JESUP -- Mirta Blanco plastered the whitewashed wall outside Judge Glenn Thomas Jr.'s law office with handwritten posters telling him "Get Well Soon" and "We Are Keeping You In Our Prayers."
She's also been carrying a gun since the 74-year-old Thomas _ a lawyer, Recorders Court judge and former district attorney _ was found brutally beaten and bleeding at his desk inside his law office Monday.
"Everybody here is just scared," Blanco, a court translator and notary public who works next door to Thomas' office, said Wednesday as she plucked a pistol from her waistband and stashed it in the glove box of her car.
Investigators say Thomas, who was in critical condition Wednesday at a Savannah hospital, had been battered multiple times in the head with a blunt object and robbed by a convicted felon who also may have had revenge as a motive.
The man charged with assaulting him, 45-year-old Bobby Rex Stribling, had served eight years in prison for burglary, theft and other charges prosecuted in 1996 by Thomas' office during his last year as district attorney for the Brunswick Judicial Circuit.
Authorities arrested Stribling early Tuesday in Brunswick, where they found the judge's stolen pickup truck. Wayne County Sheriff John G. Carter said Stribling confessed to beating Thomas in an interview with investigators.
"He says he did it," Carter said in an interview Wednesday. "We feel like the motive was probably robbery."
Carter said investigators are trying to determine if Stribling targeted Thomas, still bearing a grudge since his release from prison in September 2004, or if perhaps he had sought legal help from Thomas and knew he worked alone.
Regardless, the sheriff said he's praying the case doesn't become a homicide. He said he visited the judge Tuesday at Memorial Health University Medical Center in Savannah, where Thomas' family has been keeping a vigil.
"He's in bad shape," Carter said. "Critical might be understating. Very critical is how I would say it."
Thomas served 30 years as district attorney for the Brunswick circuit before he retired in 1996. Before that, he had served in the Georgia Legislature. After stepping down as a prosecutor, he started a private law practice in Jesup and became Recorders Court judge, handling traffic citations and other misdemeanor cases for the city.
Blanco, who works next door, said she and Thomas have been close friends for a nearly decade. She called him a strong supporter of Hispanics living in the area, and said she's brought him a number of clients through her work as a Spanish-speaking translator.
"I love him like my daddy," Blanco said. "He's a wonderful person."
She said Thomas' truck was still parked outside when she left her office early Monday afternoon.
At about 2:30 p.m., a man whose office is in the same old, white-columned house where Thomas works called police after finding the bloodied judge at his desk, authorities said. Thomas' wallet and car keys were missing, as was his truck.
Investigators say Stribling had checked out of a budget-rate motel in Jesup that morning. They arrested him hours later at another motel in Brunswick after finding the judge's truck nearby.
Police say they found Camron Thomas, 24, of Brunswick in the stolen truck and he helped lead them to Stribling. Thomas has been charged with theft by receiving stolen property, but not with Thomas' beating.
Stribling faces charges of aggravated battery, aggravated assault, armed robbery, motor vehicle theft and burglary.
According to Georgia Department of Corrections records, Stribling has a record of 37 convictions since 1989 for burglary, theft, forgery and writing bad checks _ but no violent crimes. He has been sentenced to prison four times.
Jerry Caldwell, a Jesup attorney who was hired out of law school by Thomas to be one of his assistant prosecutors, called the judge a courtly Southern gentleman known for showing respect to opposing attorneys and fairness both as a prosecutor and judge.
Carter said Thomas has even earned the respect of some of the criminals he prosecuted. That's one reason the sheriff is keeping Stribling jailed in neighboring Long County.
"Even among the people he's put in jail, Mr. Thomas has a reputation for fairness," Carter said. "And I don't want any of them to hurt this guy."