Sgt. Earl Alfred earned a place in Slidell history in 1970 when he became the city’s first black police officer.
But today, Alfred is remembered for a far more somber reason: He is the only Slidell police officer to be killed in the line of duty.
Mayor Freddy Drennan, who was a deputy with the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office at the time, says Aug. 13, 1975, is indelibly etched on his mind.
He got a call to go to Champagne Jewelers, he told the Slidell City Council last week, and so he headed to Plaza 190, a Slidell strip mall.
“And there was Earl.”
The 35-year-old officer had responded to a silent burglar alarm at the jeweler’s that went off at Slidell police headquarters. He had been about to go off duty when the call came, according to his cousin, Carolyn Page. He was the first officer to arrive at the scene of a robbery in progress.
When Drennan got there, Alfred was lying dead behind the store, shot by his own service revolver while trying to arrest the robber.
The crime was a shocking one for a small suburban city in the mid-1970s. The store’s clerk, Betty Hodges Graves, had just opened the business that morning when David Eugene Lewis came in on the pretext of buying a piece of jewelry, Drennan said.
But the 26-year-old Slidell man’s real motive was robbery. He stabbed Graves with a pair of scissors 22 times, leaving her for dead and taking $5,000 worth of jewelry, Drennan said.
The badly wounded clerk, who was 20 at the time, managed to trip the alarm. According to Times-Picayune news accounts from the time, Graves also dragged herself outside to Alfred’s patrol car and radioed for help after he was shot.
Lewis turned himself in days later. He was convicted of first-degree murder, armed robbery and attempted first-degree murder. He is serving a life sentence at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
Alfred’s death in the line of duty was commemorated at the time by the Slidell City Council, which adopted a resolution to add his name to Third Street, which runs in front of the police station.
That gesture, made before the city’s home rule charter was adopted, was not done by ordinance, City Planning Director Tara Ingram Hunter said. The new name was Third Street/Sgt. Alfred Drive, a combination that she believes was an attempt to maintain the symmetry of the city’s street grid pattern while still honoring the slain officer.
But this year marks the 40th anniversary of Alfred’s death, and it has brought renewed interest in honoring his memory. Glynn Pichon, Slidell’s lone African-American councilman, sought to change the name of the street by ordinance to Sgt. Alfred Drive, dropping Third Street from the name for the entire length of the street, including the section from Michigan Avenue to Fremaux Avenue that still has been known simply as Third Street.
Relatives of Alfred addressed the City Council last week, urging them to make the change official, which it did by a unanimous vote, calling the honor overdue.
Emma Hartley, Alfred’s first cousin, described him as an Army veteran who loved the city. She grew up next door to Alfred, who she said was like a brother to her.
“We were so proud of him. He was the first African-American police officer in Slidell,” she said.
Dennis Cousin, a close friend, said he never saw Alfred angry. He chose the officer to be the godfather of his son, he said.
While friends called Alfred “Earl the Pearl,” Cousin said he was known around town as “Officer Friendly.”
Drennan also praised Alfred as a “shining example of what a police officer should be.”
Alfred was survived by a wife, Doris, now deceased, and her 5-year-old daughter, Valecia, whom Alfred had adopted, Hartley said. He had two other children, Natalie Simmons, who was 9 when her father was killed, and Calvin, who has since died.
The official renaming of the street will go into effect in one year. The delay is intended to allow property owners time to make changes to their insurance policies and other official documents, city officials said.
But street signs along the road already bear the single name, except for the small portion of Third Street that was not included in the earlier action.
Other efforts to keep Alfred’s memory alive are also in the works. Capt. Rocky McLellan, who is on the Slidell police force, said a Northshore Leadership program class is raising money for a granite memorial that will be placed on the property of police headquarters.
Every year, the Slidell Ministerial Alliance sponsors a march on Martin Luther King Day that places a wreath at the station in Alfred’s honor, McLellan said. The marker will give them a place to do that.
McLellan, a 26-year veteran, said no one now in the department was on the force four decades ago. But memorializing someone who gave his life is important, he said, “especially now with all the law enforcement officers being shot and killed in this climate.”
That sentiment was sounded frequently at Tuesday’s City Council meeting, with Councilman Sam Caruso, a former mayor, stressing that street renaming sends a message of racial harmony.
Police officers know the risks and what is at stake every day, Pichon said. Alfred was just doing a job he loved.
“Forty years ago, we lost a son, one of our own,” Pichon said.
At the time, he said, the entire city mourned. Now, he said, it’s important to ensure that the city will remember.
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.