By Robbie Ward
TUPELO – Residents of Tupelo, Lee County and beyond have opened their hearts and pocketbooks to support the families of a police officer slain and another critically injured patrolman related to an armed robbery days before Christmas, hoping to ease financial burdens remaining from violent criminal acts.
Law enforcement organizations and private businesses have contributed a total $152,500 reward for information leading to the arrest of all culprits responsible for these fatal and life-altering crimes. Individuals and corporate support for the fallen officers continue to help channel funds to the officers’ families.
After Tupelo Police Sgt. Gale Stauffer’s funeral services today at First United Methodist Church, accounts set up will remain available to help the slain officer’s family. Similarly, a bank account set up for patrol officer Joe Maher will help him focus on physical and emotional recovery when discharged from the hospital, where he remains in stable condition after a gunshot wound to the face.
Maher and his wife have a 15-month-old child.
A criminal or criminals evading authorities after an armed robbery of the BancorpSouth Gloster Creek location led police into stopped traffic as a train passed at Crosstown. A gunman left his vehicle and shot both lawmen.
Tragic consequences left much of the community heartbroken, but Stauffer’s former neighbor Heather Summerlin felt a deep personal connection as she learned of the shootings.
Married to a Tupelo officer who joined the force about a year after Stauffer, Summerlin empathized with Beth, Stauffer’s wife.
“It’s the worst nightmare for any police officer’s wife,” Summerlin said. “Not only was Gale our neighbor, but he also worked with Michael.”
Summerlin quickly focused on practical financial matters facing the Stauffer’s widow, a woman who instantly lost her family’s second income, significantly reducing future support of their two young children, ages 6 and 2.
The online effort has a lofty goal to help pay off any existing debts the Stauffer family may owe, including a house mortgage, car loans and other monthly expenses the two-income family paid together.
“I just wanted to make sure that we as a couple and a community help them as much as we can,” Summerlin said.
Late Thursday, the online fundraising effort had received $5,435 from a 121 different contributors.
This effort represents just a fraction of financial support after the Monday’s shootings.
Corporate citizens of BancorpSouth and the Community Development Foundation have also funneled cash to Stauffer’s family and Maher and his family. BancorpSouth has agreed to match contributions set up through the bank for each officer up to $10,000. CDF donated $5,000 to each officer’s account.
“BancorpSouth, just as others of our community, wants to help the officers and their families who work to protect us,” said Randy Burchfield, company spokesman.
Some organizations will provide immediate financial assistance.
Along with local contributions, family supporters said they hope the larger law enforcement community nationwide and others who hear of the fatal and tragic incident to consider a contribution to financial assistance for the two families.
Tupelo Police Chief Bart Aguirre said public support, ranging from food to money, has helped lighten spirits of both mourning families and saddened officers grieving.
“We’re so moved by all of these donations,” he said at one of many recent news conferences related to the ongoing investigation.