First of 10 articles
Walker County’s Sheriff Steve Wilson had a short one-page profile piece done on him by a Chattanooga newspaper decades ago. It hangs on the wall in the reception area of the jail, marking his career before taking office as a new sheriff. But since that time, in 1997, no media entity has even thought to mine the wealth of information this local law enforcement powerhouse has by writing an updated in-depth profile on him. Until now, that is. And given this lawman’s decades of service, a one-page profile will just not cover it.
Sheriff Wilson, what I want to do is a 10-part series about you to run for ten consecutive weeks.
Yes, because there is no way I could cover everything about you in a two-part series.
Your law enforcement career is extensive. It spans decades of service to your country and community. And then there are all the other hats you wear around Walker.
Now, first and foremost, I want to know how you got into law enforcement since you have spent almost your entire life in it.
I started when I was 18. I was fresh out of high school trying to decide what to do. Trying to decide whether to go straight on into college, or whether to go to work.
I felt like I needed to take some time off. That fall after graduation I learned that the FBI was recruiting for clerical work, for clerical assistance at their main office in Washington, D.C., and I thought: “That sounds like something I might enjoy doing. It might be interesting work.”
So I applied and months went on and months went on, and I didn’t hear anything. And I thought: “This is just not gonna happen.” And finally, I guess it was in early March of the following year, 1976, that I got the phone call or a letter — I know I got a letter; probably got a phone call also.
But, it (the letter) was saying that I had been accepted, and I was to report on March the 28th for work. I sent back the acceptance and here I go off to Washington, D.C. at 18 years of age. I had never been to Washington. It was a growing experience, but I always felt like I was more mature for my age.
So at 18 I felt like — and I believe I was, probably — more like 22 or 23. I always felt like I was older; more mature.
I was hired to work as a clerical employee at the J. Edgar Hoover Building at 935 Pennsylvania Avenue, in between the White House and Capitol.
According to the FBI, “From its inception in 1908 until 1975, the main offices of the FBI were housed in the Department of Justice Building. The first request for a separate FBI building occurred in 1939. Although the Public Buildings Agency initiated plans for an FBI building in 1941, America’s entry into World War II required postponing all government building projects.”
“FBI employees moved into the new building June 28, 1974. At that time, FBI Headquarters offices were housed in nine separate locations. By May 30, 1975, the Director, the associate director, and several divisions had moved in.”
Ten months later, the future sheriff of Walker County joined them in that new building as an 18-year-old.
I lived in Virginia, but I worked there for about three years and three months ... somewhere in that neighborhood of time.
I worked in the identification division and there I learned to classify fingerprints and I still use that skill today. As a matter-of-fact, this week I had a LaFayette P.D. officer bring me a latent fingerprint down, and I put the magnifier on it and used a card print of a known offender to see if it was “in the ballpark” or not.
And I said (to the officer): “No, you can’t do anything with it. What you’ve got is not enough. And I don’t even know if it’s him. I don’t believe it is — but you probably need to go further with it, but I don’t believe your latent is going to be enough. And, it appears to be a palm print.
Gosh, 43 years later I still, occasionally, get asked to look at fingerprints.
So you were able to look and see manually if a latent print lifted at a crime scene matched a printed card that contained a known suspect’s prints (like when they are arrested and booked)?
Yes. And I would, of course, classify the prints. It was card prints back then. Everything was on cards.
No AFIS (Automated Fingerprint Identification System)?
No AFIS, no. I’m a “before AFIS.” (The sheriff laughs because he did the work old-school, before the computer age, when it was much more labor-intensive).
AFIS was beginning, though, as I was transitioning out of that position and into another position there at the FBI. I don’t know if it was AFIS or not, to be honest with you, but it was a computerized system that some of us had been selected to learn.
It may have been the Pre-AFIS, or it could have been AFIS. I’m not sure. When I first started there in ‘76 it was all card. And it was the “I,” the individual classifying, the individual searching for other prints and reporting back to agencies. There was no computerized systems that I know of, not at that time.
But I did that for probably 18 to 20 months, after going through the FBI school. The classification school was about a 12-week class, if memory serves me correct. I was learning all the different arches, the loops, the whorls. Learning how to classify them and those types of things. I finished that and then went out onto the floor.
According to FBI records, the Bureau began creating their own computerized scanning method to electronically start comparing fingerprints for identification purposes around the time Sheriff Wilson was employed, but not before he did it manually. By 1999 they were well on their way to AFIS use instead of manual classification of fingerprints, but the sheriff no longer worked for them.
The last job I had there (at the Bureau) was working for internal security. It was a small group of about 18 to 20 of us that worked that section. And I had the good fortune of being able to work side-by-side with the director, and the assistant director. I got to go into the director’s wing.
At such a young age? In the FBI director’s wing?!
Yeah, I know it. By then I was probably 20, 21, but I had a security clearance.
Did you know anyone that worked at the FBI before you went there? Someone with pull to get you that job and proximity to the director?
No, I did not. Didn’t know anybody. I still communicate with some friends via Facebook that I worked with there. But, no, I didn’t know anyone. And I’m thinking back now, “Would I do that again? Just drop down in the middle of a big city?”
I shared an apartment with three other guys. We just all bunked together, almost like a college dorm, to some degree.
Did they work in law enforcement, too?
They worked at the FBI also. There was a division in there that helped with housing. I don’t know how many thousands of people worked there; several thousands worked there.
For new people that would be coming in, if there was a vacancy in an apartment complex they would pair you up. I was paired up with a guy from Washington State, one from Maryland and one from Kentucky.
Do you still maintain contact with them?
I do with one of them. And then later on there was another one that came in and I am still friends on Facebook with him. But the other two I have lost contact with, and I haven’t been able to track them down. But that’s what I did. Those were the two jobs I had while I was there that three-plus years.
That job opened a lot of other doors for me. I really don’t believe that I would have this position here today had I not started there at a young age. That put the direction in my life as far as a career and as far as a vocation. And, of course, there were many other things between there and here. So, without just saying that’s what I wanted to do. I found my calling, and I loved it.
That is what happened, I think. I was out of high school, and I was unsure as to what I wanted to do and that kind-of fell into my lap. And I was able to get into it. And now 43 years later I’m in this position here.
That’s how it all began.
You know and I know that you didn’t just “fall into it.” It was a plan; God’s plan.
Well, yes it was.
So, you had two different jobs at the FBI. You had the fingerprint-matching job in the identification division and...
The other was the internal security division. There were two different types of security there in the Hoover building. There was armed security with the GSA Police, I believe. They were armed law enforcement officers, sworn. And then we had another division, an internal division that I was selected to be in, and that was really a tough job to get into. They didn’t just take anybody.
I guess I have to brag a little bit here, but I had such a good work record in the identification division that they told me since I was doing such good work that they looked at my work ethic along with some other things and they selected me. A lot of people applied for the position I was hired for — or, rather, transferred into. It was a promotion; more money. Another GS grade up and I had the ability to go just about everywhere in the Hoover building with my security clearance.
Like I said, I could go into the director’s office unattended, the assistant director’s office. And, I was more-or-less an aide in the afternoon for them, because I worked the 4 p.m. to 1 a.m. shift there. So, I was kind-of-like an aide to the director and the assistant director until closing time in a couple of hours and then after that we did security checks within the building to make sure that things were as they were supposed to be.
So it was just another layer of security in case someone on the inside had done something wrong, or someone on the outside had gotten into the building. We would look for things like that and report it if we needed to. So those were the two positions I had while I was there.
After three-plus years there, I decided I needed to come back to this area here, and I went to work for the department of corrections. I worked there almost a year, here at the Walker State Prison.
What made you decide you needed to come back here (to Walker County)? Did you miss family...
Yeah, and I think it was the area. The cost of living up there was so high, even though I had been promoted one time from within, I felt like that the chance or opportunity for promotion was a long ways off.
I did not have the degree at that point that was required, and I knew that if I wanted it, I would have to try to stay there and go to night school. But I was working and knew that was going to be very difficult. I just knew that becoming a special agent was going to be a long ways off. If I wanted to go that route.
I just didn’t see living there. I didn’t like the big city. It’s OK to visit, and I guess I wouldn’t take the experience for anything, but I don’t think I’d want to live there long-term. I’ve been back to visit one time, really twice — once with my family, and it reminded me why I moved back here to a slower pace in life.
I think a little bit of homesickness, probably. The pace of life here is really what I was more suited for, and I felt like I had maxed out in life — maxed out my potential there.
That’s pretty astute of you at that age to realize that about yourself?
Yeah, it was. But it was just one of those things that I felt like was the right thing to do at that point. I’ve never had any second thoughts about it or regretted it. My call was really to work in the police department. I thought if I could get back here I could be hired at the city police department or here at the sheriff’s office.
And I knew that I probably needed to get back to this area in order to do that. Being off somewhere made it difficult to be interviewed; difficult to be hired, so I thought if I could get back here — and I had applied at the sheriff’s office, I believe, and the city police department and at the state prison.
I got a call. My dad had called me. The warden there knew my father pretty well. He said “You’ve got a job if you want it.” And I said, “Well, OK. That will get me back to LaFayette. That will get me back with a job.” And I made that decision to come back, and I went to work there.
Did you apply to the sheriff’s office, police department or the department of corrections here before you went to work for the FBI?
You only applied to the FBI?
Well, I was 18 and to be in a sworn position you had to be 21 years old. So that three year period there, that was a long ways off. When you’re 18 looking to 21 it seems like it takes forever, right?
And now it doesn’t take that long. (Laughter)
You know what I’m talking about. We’re the same age, right? (More laughter)
Anyway, I didn’t apply to those agencies then because of age, but when I came back I was 21, and I knew that I was eligible to be a sworn officer at that time. So I took the first opportunity that I had (to get back to Walker) and that was at the prison. It was the first offer.
I worked there for somewhere around 10 months or so. At that point I was getting a little discouraged because I really wanted to be a police officer on the street, you know.
I enjoyed it. I worked with a lot of good people there. I’m still friends today with people that I worked with there. And a lot of them have been my supporters over the years. But, I just decided that that part of law enforcement, corrections, wasn’t my calling, or not what I enjoyed, let’s just put it that way.
I decided to make the move and went out into private business for a few months, still waiting for that call. I finally got it in the fall of the next year. I got called to come to the city police department for an interview. There was an opening there.
We are talking about the city of LaFayette?
Yes, the city of LaFayette.
Who was the police chief at LaFayette?
Dino Richardson. Chief Richardson. A legend at LaFayette PD. He’d only been chief a couple of years when he hired me, and he ended up serving until his death in 2006. And he was quite a character and a legend around here in the police world. And, a good friend.
But he took a chance on me there in 1980, and he hired me. Back then you could go to work without being mandated or certified. In Georgia you could work a year as a non-certified police officer before you went to the academy and, that has since changed.
I went to the Rome Regional Police Academy in Floyd County in ‘81. I went through mandate school there, graduated and came back, and ended up working with the city for...
As a patrol officer?
As a patrol officer, yes. I ended up working there until 1986. I was there until 1986. And I made my next move coming here in ‘86, and I have been here ever since.
So you left there in ‘86 and Dino was still the chief?
How was the transition when you left the FBI...left the department of corrections...left the city of LaFayette?
Did they handle that transition well? Were they upset that you were not going to stay in their particular organization? Were they supportive of you making the transition that was right for you?
I want to think of myself as a good employee. I would think that they were probably disappointed that I had left, but they were not upset by no means. I didn’t ever receive that feeling that anybody was ever upset.
But, I would say that leaving the city was a little tough for me. I had been there five-and-a-half, nearly six years, and that is where I got my start. It was an extremely difficult decision to leave, let me say that.
It sounds like you were pretty close to Dino?
I was. He had given me the opportunity to start there, so I was really torn about leaving because I had a good relationship there, enjoyed working with everyone there. So I remember it was a struggle to make the decision to leave there to come here.
What was the motive to leave the city for the sheriff’s office?
It was probably 50 cents an hour. (Laughter) There’s a joke around here and in law enforcement that people will leave one agency and go to another one for 50 cents an hour (pay raise).
And when you are young, and you are married and have three children like I did, 50 cents an hour was a lot of money. It was a little bit more money coming here.
I was going to ask you when the family (your family) entered the picture of your law enforcement career? Was that while you were working for the city?
Yes. I had three little ones there, and I was trying to make ends meet. It was tough. I don’t remember exactly what my salary was, but it was about four dollars and a nickle I think when I started there, for an hour.
And we know how low the pay still is for law enforcement...
It’s still a struggle when you have a family working in this business. One of the things I regret that I haven’t been able to move forward on is getting the pay scale to a standard that we wouldn’t have to say that. I would like to be able to say that after 22 years we were past that. We’re not. We’re still struggling to pay our police officers a fair wage.
And they risk their lives for us...
Yes. About every 60 hours in the United States there’s a law enforcement officer that loses their life in the line of duty, protecting and serving the people of this country.
Some areas of the country pay better than others, and the South has historically been lower paid than our counterparts in the North and West.
But getting back to that, I think the biggest motivation (for my leaving the city and going to the county) was a couple of things that factored into it. A new sheriff had been elected in 1984 and took office in January of 1985. He, at that time, was doing a lot of things different here in the sheriff’s office. A lot of things that were positive at the sheriff’s office.
We had already seen some men leaving the city police agency of LaFayette and other men from other agencies come to the sheriff’s office in late ‘85 and, I believe in 1986, because the pay was getting better. It might not have been much, but it was a little bit better...and some of the benefits, and the working environment was better, so...
One of my co-workers at the city was at the sheriff’s office...had already left to come here and was one of the lieutenants of patrol...
So you knew someone there?
...And so he was calling and talking to us and saying “Hey, you need to come over here. Things are great over here.”
And he had reached out to me and said you may want to come on over here now. Things are a little bit better, and we will pay you more on the hour. All of that type of stuff that builds you up and gets you interested in making that move.
It was the most difficult move I ever made from one job to the other, because I really liked working there, and I really liked the people there. I made a great bond with a lot of people. But I did make the decision to leave and came here in April of 1986.
I came here as a deputy sheriff and was working the entire county, which opened up the policing I guess, because I had been confined to a smaller city for five-and-a-half years or so.
A square mileage difference of how much between city and county?
I’m not sure what the square mileage for the city of LaFayette is. And it’s not really small, there are other small cities, but compared to the county, which is 445 square miles, it was a big difference.
For the record, the square mileage of the city of LaFayette is approximately 8 square miles.
So that’s what happened. I came on patrol and I stayed on patrol at the sheriff’s office until August of 1987.
Was that less than a year, or right at a year?
About a year and four months or so.
You seemed to climb that ladder fast...
I did. (He laughs)
I mean, I’m just noticing...three years at the FBI, but not three years in one position. You had two positions there.
And then less than a year at the correctional facility. Ten months, actually.
Well, you did a little more time at the city.
Yeah, I did five or five-and-a-half years there.
You had to really, really like it.
Yeah. I did, and I worked first and third shift there, so it wasn’t too terribly bad.
Did you work third shift when you started at the sheriff’s office as a deputy?
Yes, as most people do. But I got off of that, finally, and went on first shift.
And we had a great shift (at the city). I talk about it, it was the best working conditions. We worked eight hours a day. We worked six on and three off, six on and three off all the time.
Really, it was a better shift than what I came to here (as a deputy). Because here I was working nine hours a day, and I forget now exactly, but it seems like we would work seven or eight days and have a day or two off. There was no such thing as FLSA back then. We just worked all the time.
I was promoted in August of ‘87 to the detective division. And as I look back it was a great move, because it opened up that opportunity for me to get into that, and I was assigned to the drug enforcement end of it in the detective division.
Wow, right out of the starting gate!
I was it.
I was the drug task force. (More laughter)
Oh, my gosh! That’s amazing!
I joke about that all the time. I was “it”. I think we had seven detectives plus me, they worked general crimes. We had one that worked child abuse, and then I was the only one working the drug end of it.
So, were drugs just becoming a problem at that point is why they were creating that position, because I cannot imagine only one person manning the drug task force now?
Yes, at that point. I believe I was the first full-time person to work drugs. There had been other people that sporadically had worked drug investigations and did some undercover work through the years for the sheriff’s office, maybe two or three months at a time.
But I think that I was the first person that they said: “Here, this is it, full-time. You do this (work drug crime). That’s all you’re going to be doing.”
Crack at that time, in the mid to late ’80s, was a pretty big problem around here. There was no such thing as meth and heroin here. Pot and marijuana and crack were what we were seeing.
I thought you were going to say cocaine...
Well, there was some powdered cocaine, but crack was more prevalent in this area. So that’s what we worked at. I did that from August of ‘87 all the way through the next year, 1988. The incumbent sheriff was defeated in that election, and the new sheriff happened to be the man who had done my background for the FBI.
Yes, it was a weird thing. The sheriff who had come in here in 1989 was Al Millard. He was an FBI agent here in the Rossville office of the area, and he and Wayne Sternaman, and one or two more guys. I think there were maybe four people in that FBI office in the Rossville area.
And he (Millard)) and Wayne had done my background when I was hired as a clerk (for the FBI), what 12 or 13 years earlier.
Did he remember you?
Yes! He knew my dad, and he remembered me. And he left me in that position, the drug enforcement position.
About a month after he took office, he hired another guy to work in that division. And then later that year we started a small drug task force. There were four of us I believe at that time, what we called the city-county task force.
Like the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit Drug Task Force we have now?
Much smaller. We were only focusing on Walker County. We did that from sometime in ‘89 into the middle of 1990, when the sheriffs and the chiefs and the Lookout circuit formed the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit Drug Task Force in June of 1990.
I continued on with that. They left me in the circuit drug task force.
So you kind-of headed that one?
I was the assistant commander for it. And then in ‘94 I was promoted to commander. (Laughter)
Oh, my goodness!
So, here I go again!
Speaking of drugs, would you be surprised to know that the Narcan use here in Walker County has doubled in just the first six months of this year compared to last year?
I would not be surprised. The meth and meth laced with opioids, and then the opioids themselves (can cause the need for emergency personnel to have to use Narcan to revive people overdosing). I would not be surprised.
And after being promoted to the commander of the drug task force, I continued to do that until ‘96, the middle of ‘96.
That’s a long stretch...
That was longer than your time at the city.
Well I was on the task force, yes, for longer than I was at the city. But as far as being the supervisor, I was there from ‘94 until I left in mid ‘96 to run for sheriff.
So that was your next move when you left the task force, was to run for sheriff?
Would you have stayed in that position if Millard had not been leaving?
Yes, I would have. I had never thought about seeking the office of sheriff.
Never had any political inclinations whatsoever?
No. Never thought I was even capable of being the sheriff. No, it never entered my mind to run for sheriff.
But in the fall of ‘95, we, the employees here at the sheriff’s office, we knew he was ill. We didn’t know exactly what was wrong. He was private and never discussed it. But we knew something was wrong and everybody, at least under our breath (and at the water cooler), were wondering.
We knew 1996 was an election year, so we kept wondering if he was going to be able to run again because we felt like he was significantly ill at the time. And then it was the week of the Martin Luther King holiday in ‘96, and he made a public announcement that he had cancer and was not going to seek re-election in 1996.
And, of course that just set the gossip mill to going, and people wondering who was gonna run. And people talking to people, and saying things like: “This person is gonna run,” “No, this person is gonna run and this one’s not.”
And, I want to think that I had done a good job at the task force, and because of that is why there were several employees within the sheriff’s office that come to me and said: “You need to run for sheriff.”
I said, “What?! No, I don’t think so.”
And they said, “Yeah, you’d be a good one. You’d do great. You could win!”
Man, you don’t know if they’re just pumping you up. And, you don’t know what’s reality and what’s not reality. And that was a really...I went for about two weeks trying to process all that. It was a very emotional time, because I knew it was a big step.
It’s a big responsibility.
It’s a huge step. Not only the responsibility of leading the sheriff’s office, but for me personally, because I knew that if I ran and lost I probably wouldn’t be here (he means he wouldn’t get hired back by the guy who did win). And, I would have to find work somewhere else (in that case), which I probably would have been able to do.
And I knew that I would also have to take a leave of absence for a period of months or leave completely while I’m running.
And you have to have the resources to be able to do that
Got to have the money to do it, so...
And, so, how did your wife feel about that?
She was extremely supportive, but also at the same time nervous about it.
I remember talking to my dad, who was my number one campaigner and supporter in politics. It just so happened that everything just fell into place. He was about ready to retire that spring. And that surprised me because I never thought he would retire, but he had chosen to retire that spring.
It all kind of worked together there. But going back a little bit, Sheriff Millard’s announcing during Martin Luther King week that he wasn’t running...all the people trying to talk me into running...trying to boost me (or boost my spirits) to run, led to me calling up Sheriff Millard two weeks later on a Saturday, and I told him I had something I needed to talk to him about.
He had not approached me at all (about running).
No. He hadn’t said anything to me about it.
And he hadn’t talked to any of them, to get them to talk to you about it?
No. I don’t think he had any clue that I would have an interest in it. He certainly hadn’t talked to me about it.
On that Saturday I went to his house and sat down with him and said: “This is what’s happening. People are encouraging me to run, and I think I might want to run. But, what do you think about it?”
I wanted to get his thoughts about it. We talked for about a couple of hours that day, and then he said, “I’ll get back with you in about a week or so. And, I’ll let you know something. Let me think about it.”
I knew that...
I felt like I needed his support to win. The primary was just a few months off at that point. And, I had already made up my mind that I would not run if I didn’t have his support. And if he was wanting to support somebody else that would be fine, we would get behind that person and support them.
I wasn’t up for that type of fight. And, I wanted to hear from him that he was clear and convinced that I was the right person to run. And I guess about a week to 10 days later he called me into the office here and said that he was going to be behind me and to support me. And that is how it all began right there.
We formed a committee and formed supporters, started working hard. I worked from the first of March on into the primary in July of that year. There were four of us in the democratic primary and two in the republican primary.
I won the democratic primary without a runoff and then I faced the republican challenger in November and won that race with 73%. That was it. Took office in January of ‘97.
And you have been here ever since!
Been here ever since, yes.
It’s been a very rewarding career, professionally and personally, it’s been all wrapped into one.
I’ve met so many people that I would never have been able to meet, and I have made so many friends that I would never have had the opportunity to make if I had not been sheriff.
And to me that’s worth everything, those friendships and those relationships that I’ve been able to make over the last 23 years, almost 24 years now.
That’s been rewarding. And I hope when I look back I can see that I have left it in a better place, made it a better place than when I came in, but there are still a lot of things to do.
As I mentioned earlier, the deputy pay. I would love to be able to see the pay of the employees increase to a livable wage. That’s very important. That’s the number one goal right now. And I trust that I will have another term to be able to do that. I plan to seek re-election next year.
Good. I am glad to hear that. Are you going to be like your predecessor...committed to staying in office as long as you are physically able?
No, because I hope I’m physically able at 80. But, I don’t want to stay here until I’m 80. (Laughter)
I can’t see you retiring...Unless it’s to run for governor?
I think there is a time, and I hope I know when that time comes — to leave, and to turn it (the sheriff’s office job) over to someone else.
I hope I recognize that time, let me clarify that. And that may mean that it is time for me to go on. It may mean that there are environments on the other side that I may see that it means that it is time for me to go on.
I just hope that I realize; that I recognize whatever the sign is...that it is time for me to pass the torch to someone else.
I don’t want to stay too long, but I want to go out on my own terms. I just trust that people close to me will tell me if I don’t recognize it (the time to go), and they will say: “Hey, it’s time for you to go.”
The county was formed in 1833, and we have had a sheriff every year since 1833. I think I’m the 37th sheriff in the county’s history. There will be a 38th. We just don’t know who that will be yet.