People in this quiet countryside knew Iraq war veteran Skip Brinkley as a friendly, peaceable man – “the perfect neighbor,” one of his neighbors said Monday.
Brinkley and his fiancée, Jennifer Foutty, bought about 35 acres on Fox Winkler Road about a year ago, built a barn at the base of a mountain and had recently started constructing a house.
The image is in stark contrast to the crimes he's accused of: Authorities say Brinkley shot two Caldwell County sheriff's deputies Friday night, one fatally, before fleeing.
They were still searching for him Monday evening but had gotten no strong leads nor any confirmed sightings. SWAT teams stood on standby in case someone spots him.
Investigators focused on canvassing the neighborhood around the Brinkley property for information, while an N.C. Highway Patrol helicopter flew over the area and deputies guarded children at nearby Oak Hill Elementary School.
Brinkley, an S.C. native who recently changed his name from Larry Wayne Brucke Jr., had given neighbors no inkling of a violent nature.
In fact, his neighbor across the road, Elaine Hatley, said he wanted to shield his family from harm, recently mentioning to her that he didn't want anybody hunting on his property “because he didn't want guns around his children.”
News of the shootings stunned Hatley. “I never saw this side of him,” she said, “and as far as I was concerned, he was the perfect neighbor to me.”
Brinkley has no criminal record in North Carolina but was convicted on a misdemeanor charge of simple assault and battery in his home state in 2004, according to S.C. Law Enforcement Division records.
But his service in the Army appears to have been commendable, according to his service record. Brinkley received the Army Commendation Medal, Army Good Conduct Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal and the Iraq Campaign Medal.
He joined the N.C. National Guard in 1994. He was stationed in Fort Campbell, Ky., on active duty from June 1996 to June 1999 before being transferred to the Army's Individual Ready Reserve and discharged in February 2002.
In December 2005, Brinkley enlisted in the N.C. Army National Guard, holding the rank of specialist when he served in Iraq with the National Guard from May 2006 to April 2007.
Since May, he's been in the Army's Individual Ready Reserve, available to fill vacancies in Army Reserve units and replace soldiers in active and reserve units.
“He just looks like a regular soldier who did his job,” Lt. Col. Anne Edgecomb, an Army spokeswoman, said Monday after reviewing his public military service record.
In Oak Hill, he pursued a quiet, domestic life in the foothills between Lenoir and Taylorsville.
Hatley said Brinkley and Foutty built an apartment onto the end of the barn they had constructed for their horses and mules, living there with Foutty's three children while their house was being built.
The family became acquainted with Hatley, a retiree who said Brinkley occasionally stopped at her home to check on her well-being. He even granted her a favor recently.
Hatley's grandfather originally owned the property Brinkley bought, and she had asked him if she could have a few of the large rocks her grandfather had used to build the foundation and chimney of his farmhouse, which burned years ago.
“One day, he came up with a tractor and a load of rocks and put them around the front of my house where I wanted them,” Hatley said. “He was proud of what he did with (my grandfather's) place, and he showed me around.”
Last Friday, Hatley noticed Brinkley working mules on his farm. He'd hitched them to a one-seat wagon and was driving them up and down Fox Winkler Road, a narrow ribbon of blacktop with no striping.
Then that night, Hatley and other neighbors heard gunshots, but Hatley didn't pay any attention because guns are a common part of country life.
Then she and the rest of Oak Hill learned what had happened. They mourned for the family of sheriff's Deputy Adam William Klutz, the rookie officer who died early Saturday after being shot in the head. Lt. Chris Martin, who was backing up Klutz on a 911 hang-up call from the Brinkley home, survived three gunshots to the chest, saved by a bullet-proof vest.
Colleagues said Klutz, a Granite Falls native, had an easy smile and happy nature.
“He had a bright career ahead of him,” said Caldwell sheriff's spokesman B.J. Fore.
“I feel for the family of the officer,” Hatley said. “I'm praying for them every day, and I know that won't bring him back. I'm also praying for Skip.”