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Swain sheriff challenger wants a turn at the helm

When word of a shooting in Whittier roused Swain County Sheriff Bob Ogle from his house last Thursday night, he arrived at a complex crime scene.

A fight had broken out a local hotel between a woman and her boyfriend. The woman called her grandfather for help. The grandfather drove to the hotel and picked her up.

The boyfriend chased them back home, where a fight broke out in the front yard between the grandfather and boyfriend. As the fight progressed, the grandfather got a gun and shot the boyfriend in the leg as he fled the property, according to statements.

On one hand, the man was defending his granddaughter and his home. On the other, he shot a man who was running away.

Ogle, 63, a Democrat, points to the shooting as an example of why he should be re-elected as sheriff this November. Ogle’s challenger, Reppublican Curtis Cochran, has never worked in law enforcement and wouldn’t know what to do, Ogle said.

“We know how to deal with things like that — how to process a crime scene, protect the evidence, interview people and how to prepare your court case,” Ogle said.

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Cochran claims that specific law enforcement experience isn’t necessary. It’s more important to be a good manager, Cochran said.

Cochran, 53, has been the manager of the Swain County maintenance department for 13 years. Before that, he oversaw massive public works projects across the country. His last project before returning home was a $2.3 billion sewer tunnel project in Milwaukee. There were 50 workers on any given shift with construction running around the clock. Coordinating with the engineers, state agencies, subcontractors and the city council proves he has the management skills needed to run the sheriff’s office, Cochran said.

“I have managed far more people under extreme and dangerous and precarious situations,” Cochran said.

Cochran said a smart, knowledgeable staff will fill in the gaps when it comes to the law enforcement skills.

Ogle disagreed.

“You can’t rely on someone else to tell you what to do,” Ogle said.

Failure to follow accepted law enforcement procedures could mean charges are thrown out.

“You can lose it all on a technicality,” said Ogle. Ogle has been in law enforcement more than 30 years after starting at the Waynesville Police Department, spending a long career with the Highway Patrol, and then winning election to the job of sheriff in 1992.

If Cochran is elected, he would have less law enforcement training than any of the deputies working under him. Deputies have to complete a 600-hour basic law enforcement training within one year of being hired. Only the newest deputy lacks the certification but is currently enrolled in training.

“The days are gone where you could give someone a badge and a gun and tell them to go to work as a deputy,” Ogle said. “It’s a whole different ballgame.”

Ogle said he has done a lot to advance the sheriff’s office. When he started in 1992, deputies took crime reports on note cards because they didn’t have computers.

But Cochran questioned how well the sheriff’s office is being managed. He pointed to a high turnover among jailers — 148 employees have cycled through the jail in six years. Some quit, some were dismissed, others were promoted to deputies. Low pay likely accounts for some of the turnover, but “with this many people you’ve got internal problems somewhere,” Cochran said.


Running down drugs

Cochran considered running for sheriff four years ago. But the county was in the midst of a couple projects he needed to see through. So Cochran put off running.

“The one thing that pushed me over the edge to run this time was the high drug rate,” Cochran said. “We have a lot of people who have died from illegal drugs, a lot of disgruntled families.”

The rise in illegal drugs has led to increased break-ins, thefts and robberies with far-reaching consequences in the community, Cochran said.

“I’ve been going door to door, and everywhere I go, it’s what people are talking about,” Cochran said.

Whether it’s the trailer down the road or the high school kid next door, it’s no secret who the drug dealers are, Cochran said.

“They know it, their kids know it, their neighbors know it and their concern is why doesn’t the sheriff’s office know it and act on it,” Cochran said.

Cochran said he will step up patrols, increase drug training for deputies and draw on the community’s help and involvement.

But rumors are not enough to go after drug dealers, Ogle said. Parents who catch their kids with drugs often extract the seller’s name and want Ogle to arrest them. But that’s not enough. It’s also not enough to call the sheriff’s office and accuse your neighbor of selling drugs because cars come and go all hours of the night.

“Most people think when they give you that information you can go bust their door down and confiscate the drugs,” Ogle said.

But you must have a search warrant, and in order to get a search warrant, you must have probable cause — not merely suspicion.

Nonetheless, Cochran said the sheriff’s office could do more.

“You can at least check out these complaints,” Cochran said. “People in the community feel like there is no follow-up. Several people have told me they don’t even call any more because they get no response.”

Ogle disagreed.

“One of my big things is every call that comes in here needs to be answered,” Ogle said.

That doesn’t mean the problem is solved instantly, he said. Sometimes they have to build a case against a suspect.

“People who give us information think we’re not doing anything, but we are,” Ogle said.

If someone is caught with drugs in their home or car, it’s only a misdemeanor and not enough to lock them up. It’s best to document them selling drugs — a felony — and get them off the streets for good. But it takes an undercover operation. And undercover operations are easier said than done in a community where everyone knows everyone, Ogle said.

Cochran said he would improve cooperation with surrounding counties to exchange undercover officers.

“It’s a give and take. We’ll help you, you help us,” Cochran said. “When you are fighting a battle, you want as many allies as you can get.”

Cochran questioned why Ogle doesn’t team up more with neighbors. Cochran cited a regional conference at Western Carolina University last year on solving the methamphetamine drug problem. The state attorney general came, as did sheriffs from other counties, but Ogle nor anyone from the Swain sheriff’s office attended. Swain was also absent at a regional drug task force meeting two months ago.

As for the meth conference, Ogle said it mostly consisted of speeches and didn’t sound that beneficial. He has sent officers to specific meth lab training, however. As for the regional drug task force, it’s often a wash.

“It has been my experience when you commit to some of these task forces, you end up spending more time out of your county than in it,” Ogle said.

That doesn’t mean Swain isn’t a team player in fighting the drug problem.

“Just because we don’t show up for these conferences doesn’t mean we don’t work with them,” Ogle said.


Out and about

Cochran also says he will do a better job of keeping deputies on the roads and out in the community.

“There needs to be more than one deputy on patrol at a given time,” Cochran said. He’ll get there by using “creative scheduling.”

Ogle said that only goes so far. Every year at budget time, Ogle lobbies the county commissioners for more money to hire deputies. His efforts haven’t been successful the past two years, however.

Ogle has 13 deputies. Two are assigned to schools. Another spends half the time as a bailiff in court.

“That leaves 10 officers,” Ogle said.

Last Friday, two officers were gone half the day to Asheville delivering confiscated drugs to the State Bureau of Investigation crime lab for analysis. They also went by Mission Hospital in hopes of interviewing the man who was shot Thursday night. Meanwhile, three officers were in Cherokee County helping with a drug bust — a mutual arrangement between neighboring counties in sting operations.

Ogle challenges anyone to put pencil to paper and develop a schedule that puts more deputies on the road than the one he has now. After you throw in vacation time and extra deputies needed for special events like football games and parades, it is simply not possible to have two deputies on every shift.

“We don’t have enough personnel,” Ogle said. Meanwhile, the volume of neighborhoods to patrol keeps climbing.

“I’ve lost count of all the new developments around here,” Ogle said.

While some law enforcement agencies divide the day in two 12-hour shifts, Ogle opts for three.

“You sometimes lose part of your alertness at the end of 12 hours. I don’t want deputies out there who aren’t alert,” Ogle said.


No hard feelings

Ogle and Cochran have both pledged to run friendly campaigns. Part of Cochran’s job as county maintenance director is keeping an eye on the aging, decrepit jail, which is so rife with leaks and cracks it’s practically coming apart at the seams. The jail is upstairs from the sheriff’s office, so Cochran is a regular in the halls where Ogle works.

“I’m there on a daily basis just about,” Cochran said.

The first thing Cochran did after signing up to run for sheriff was to pay Ogle and visit and tell him in person.

“I told him win, lose or draw I will still do my job,” Cochran said.

Ogle shared a similar story.

“We have agreed to remain friends,” Ogle said.

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