New shooting range outside Apalachicola dedicated to memory of Fred Babb, Jr.

Fifty-two years ago, the flash of gunfire took Evelyn Babb’s life from dream to nightmare in a matter of seconds.

She was at her Apalachicola home on a Friday morning with toddler son Fred Babb III, not yet 2, when she got the news.

Her husband, a World War II veteran who had worked at the Ventry service station before joining the city’s police force five years earlier, had spotted a man wanted for robbery and car theft.

The man, a recently released prisoner who helped spring a friend out of an Arcadia prison camp, had driven a stolen car to Tallahassee where he robbed a woman of $100 cash and fled in her car. He ran out of gas, and hitched a ride to Apalachicola, when he stole a deputy sheriff’s patrol car.

Officer Fred Babb Jr. spotted the suspect and gave chase, before cornering him at the end of a dead end street not far from what is now Red’s Family Store, at 248 U.S. 98.

The man shot Babb three times, once in the center of his chest, before the officer could even leave his car.

Babb, 37, was dead within scant minutes, his wife a widow, his son fatherless.

“That unexpected news shocked this otherwise quiet and peaceful community to its core and forever changed the lives of Officer Babb’s family,” said Mayor Van Johnson Tuesday morning, as he stood before a blue ribbon strung at the front gate of the city’s new recreational complex shooting range.

“So we gather here this morning, as a close-knit community, to pay our respect and to show our appreciation towards the family of Officer Fred Babb, Jr,” said the mayor. “One of Apalachicola’s finest, whose watch ended too soon while serving and protecting without hesitation or reservations this community.”

The suspect fled in Babb’s car to Port St. Joe where he sped past a road block, where officers riddled the windshield with pistol and shotgun fire, causing him to crash. After he fled the vehicle, the suspect was captured after he was found hiding under a house.

In April 1968, almost exactly five months after Babb’s murder, his killer was sentenced to death, but his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. He served his time in a Florida prison before being transferred to a Canadian penitentiary where he died in June 2012 of natural causes.

“In his final action, Officer Babb epitomized John 15:13. ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends,’” said Johnson. “It is with that scripture in mind that we find it both an honor and our solemn duty to dedicate and name this newest city facility.”

Police Chief Bobby Varnes then handed Evelyn Babb and her son a giant pair of scissors, and they had the honor of snipping the blue ribbon and officially christening the new Fred Babb, Jr. Memorial Recreational Complex Shooting Range.

The chief also handed the Babb family a lifetime membership in the complex, not a token gift in that the annual membership fee for an individual runs $200 and for a family $300.

Evelyn Babb, who went on to work more than 37 years for the Apalachicola State Bank, offered praise and thanks for what the city had done in her husband’s memory.

Varnes saluted the efforts of Sgt. Chase Richards, who handled creation of the complex ever since city commissioners nearly four years ago provided $25,000 of the city’s $750,000 BP settlement monies to fund it.

The process wasn’t without its delays, since the city had to secure permission for an access road right-of-way from AgReserves Inc., a taxpaying company of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that bought the majority of St. Joe's timberlands – in Bay, Calhoun, Franklin, Gadsden, Gulf, Jefferson, Leon, Liberty and Wakulla counties - for more than a half-billion dollars six years ago.

Visitors can now drive on to the complex off U.S. 98 from a road just east of Tilton Road. And then, if they have a membership, which grants them an access code, they can enter the range through a locked gate, providing it is during daylight hours.

There, they can enjoy shooting from one or more of the four bays, two 50-yards long, one 100 yards, and a fourth 300 yards, primarily for long-range rifles.

Richards was able to secure permission from the county for its assistance, and so the road department helped in the clearing. State prisoners helped construct the bays, and there were plenty of volunteers who stepped in as well, all helping to bring the total cost down to about $10,000 of the initial earmark.

Richards said only eight members have signed up so far, but there’s been lots of interest, and the department expects a burst of interest to soon ensue. Membership is open to everyone, regardless of where they live, provided they agree to a membership agreement that holds the city harmless in the cases of most any and all injuries, and any legal action that might stem from that.

The range won’t be staffed on a regular basis by officers, but they will have the right to search any vehicle or bag that comes on to range property. All children must be accompanied by an adult member, or an adult guest, who can enjoy the range for a daily fee of $10.

There aren’t any picnic tables or garbage containers yet, but Richards expects they will be added shortly, since the department is committed to providing a peaceful and relaxing atmosphere for gun enthusiasts to hone their shooting skills.

Members supply their own targets, and provided they are not glass or made of unsafe materials, they’re OK to use. No alcohol is allowed, and while all legal firearms are acceptable, the department reserves the right to forbid a particular weapon, if it is deemed unsafe. Also, the use of any “tracer, armor piercing, light armor piercing, incendiary or explosive ammunition” is forbidden unless approved in advance by the chief of police.

The rules members are required to sign stress the need to keep loaded firearms attended at all times, and to have them unloaded whenever moving between the bays or in the parking lot. Eye and ear protection is required at all times by shooters and spectators.

The city reserves the right to conduct a background investigation of members or guest users, as well as the right to refuse use of the range to anyone “based on criminal history or to anyone with a history of mental illness we believe may or will pose a safety threat to others.

“We pledge to remain open-minded about any mental illness history and to evaluate each case individually,” reads the application. “In no case will we knowingly subject any person to an unsafe or unstable shooting environment.”

The range posts the rules and verbal commands prominently at each bay and most are familiar to anyone who has been properly schooled in the safe use of a firearm, such as never pointing a gun, whether loaded or unloaded, in a person’s direction, and keeping fingers off the triggers and outside the trigger guard unless the firearm is pointed safely down range.

Just before the Babbs left following a tour of the range, they chatted with Richards. Evelyn Babb said she had many a difficult day following her husband’s death, but that the devotion and strength of her mom helped her through it.

She thanked Richards for all that he had done, and he too left soon over, this time to visit his wife Shelby and their newborn daughter Mila, born just days earlier at Gulf Coast Regional Medical Center in Panama City.