The soldier pulled his Cadillac to the grassy shoulder off Bobby Jones Expressway around 1 a.m. Sunday and aimed his M4 semiautomatic rifle at the cars speeding by.
In the seat next to him, a woman scrambled out of the car in a panic and tried to call 911 on her cellphone.
At some point in between, Richmond County sheriff’s Deputy James D. Paugh, 47, was riding his motorcycle on the highway towards the couple, heading home after his shift patrolling at the Georgia-Carolina State Fair.
When he saw the Cadillac and decided to investigate instead of going home, off-duty Paugh didn’t get a chance to push his kickstand down before the M4 went off.
Deputies said Army Spc. Christopher Michael Hodges, 26, fatally shot Paugh before taking his own life on the Bobby Jones Expressway near the Fort Gordon exit early Sunday. Both men were found dead at the scene at 1:18 a.m.
“It’s obviously an emotional day for everybody, especially for those who knew (Paugh) well,” said sheriff’s Capt. Scott Peebles.
At the scene, investigators found evidence Hodges shot 35 rounds from his car, and earlier witnesses had reported seeing him firing at passing vehicles. It’s unclear how many times Paugh was shot, although his duty weapon had been discharged twice.
On Sunday, deputies interviewed the woman identified as Hodges’ girlfriend but did not release her name.
Peebles said the couple had been arguing and that Hodges physically assaulted the woman in the car before pulling over on the highway.
After the shooting, Jack Pennington, 33, was driving west on Bobby Jones Expressway and stopped when he saw a police motorcycle on its side and a woman running toward him.
Pennington said the woman came up to his car screaming, “My boyfriend just shot a cop!” while on the phone with police.
He told her to get in the car and drove to the next exit to wait for officers, who came five to 10 minutes later.
Few details are being released about Hodges, a soldier with the Tennessee National Guard who had been training at Fort Gordon for the past six months.
Fort Gordon spokesman Buz Yarnell said he was not aware of past trouble with Hodges but could not provide information about the soldier’s military record.
Peebles said Hodges may have spent time deployed in Iraq, but that information is still being confirmed. Hodges also appeared to have been drunk at the time of the shooting, Peebles said.
Sheriff Ronnie Strength said Paugh probably didn’t realize Hodges and his girlfriend had been fighting on the side of the road and that the officer had just pulled over to conduct a well-being check.
That dedicated character is what hundreds of colleagues, friends and family remembered about Paugh as they gathered at the Richmond County Law Enforcement Center for a remembrance vigil Sunday evening.
Standing on top of a grassy mound in the center’s parking lot at 401 Walton Way, Strength told the crowd Paugh was a “fun-loving guy” who was a dedicated officer despite the dangers that come with the profession.
“We never know in law enforcement, when we wake up in the morning, what’s going to happen,” Strength said. “He definitely didn’t know. ... He’s in a better place than we are today. No doubt in my mind.”
Most of the hundreds of people who gathered were law enforcement officers from local agencies, many in the crowd said.
Sheriff’s Deputy Al Grossman said he knew Paugh for more than a decade and that he was always an upbeat person.
“It’s a dangerous business we’re in,” Grossman said. “We come out here and work every day dealing with people that are dangerous, on drugs, on alcohol, mentally unstable, but we do it because we’re the protectors. (Paugh) was a protector.”
Grossman looked out at the crowd, digging his hands in his pocket, and tried to find the words to describe his friend.
“Do you know what ‘cop’ means? It means Champions of the People. That’s what he was.”
Staff Writer Summer Moore contributed to this article.