Update with video: Mourners recall officer's devotion to duty, family and church

tchitwood@ledger-enquirer.com and mowen@ledger-enquirer.comAugust 4, 2013 

Through his more than 30 years in law enforcement, Thomas “Keith” Slay did not let the hardest parts of his job harden his heart.

Mourners at his funeral Monday described not only a dedicated police officer, but a husband, father and faithful churchgoer whose experience fighting crime kept him focused on what was most important in his personal life.

The Rev. David Rathel of Rivertown Church said that after he and Slay, 53, became close friends, the officer once told the minister he could not go hunting anymore because he had seen enough death on the job.

“He told me, ‘David, I can’t hunt. I’ve seen enough times when somebody died,’” the pastor said.

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Reminiscent of the verse from Matthew in which Jesus says, “Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven,” the narcotics agent with all his martial arts and special weapons training chose the least among his fellow churchgoers to nurture at Sunday school, the minister said — the 2-year-olds.

Slay wiped noses and brushed away tears, and soon graduated to another level: the 5-year-olds. Slay became the kindergarten Sunday school teacher — under Rathel’s training: “I taught him. He taught the 5-year-olds.”

Through tears his widow, Holly Slay, talked about the long notes her husband would write her for their anniversary. He wrote that he was thankful to have married the woman of his dreams. “Thank you so much for being my wife and sharing my life,” she read aloud from one his missives.

“No two people loved each other more than we did — maybe the same, but no more,” she said.

His son, Jeffery, talked about his father’s sense of humor and fondness for pranks. “He loved scaring people,” said Jeffery Slay, brandishing a rubber snake his dad used to play tricks on friends. Some in the audience must have seen that snake a thousand times, he said.

The son is not the first Jeffery Slay. Rathel told the story of Keith Slay’s sinking into a depression at age 11 when his little brother Jeffery died. His father, Thomas Raymond Slay, focused on getting his older son out of that lingering melancholy.

Keith Slay got into motocross and racing on the dirt track at Russell County’s East Alabama Motor Speedway. Later they bought an airplane, and flying gave the younger Slay a new perspective, from horizon to horizon, high above the trouble below.

“Sometimes you can’t see reality because you’re too close to it,” Rathel said.

At age 20, Slay joined the Muscogee Sheriff’s Office as a deputy, and later transferred to the Columbus Police Department, where he served as a homicide detective before taking the lead in forming a police aviation unit in 2003. Proficient in fixed-wing aircraft, he traveled to Fort Rucker, Ala., to be trained to fly helicopters. He became a flight instructor in both.

He loved to fly, Rathel said: “He had every aviation rating possible that he could have.”

The aviation unit later operated under the multi-agency Metro Narcotics Task Force to serve not just Columbus, but also Russell County and Harris County.

When the narcotics agent died after a traffic accident last week, he had logged 11,000 hours of flight time, Rathel said. Police said Slay and Russell County deputy Brad Evans, 26, were travelling northbound July 30 in a Ford F-150 with lights and siren running, and had shifted into Veterans Parkway’s center turn lane to pass a Ford Ranger when the Ranger’s 73-year-old driver also moved into the center lane.

Slay, who was driving, swerved to avoid the collision, but the Ranger still sideswiped Slay’s truck on the right rear side, sending it out of control to the road’s west side, where it jumped the curb and hit a utility pole on the driver’s side.

The other driver was not injured. Slay died of his injuries at The Medical Center. Evans suffered a head injury but was released from the hospital later in the week.

During the funeral Monday, Rathel said Slay felt he had faced death before: One night he was flying from LaGrange, Ga., to Columbus, and all of his electronics went out. He had no instruments, no air-traffic control to guide him through the dark.

So he prayed, believing that if his life were there to end, so be it. And he remembered the Chattahoochee River, which he could see from the air. He followed it home.

For the church congregation he guarded like family, he taught self-defense and fitness training — flipping a tractor tire and pulling cinder blocks were among the exercises — directed small group Bible study, took groups on hiking and camping trips, and initiated bicycle outings, “Pedal and Pray with Keith Slay,” Rathel said.

Once when the church grounds were cleared of old trees, Slay bought one pickup truck load of sand after another until all the holes vacated by tree stumps were filled, so no one would be injured.

“He filled the holes of the church in many areas,” Rathel said.

He talked of retiring, and of not retiring, the minister said: Maybe he would descend to that runway and put the badge away, maybe he would veer off and fly on.

“He had to die in action because he didn’t know when to quit,” Rathel said, recalling one of Slay’s favorite sayings for times when the work was wearing on his comrades: “Suck it up, buttercup.”

Now others must carry on Slay’s mission, Rathel said: “When a warrior dies fighting for you, the only thing you can do is pick up his sword and fight on.”

Near the conclusion of the funeral in Cascade Hills Church, guests saw on video screens images from a flyover of Columbus, and together sang one last song — not a mournful hymn but an upbeat toe-tapper:

“I’ll Fly Away.”

Graveside service

At Park Hill Cemetery, over 500 people gathered for a graveside service for Slay. The funeral procession, which included more than 200 police vehicles from departments all over Georgia and Alabama, took almost 30 minutes to file in and park along the cemetery’s winding roads.

Mayor Teresa Tomlinson arrived with Police Chief Ricky Boren and stood in line with Muscogee County Sheriff John Darr, Russell County Sheriff Heath Taylor and Phenix City Police Chief Ray Smith. They stood in front of numerous lines of public safety officers, in uniform and out, facing the stand that would hold Slay’s coffin.

An honor guard made up of about two dozen officers in full dress uniforms from 15 different law enforcement agencies formed a corridor through which members of the Columbus Police/Sheriff honor guard carried the flag-draped coffin to the stand.

Two pipers clad in tartan kilts led the pall bearers playing “The Minstrel Boy.”

Columbus Police Department Chaplain Cpl. Roy Isasi offered a brief eulogy, describing Slay as a dedicated police officer who had a love of flying helicopters, an affinity for Dunkin’ Donuts apple fritters and the occasional practical joke on his fellow officers, and a deep and abiding faith in God.

“Keith is not going to be forgotten. He was a special person,” Isasi said. “Keith is gone for a little while, but those who are right with the Lord, we’re going to see him again.”

Following Isasi’s words, a Columbus Police Department seven-man rifle squad fired three volleys for a rifle salute, which echoed sharply off the steep hills and tall hardwoods surrounding the site.

As the echoes died out, a lone bugler played “Taps” as those in uniform saluted and civilians covered their hearts with their hands.

As the bugler finished, the pipers started in with “Amazing Grace.”

Then, as the large crowd remained absolutely silent, the faint sound of helicopter blades could soon be heard approaching from a tree line nearby. Four police helicopters soon broke into view over the tree line, flying low in formation toward the crowd.

Just as they reached the gathering, one helicopter banked sharply out of the formation and out of sight as the other three held their positions and flew in a “missing man” formation into the distance.

The graveside service ended with the honor guard folding the flag that had draped Slay’s coffin and Boren presenting it and another flag to Slay’s family.

Tomlinson, who is the city public safety director, said she was moved by the number of law enforcement personnel from so many different cities and agencies that attended and by the helicopters’ “missing man” tribute.

“That’s always a very emotional formation, very symbolic,” Tomlinson said. “I think all of Keith’s family and friends were touched by that symbol.”

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