The thick wall of steely clouds and dour rainfall dampening Baton Rouge mirrored the somber atmosphere inside the federal courthouse downtown Thursday, where dozens of people gathered to pay tribute to a deputy U.S. marshal killed in the line of duty a year ago.
Family members of Josie Wells joined with law enforcement from around the region and local officials to memorialize his life. Nearly everyone who spoke about Wells visibly fought back tears as they remembered the life of the 27-year-old.
The ceremony was held to unveil a plaque memorializing Wells’ life. The plaque will hang in the offices of the U.S. Marshals Service for the Middle District of Louisiana.
“If you would have told us a year ago we’d be standing here remembering our brother with renewed faith, we wouldn’t have believed you,” said Melanie Wells, Josie’s younger sister. “But with God, all things are possible.”
Wells, who is from Mississippi, was fatally shot March 10, 2015, while he was assisting the Middle Louisiana Task Force in its attempted capture of Jamie Croom, a man accused of killing a pair of siblings outside a nightclub in New Roads several weeks prior.
Wells was struck in the neck by a bullet from Croom during an exchange of gunfire between law enforcement and Croom. He died from severe blood loss.
Croom, 31, also was shot and died the following day while being treated at a local hospital.
The tragic scene played out at the motel in north Baton Rouge where Croom had been hiding out.
Wells was the first member of the U.S. Marshals Service killed in the line of duty since 2011.
His sister’s advice to the crowd Thursday was simple: “Live your life to honor God,” she said before choking up with tears.
Wells joined the U.S. Marshals Service in 2011 after graduating from Jackson State University with a degree in criminal justice.
The speakers at Thursday’s ceremony included Kevin Harrison, U.S. marshal for the Middle District of Louisiana. He spoke fondly about meeting Wells for the first time when he showed up for his assignment with the task force, which turned out to be just hours before he was killed.
Harrison touched on the outpouring of community support in the two days following the tragedy and how Wells’ sacrifice represents the heroic dedication the vast majority of law enforcement officers have to the communities they serve.
“Cops love the people they serve,” Harrison said. “Are there some bad cops out there? Surely. But there are far more Josie Wells.”
Authorities have reflected on the events that unfolded on the day that Wells was shot and killed, Harrison said, and are using the lessons learned as a teaching moment going forward.
“Are there things we could have done differently? Sure,” he said in an interview after the ceremony. “The guys involved that day all reflect on how fragile their lives can be in these dangerous situations. There is a heightened awareness in what they’re doing now.”
Wells left behind his wife, who was pregnant with his first child when he was killed.
That child, a boy named after him, is now 6 months old.
Wells’ sisters say the infant looks exactly like their brother. They could hardly stop smiling while talking about the child in an interview following the ceremony.
“Josie couldn’t have picked a better wife,” Tanisha Wells-Garcia said. “We can’t wait to tell him his father was a hero.”
Follow Terry Jones on Twitter, @tjonesreporter.