’t stand a chance,” Burnham prayed while fearing for her life. “If he’ll leave, maybe I can live through this.”
But he wasn’t done yet. He crawled over to Burnham and pressed the gun up against her head.
“He’s describing what it’s gonna be like when he pulls the trigger. How I’m gonna hear the explosion, the bullet enter my head and I’m gonna feel my head exploding,” Burnham said. “It was torture. I’d rather he just shot me than to keep hearing what it was going to be like. It was unbearable when you can’t do anything.”
Too much mental torture for Burnham to bear, Burnham closed her eyes and told him, “Why don’t you just do it?”
She layed still and when nothing happened, she assumed her assailant thought she was dead. She remained still when Washington kicked her, not to move or make a sound, though she felt the blood pool underneath her body.
Washington made his way to his car and drove away. She grabbed her radio that was lying in arms reach and summoned for help. Still, she thought her life may be coming to an end as she lay thinking that she would be run over by a truck or car as she lay with her head close to the center-line of the interstate.
A sudden “light” dawned upon her.
“I realized I was about to see God and the joy of thinking I was about to stand before God …. I could just feel like there was a light around me, a thick, loving, warm light, surrounding me and even though I couldn’t see it I knew that it was there,” Burnham recalled. “I’m about to see God. I’m the luckiest woman on the planet right now. I knew that a cloud of God’s love was still around me. I knew that if I lived it would be great or if I didn’t it would be great.”
Then a light shined on Burnham and this time it was the headlights of then Deputy Robert Huckleberry’s patrol vehicle at her rescue. He saw the massive amount of blood in the streets and knew Burnham needed immediate help.
“She was in pretty bad shape and had lost a lot of blood,” said Huckleberry, who is currently a Sergeant for the sheriff’s office. “A little blood always looks like a lot of blood, but that was a lot of blood. All I could think was getting her to the hospital.”
Soaked from Burnham’s blood, Huckleberry placed Burnham into the back of Sheriff Gene Jones’ vehicle when the sheriff arrived, knowing that they had no time to wait on an ambulance.
They arrived at the nearby hopital where medical personal aided Burnham until a helicopter arrived to fly her out to Georgia Baptist Hospital in Atlanta.
“The X-ray showed where the bone in her arm was completely destroyed,” he said. “I remember her keep saying ‘Huck, don’t let them take my arm. Don’t let them take my arm.’ It was pretty bad. “
Over 33 surgeries later and four years out of work, Burnham was beginning to get her life back. Doctors had recommended prosthetics at one point as an alternate for Burnham, however, Burnham decided to endure the costly and timely surgeries, though doctors told her she would have nerve damage in her fingers, making them inoperable.
Today, she is able to fully move her fingers and has not experienced any pain in her arm for nearly five years. Some tasks are still difficult for her, however.
“I know that I’m handicapped but I don’t think about it,” she said. “I just do stuff and if something happens and I’m like ‘Oh yeah I’m handicapped.’ But I try to live a normal life. I haven’t had any problems with it in over five years so maybe I’m healed from it.”
Though she was not able to return to work as a road deputy, she worked in several positions within six years at the sheriff’s department before deciding to leave for what she thought was for good.
“I was surprised she did come back to work after something like that,” said Huckleberry.
Following the shooting, Burnham learned why Washington had not taken that final shot. After he was captured, the FBI had investigated the incident and found that the gun had jammed when Washington had dropped the gun on the pavement from his fall, which Burnham said they called a miracle.
“Revolvers don’t really malfunction like automatics,” she said. “Several people took the gun a part and found nothing wrong with it other than it just wouldn’t fire. I believe God put his hand on that gun that day and said that’s enough.”
Burnham recently found her way back the sheriff’s office when Sheriff James Woodruff invited her to work as his office manager when he was elected last year.
She said she is still metamorphosing from the past Joy into a new Joy and has had a different outlook on life.
“Sometimes I realize there was no harm in letting that guy go, it was an ego thing,” she said. “But it also showed me that there is evil in the world that wants to destroy good and yet there’s a lot of good in this world that wants to make itself known and let people know that there is hope. I wanna live it to the fullest today because you might be laying in a hospital bed or a jail cell tomorrow and can’t do anything. It helped me to learn to take life for everything that you can get out of it.”
Washington was sentenced to 23 years in prison for aggravated battery, speeding, possession of cocaine and driving under the influence of cocaine and marijuana. He was 28 years old at the time has since been released after serving his term.