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Ga. town bewildered by law office bombing

Barbara Russell's voice almost drops to a whisper as she tries to describe the deadly blast that interrupted her breakfast the other day.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Barbara Russell's voice almost drops to a whisper as she tries to describe the deadly blast that interrupted her breakfast the other day.

"It was the loudest noise I've ever heard," she says, shaking her head. "You really can't believe it. It really hasn't sunk in yet."

The same sentiment kept coming up Sunday at the first town gathering since 78-year-old Lloyd Cantrell died when he bombed a law office that represented his son in a bitter family land dispute. The Friday morning blast killed Cantrell and injured four others at the law firm — and left residents struggling to reconcile how it could happen in their blue-collar town of 30,000.

"We're all trying to figure this out," says Steve Williams, a senior partner at the firm that was bombed. "It will be a long time before folks come to grips with this. We're just a little town in the Deep South."

Dispute ongoing since 2006
Cantrell, easily recognized around town clad in bib overalls with a small Chihuahua in his arms, had been embroiled in a dispute with his son, Bruce, since 2006.

Bruce Cantrell had grown fearful of the father and hired a lawyer at McCamy, Phillips, Tuggle & Fordham, to file a lawsuit to keep his dad off the property. The 2006 complaint claimed the elder man stole tools, kicked in a door and threatened to kill himself. Cantrell had given the property to his son.

The Associated Press has been unable to reach Bruce Cantrell for comment.

On Friday, police were called to a disturbance at the firm, housed in a two-story, colonial-style home. An officer saw a man get out of a sport utility vehicle and run behind the building. Seconds later, an explosion tore into the office.

Four were injured, including attorney Jim Phillips, who was described as a longtime friend of Cantrell. Phillips is hospitalized with burns to one-third of his body. He was in critical condition Saturday, and officials didn't immediately return a call Sunday seeking comment on his condition.

Meanwhile, many residents shared a common realization: they simply haven't registered what happened yet.

"Nobody here in this room, nobody in this city was at fault," said Dalton City Police Chief Jason Parker. "I think we accept that. It's time for us as a city, as a community to band together."

Firm says it will rebuild
The law firm, which has helped produce a generation of local judges and community leaders, was one of the town's "oldest and most important law firms," says Dalton Mayor David Pennington. The city has offered the firm temporary space at city hall, and the firm's lawyers say they're confident they will soon rebuild.

"I will not be run off," says Williams, the firm's partner. "I'm here for the duration." Williams and other residents quietly gathered at Dalton City Hall, talking in hushed tones about what happened — and what could have happened.

"Everybody is just sort of shocked," said Beth Campbell, a local bookkeeper dressed in her Sunday best who showed up at the meeting for some clarity after her pastor announced it at church. "In about two hours time we heard so many stories. You heard so many different things and I still haven't heard what happened."

Kermit McManus, Dalton's district attorney, predicts it could take years for the town to realize the enormity of the attack. He's clearly shaken by the blast, which he called "an attack on the judicial system."

"He was going to blow the whole building up as a result of this legal dispute," he says, shaking his head.

McManus works in a sparkling new county courthouse that fronts a large window. But if he had to build it again, he says, he'd feel safer if his office was built behind thick walls instead of glass.

"It's more devastating than we know," he says. "I think it will change the way people think and it's going to change the way people do business."

His voice trails off.

"We don't think in those terms," he says. "Now we will."