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Wednesday, 26 December 2012 00:00

Haywood sheriff to step down early

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Haywood County Sheriff Bobby Suttles announced last week he will retire in February, stepping down early despite another two years to go until his term is technically up.

Picking a new sheriff to serve out those last two years will be up to the Haywood County Democratic Executive Committee — Suttles is a Democrat, thus local Democratic leaders decide who the seat should go to in the event of a vacancy mid-term.

The office will be up for election in a countywide contest in 2014, but whoever gets the nod from local Democratic Party leaders now will arguably have an advantage going into that race, having two years under their belt as sheriff already (see related article).

After nearly 40 years in law enforcement, Suttles, 68, wants to get in some quality retirement years while the getting is still good.

“I don’t want to throw it all on my age,” Suttles said. “But we’re not promised a long life.”

For starters, he has some fishing to catch up on. He wants to spend more time taking his grandsons to his lake house. That and travel a little with his wife, maybe even try spending a winter in Florida.

“It’ll be hard to get up in the morning and not come in to work,” Suttles said. Suttles has reached that age where he doesn’t need an alarm clock anymore, waking up bright and early whether he wants to or not. So figuring out what to do with himself may take so getting used to, he said.

Suttles grew up on a farm on Rogers Cove, not far from Lake Junaluska. His dad was a fulltime farmer, raising beef cattle and sundry crops. His mom was a homemaker.

Suttles sports an authentic Appalachian dialect and demeanor to match his rural Haywood County upbringing. Friendly, outgoing and good-natured, Suttles is the kind of guy you’d ruminate about the weather with while waiting for your turn at the corner barber shop.

He started his career in law enforcement in his 20s.

After a short stint as a trooper with the N.C. Highway Patrol, he joined the force at the Waynesville Police Department. After 13 years there, he took a job as a company police officer for Champion paper mill in Canton. That gig lasted eight years, until the mill outsourced security to a contracted firm.

But he quickly got a new job with the Haywood County Sheriff’s office, where he worked his way up to Chief Deputy — second in command under the sheriff at the time, Tom Alexander.

That made Suttles “next in line” so to speak when Alexander announced his own retirement four years ago. Like Suttles, Alexander bowed out with two years technically still left on his term. Suttles was the chosen replacement by the local Democratic Party leaders at the time, then officially ran for the seat in 2010.

Suttles’ four years at the sheriff’s office have been relatively low-key. As the right-hand man of the previous sheriff, Suttles wasn’t apt to make sweeping changes or overhauls.

“I feel like, you know, when I took over, everything was run well,” Suttles said.

He was also hamstrung by budget realities. He couldn’t expand his force or launch new initiatives if it took money.

“Over the last four years since I’ve been sheriff, we’ve been in an economic downturn. It’s been tough,” Suttles said.

Suttles had to rely on grants to help fund two new equipment initiatives. One was equipping all patrol cars with mobile data terminals, so officers could work on their reports in the field, equating to more time on the road and less time in the office. The other was issuing tasers to officers, which Suttles said can be a valuable deterrent.

Also on his list of accomplishments: new uniforms and new designs for deputies’ cars.

The old uniforms and cars would have looked right at home in a 1950s Andy Griffith set. The new color schemes and designs are more modern and sleek.

“They are proud of their new uniforms and they guys really like the black cars,” Suttles said. “I feel like anything you can do as a morale booster.”

Suttles’ tenure wasn’t without blemishes. On the serious side, two inmates died while in custody. One from an apparent drug overdose, who happened to be the only surviving witness to a double murder that was awaiting trial. CHECK The witness was in jail on unrelated drug charges when he died, to the chagrin of prosecutors who were relying on his eyewitness testimony.

The other inmate death stemmed from a pre-existing medical illness, although the family has questioned whether jail staff should have taken heed of her declining state of health and intervened more quickly to seek medical care.

There have been at least two escapes from the county jail over the past four years — both involved inmates literally walking out the front door.

The jail wasn’t the only one with an embarrassing faux pas. Recently, an officer was shot in the leg either by his own bullet or friendly fire from a fellow officer when they confronted with a vicious dog in a narrow hallway of a home. Officers believed an infant in the home was at risk due to a violent domestic dispute in progress, and had shot at the dog in order to get around it to the baby’s room.

Asked what the next sheriff’s biggest challenge will be when taking office, Suttles said prescription drug abuse.

“That’s a major thing now-a-days,” Suttles said.

The sheriff’s job is part law enforcement, and part management. The Haywood sheriff has around 80 employees working under him. In addition its patrol force, the sheriff’s office serves civil summons and orders, posts bailiffs in courtrooms, handles security at the courthouse, has a criminal investigation division, a team of school resource officers and runs the jail.

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