End of an era

One of Crook County’s longest-serving sheriffs, Stahla ready for next chapter

By Sarah Pridgeon

 

After two decades of service, Sheriff Steve Stahla has announced that he will retire when his term comes to an end. It has been a difficult decision, he says, but he leaves knowing that he achieved every goal that he set for himself.

“Until a couple of months ago, I didn’t really know. It’s something you can’t explain,” he says.

Steve Stahla displays some of the memories collected over the course of his career.   (Sarah Pridgeon photo)

Steve Stahla displays some of the memories collected over the course of his career. (Sarah Pridgeon photo)

“I’m still healthy, most people will tell me I’m too young to retire, but I hope it’s a positive thing for the public to see that I had a good job that has paid me well for all that I do. I enjoy my job and I enjoy working for my bosses, which is all the people.”

Stahla pulls out three ring binders, each one overflowing with articles, letters, photographs and documents. His wife, he says, has collected and collated evidence of all his many achievements during his time as Crook County Sheriff.

“This is 20 years of why I’m retiring,” he says, flipping through the pages.

“It isn’t everything, but it’s a lot of what we’ve done. It just goes on through the years – I don’t actually have 2011-2014 yet, so I’m guessing there’ll be another one of these folders.”

Within the pages are memories of all of the cases and projects that Stahla and his team have been involved with, from Search & Rescue, to working with the schools, to bringing a K-9 unit into the county and tackling the 20 or so burglary cases that were unsolved when he took office.

“I don’t know how you’d ever even talk about it all, because there’s so much. All of a sudden I got to thinking about it and realized that I’ve met my goals,” he smiles.

“I had a lot of personal and professional goals – and I’m there.”

Not included, but still strong in Stahla’s memory, is a letter from a young man who was arrested for attempted murder after shooting a .22 rifle at passers-by. On his day of sentencing, knowing that he would be spending time behind bars, he refused to set foot in court until he had given the sheriff a two-page missive thanking him for everything he had done.

It was an unusual but appreciated reaction to the sheriff responsible for sending him to jail.

“That was a highlight on a great ride,” he says.

He remembers a big case during which stolen safes were recovered from the bottom of a river and times when helicopters were brought in to combat drug problems. He recalls working in the 1990s to bring Rally Wednesday under control, following the idea that visitors shouldn’t be able to do anything that citizens can’t do on the remaining 364 days of the year.

“There are so many different things, but the biggest commitment I would hope of any sheriff or law enforcement official is to keep the people safe,” he says.

His efforts, he adds, have certainly been worthwhile.

“I’d bet that we probably have the lowest crime rate in the state, but I can remember 15 years ago when the Sheriff’s Blotter was full of burglaries and thefts,” he explains.

“You don’t see that anymore and the jail population reflects that. We’re at two inmates today, but I can remember when it was 32.”

When Stahla took over as sheriff in 1995, the jail population was just as low – but for a very different reason. Whether it was a lack of expertise or of drive and dedication, he says, there were a fair few unsolved cases on the books.

As those cases were solved, the jail cells began to fill up.

“You get change and proactive law enforcement and what do you see?” he asks.

“You see a crime rate rise that’s not really a true picture of how things are. You’re solving crimes that haven’t been solved before and throwing more people in jail.”

Stahla recalls with amusement being approached by a pillar of the community, for whom he had great respect. It was a big joke back then that he was from Nebraska, he says, and the gentleman in question wanted to know if he’d brought all his friends with him to stock the cells of the jail.

“It did just what it was supposed to. When law enforcement was becoming proactive, getting involved and listening to the people, you started seeing the crime rate go down,” he says.

“Now, we’re leveling out and the deal is: can we keep it there? I believe we can, with the right person in the office, but they’ll have to work very hard and they’re going to find out that it’s not just a guy who sits at the top and gives orders.”

Stahla is proud of the Sheriff’s Department that stands watch over the community today.

“I’ve always said that law enforcement is an expensive part of our communities and good law enforcement is even a little bit more expensive, but, if you put the commitment to it, you can see the differences and changes,” he says.

“In this office, I truly believe the sheriff needs to be a working sheriff – you have to be willing to get out there and do the job, and you need to be able to do it all. I wear a lot of hats and a lot of them weren’t just thrown at me, I took them.”

Among those hats, he ticks of working with radios for 20 years, contributing to the county’s fire and EMS programs and his current project to introduce an enhanced 911 system.

“It hasn’t always been perfect and I do get blamed when God strikes the Tower,” he laughs.

“He and I have a good relationship, though He’s done some things that have tested me. But these things had to be done, or I wouldn’t be saying that I’m done today and that I’m walking out on a good note.”

What sets a sheriff apart from other law enforcement roles, he says, is the knowledge that you are working for the people.

“I administer this office for you guys,” he says.

“When I’ve hired people and asked them who they work for and they’ve pointed to me, I’ve told them that I appreciate the thought but that the bottom line is: we work for the 7000 people in this county. Those people have molded me into the sheriff I am.”

For Stahla, passing the torch will not end with his term. If his successor should need his help, he says, he will make sure to be there.

“I’ve always tried to be the sheriff that I would want, if I was a citizen, and I would expect that of the next sheriff. I want to help whoever is next in line, if I can and if they need me for something,” he says.

His successor will need to earn his trust and respect, however, and prove that they intend to perform the role to the best of their ability.

“That’s a promise I’ll make: if they screw it up and the people will still have me, I’ll run again,” he smiles.

“It’s always about the folks – I owe it all to the people and their support.”

Though he looks forward to spending more time with his daughter and grandchildren, and the wife to whom he says he owes so much, retirement will be an emotional moment for Crook County’s long-time sheriff.

“I’ve had guns pointed at me, I’ve been run off the road doing my job and I don’t think about it, but giving up something you’ve worked so hard for is tough,” he says.

“But I’ve done what I set out to do.”

Stahla will serve out his term until January 2015 and has every intention of remaining in the county – retiring in this beautiful part of the world, he says, was always one of his ambitions.

“I’m not worn out, I truly believe I could give another four years of good work, but my drive and passion was linked to all these goals. That’s not a bad thing and I think most people would understand,” he says.

“It’s been an honor and a privilege and I appreciate everything the public has done for me. I hope I didn’t let you down.”