Anniston police officer Justin Sollohub was shot in the head Wednesday morning while on routine patrol. The 27-year-old was brain dead but remained on life support late Wednesday so his organs could be donated, a longtime family friend said.
It’s a final selfless act from a man whose life centered on giving back to others.
“Justin was such a loving person,” said Ashlee Jones, the family friend. “Everybody felt like he was their best friend. He always reached out to you.”
Sollohub’s caring personality has been reflected in all parts of his life: from his job as a police officer protecting the lives of Anniston residents to coaching his younger brother’s little league teams to the effort he put into maintaining his many friendships.
David Deerman, one of Sollohub’s coaches at Jacksonville High School, remembers his performance during a football game against Lineville as an example of his tenacity. At the time, Sollohub was a sophomore and half the size of the other linebackers on the team, Deerman said. A starting linebacker forgot to bring his helmet to the away game, so Deerman took a gamble and put the less-experienced Sollohub on the field.
“And he played one of the best football games I’ve ever seen out of him,” Deerman said. “He was the kind of person who rose to the challenge and wasn’t afraid to face them.”
That fearlessness coupled with his desire to make a difference in his community made him the ideal police officer, friends and colleagues said.
“Just the other day at his brother’s pee-wee football practice, he was talking about his job. He really felt like he could make a difference, and he really enjoyed doing it,” Deerman said.
Anniston police Chief Layton McGrady said Sollohub was a star on the force even though he’d only been there about three years. In that short time, Sollohub made a name for himself as a proactive, hardworking cop, McGrady said. His “go-getter attitude” earned him a spot on the department’s elite Special Response Team, a unit usually reserved for more experienced officers.
“Now we’re all in shock,” the chief said of the hours the department and law enforcement from across the state spent Wednesday searching for Joshua Russell, the shooting suspect.
Details about why Sollohub was shot were scant late Wednesday. McGrady said Sollohub called out over the radio that he was in a foot pursuit with a young male suspect. Moments later, another officer arriving to assist Sollohub sent out an “officer down” call.
That a bullet has left a policeman so full of intensity and good humor hooked up to life-support machines has stunned his colleagues, family and friends.
The Anniston Police Department was empty Wednesday as officers and investigators abandoned their normal duties to search for their friend’s shooter. The few cops who occasionally darted in and out of the empty roll-call room had red eyes and wore solemn expressions.
Sgt. Phillip Smith said the tragedy was too new for him and fellow officers to talk about.
Lt. Fred Forsythe, one of the lead investigators in the search for Russell, said everyone at the department was “working off pure adrenaline.”
“I am mad,” McGrady said. “I’ve got a lot of guys taking this really hard.”
Sollohub’s condition also hit hard the friends he grew up with in Jacksonville. He graduated from Jacksonville High where he spent most of his time playing football and basketball, friends said.
“He had the most upbeat attitude. He never quit, and he worked the hardest in the off-season of anybody I knew,” said Kevin Patton, one of Sollohub’s high school friends. “He was also one of those guys, if I ever needed anything, I could reach out and he’d be there — you know, he had that ‘I want to fight for everyone else’ mentality.”
Jones has known Sollohub since fifth grade and they remained best friends throughout their college days at Jacksonville State University.
Studying criminal justice at JSU helped Sollohub to cultivate that “protect and serve” quality so essential to excelling as a police officer, Jones said.
When Jones said goodbye to Sollohub Wednesday afternoon at UAB Hospital’s intensive care unit, she reminded him that she was proud of him.
“I told him very few people are lucky enough to die doing something they love,” she said. Jones began to cry and took a moment to collect herself. Then she let out a small laugh as she remembered her next words.
“I told him he looked cute in the hospital bed,” she said. “Any time you told him he looked fit, he loved it.”
Jones’ and Sollohub’s other friends and co-workers were under no illusions that he’d make a miraculous recovery. His parents on Wednesday filled out paperwork for organ donations, Jones said.
Meanwhile, the man accused of shooting him was in police custody on an attempted murder charge.
If Sollohub dies, the charge will be upgraded to capital murder, which carries a sentence of either life without parole or the death penalty.
Counseling will be available soon for Anniston police officers, McGrady said.
And the police who knew Sollohub best said it will be needed.
“It’s crazy,” Forsythe said. “I haven’t had time to think about it.”
Star staff writer Cameron Steele: 256-235-3562.