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New sheriffs shuffle staffs

Wilke was sworn in earlier this week by District Court Judge Donna Forga. Kyle Perrotti photo Wilke was sworn in earlier this week by District Court Judge Donna Forga. Kyle Perrotti photo

Across North Carolina’s seven westernmost counties, a whole slew of new sheriffs was sworn in on Monday, Dec. 5.

However, the work started about a month earlier for those men, all of whom are new to the office except Swain County Sheriff Curtis Cochran who secured a fifth term. Upon winning their elections, the incoming sheriffs must think about how they will reshape policy, and in some cases, consider which personnel they want to dismiss or demote to make room for their own command staff. 

While some like Brent Holbrooks in Macon County mandated little, if any, staff turnover, in Haywood and Jackson counties, new sheriffs Bill Wilke and Doug Farmer made waves by letting some well-respected deputies go. Wilke spoke with The Smoky Mountain News multiple times for this story; however, Farmer, despite initially saying he would talk, did not return any subsequent phone calls. 

Farmer’s victory in Jackson County was historic as he became the first Republican in almost a century to win that seat. In Haywood, Wilke, who won by a wide margin, also returned the office to Republican hands after several Democrats had held it. 

Last week, Wilke sent out letters to eight sworn personnel that were at that time employed by the Haywood County Sheriff’s Office. Perhaps most notably, Wilke let Detention Captain Chris Shell, Patrol Deputy Daniel Blagg and Sgt. Det. Heath Justice go — all men who had a wealth of experience and seemed to be well-liked both in the community and among their fellow deputies. 

Justice has been with the Haywood County Sheriff’s Office for nine years, and for eight years he’s been committed to investigating child sex crimes, a hard job with a high burnout rate. While Wilke wouldn’t go into detail regarding personnel decisions due to state law, there’s been speculation that his motive may have been political, considering Justice supported Wilke’s primary opponent, Tony Cope, and his wife even had a large sign supporting Cope outside the Clyde dance academy she owns. 

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But it seems that Justice cares less about whatever motive may have led to Wilke’s decision and more that he won’t be able to serve Haywood County in the vital way he has for the better part of a decade. And losing that experience is tough, considering he has a proven track record of successfully setting up sting operations to catch those who solicit sexual acts from children on the internet. Not only does that require technical knowledge; it also requires the ability to dive into some dark places without letting that affect the investigator’s ability to think rationally. Justice has made a name for himself in that area statewide and is even part of an FBI taskforce to investigate and federally charge such cases. 

Justice told SMN that it’s been tough to deal with his forced departure from the sheriff’s office. As difficult as the job can be, he said it’s incredibly validating, adding that even when a case doesn’t work out the way he wants, when a child victim is identified, no matter what, he can help connect them with vital resources and put them on the right track. 

“You’ll never have anything more rewarding in your life than to help them,” he said. 

It’s important to note that incoming sheriffs have every right to hire, fire, promote and demote personnel as they see fit, something that was upheld by the North Carolina Court of Appeals in 2014. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some legislators who would aim to change that. Eddie Caldwell, Executive Vice President and General Counsel for the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association, frequently lobbies in Raleigh on behalf of the state’s 100 sheriffs. He said it’s important that sheriffs have such authority. 

“The sheriff needs people in those positions who are loyal to his mission,” Caldwell said. “The sheriff gets elected to implement the will of the people consistent with the law.”

The sheriff’s association has put out something similar but in more detail in a pair of position papers opposing legislation that would prevent the staff shakeups seen in Haywood and Jackson counties. 

Those papers note that sheriffs’ ability to get rid of any deputies protects the public from bad law enforcement officers. 

“At a moment in history when the public is demanding higher standards for law enforcement and protections against corrupt law enforcement officers like never before, NCSA cannot support or take no position on legislation which creates a shield of protection for bad officers and provides no shield of protection to the public,” one paper reads. “The bill erodes the authority of law enforcement agency heads to manage their agencies in accordance with the demands of the communities they serve and the needs of the agencies they oversee and does nothing to promote public safety.”

Wilke didn’t speak to specific actions regarding the employment of specific deputies, but he did say he’s confident in the decisions he made. 

“My focus is this, I have selected a chain of command and chief deputy that is experienced and knowledgeable and committed to my vision for a safe and prosperous Haywood County,” he said. “I am excited about their abilities and what they’ve expressed in where they want to see the county and how they want to get us there.”

Under former Sheriff Greg Christopher, who neither fired nor demoted anyone when he took office in 2013, there were individual captains over patrol and CID, among other divisions. Wilke has opted to have one Captain — Eric Batchelor, whom many will remember as the man who was shot in the arm while confronting an AR-15 wielding man and later ran for Congress — who will be over “operations,” which will include both investigations and patrol. A lieutenant will serve under Bachelor in each of those divisions. 

Although Wilke said there will be more personnel decisions to come, there will be a “phased approach” to minimize destabilizing his office, as well as the lives of other deputies and their families. 

“I want to take a deliberate step-by-step approach to any future changes and make sure the right employee is selected for the right job,” he said. “I’m exceptionally confident that those roles will be filled by competent people.”

But there was one problem with the way Wilke informed deputies their services would no longer be needed. In those letters, he said the deputies were “hereby terminated.” That language is problematic for a couple of reasons. First, when those individuals seek other law enforcement jobs, the fact that they were terminated can hamper future opportunities. Second, if an ongoing case that was being worked by one of them went to trial, a defense attorney could use that termination to impeach the investigator’s character, thus hurting the chances for a successful prosecution. 

Wilke said the word “terminated” was chosen because that’s what was used in training material provided by the NC Sheriffs Association. While Caldwell initially didn’t think that was accurate, after looking back through his own paperwork, he confirmed that the word “terminated” was used. 

“We are already making plans to change that,” he said. “It will say ‘concludes’ and that the new sheriff has ‘declined to employ’ them.” 

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