PILOT MOUNTAIN — People have come and gone and much has changed otherwise in Pilot Mountain over the past 45 years, but a violent event on a local roadside continues to leave its scar on the town.
That incident occurred on the night of Feb. 3, 1969, when Pilot Mountain police officers Glenn Branscome, 46, and Ralph East, 60, were gunned down after stopping a vehicle full of robbery suspects from Forsyth County.
“It was the biggest tragedy in the history of Pilot Mountain,” longtime local resident Chet Jessup summed up Wednesday, “which was losing what was half of the police force at that time on one traffic stop.”
Jessup, a retired state alcohol agent, is the organizer of an annual memorial walk for Branscome and East which is now in its eighth year. The next walk is scheduled for Feb. 1 at 8 a.m., with the theme “Heroes Live Forever.”
The annual Saturday morning walk, which draws as many as 50 people including descendants of the fallen officers, follows the same path their patrol did on that fateful night, a distance of 1.5 miles.
In the 45 years since the tragedy, new residents have been born, and some folks who were there in 1969 have left Pilot Mountain while others moved to town. “A lot of them are dead,” said Jessup, who regularly spearheads programs for members of area law enforcement agencies killed in the line of duty.
The one constant has been the Branscome-East tragedy, “what I consider a piece of history,” Jessup continued, saying it’s a matter of importance even for residents who weren’t around in 1969.
“Everybody needs to know the history of the area where they live,” he explained. “It’s a piece of the history of the town of Pilot Mountain people don’t need to forget — because it unfortunately could happen again.”
The Feb. 1 memorial walk in Pilot Mountain will originate from the parking lot of Tlaquepaque Mexican Grill at 511 E. Old U.S. 52-Bypass (also known as the Branscome-East Highway). The site is at the intersection of Old U.S. 52-Bypass and Crestwood Drive.
Participants are to begin their trek after a short ceremony at 8 a.m. in the parking lot, with the walk progressing to the site of the tragedy on the bypass behind East Surry High School.
Jessup said R.J. East, son of Ralph East, is a regular participant of the event, as are several of Ralph’s grandchildren and Brancome’s oldest son Mike and his family.
Van transportation will be provided for those who wish to take part but aren’t up to walking the route. Transportation also will be provided for all participants back to Tlaquepaque Mexican Grill.
Fortunately, officer shootings aren’t as prevalent today as years past, which Jessup says can be partly credited to what happened to Ralph East and Glenn Branscome.
“This incident affected how police officers were trained in the state of North Carolina,” said Jessup, whose own law enforcement career spanned more than 27 years.
That has included improved techniques for pulling over vehicles to better safeguard officers and other training procedures to elevate their level of preparedness.
“Being a law enforcement officer is now a profession,” Jessup said of the physical, mental and other aspects that are addressed before one hits the streets.
“You have to know as much as a lawyer and make split-second decisions.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-719-1924 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.