GRANT BLANKENSHIP/THE TELEGRAPH Houston County Sheriff’s Response Team members practice tactical team techniques for operating in the woods during training Thursday in Elko. Team members were recently called on to subdue a fugitive in Taylor County.

Houston County sheriff’s deputy John Burgess was the first to spot the escapee hiding on his belly under some foliage in dense woods in southwest Taylor County.

Burgess was among 50 law enforcement officers who recently combed the rough terrain in soaring temperatures in search of Jonathon Paul Pitts, 38, a May 5 escapee from the state Department of Corrections West Central Hospital in Columbus. Pitts is accused of severely beating a woman over several days at his residence at 84 John Harvey Duncan Road in Taylor County. Pitts, who was originally charged with aggravated assault, also has been charged with criminal attempt to commit murder, said Scott Dutton, GBI assistant special agent in charge of the Columbus office.

A massive manhunt involving a variety of agencies was launched for Pitts on July 9 after the woman was discovered unresponsive in his home about 2 p.m. The Houston County Sheriff’s Response Team, a specialized tactical unit of which Burgess is a member, was called in to help.

Garbed in military camouflage and nearly hidden in underbrush, Pitts was on his belly in a low crawl when Burgess saw him. The deputy said he caught sight of the escapee peering over a berm because his skin color didn’t mesh with the natural colors of the woods. Burgess quickly motioned for fellow Houston County sheriff’s deputies Deryk Collins and Slate Simons, also part of the tactical team.

“We were on top of him before he had a chance to move,” Burgess said.

Pitts was taken into custody without further incident about 12:30 p.m. July 12.

While the manhunt had a successful ending with Pitt’s capture and without anyone injured, the challenges of the search prompted team leaders to initiate woodland training to further fine-tune tactical skills, said Houston County sheriff’s Lt. M.J. Stokes.

The team trained July 15 in the woods behind the Elko mud bogging site off Ga. 26 in south Houston County.

“Our staple, our bread and butter, is high-risk warrants, barricaded subjects, hostage situations in town or in an area we’re comfortable in,” said Deputy Eric Phillips, a former U.S. Marine who led the training exercise. “But heavily wooded, more rural areas are areas we don’t do often.”

Source: Becky Purser for The Sun News.
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