Williamsburg, Ky. (AP) – When Colan Harrell took over the Whitley County sheriff’s office amid accusations his predecessor stole more than $200,000 from the agency, he barely had enough guns, ammo and police cruisers to patrol the Appalachian area.
So he did what any lawman in distress would do – he called on colleagues and the community for help.
Harrell first received Glock pistols, bullets and flashlights from a sporting goods store in a nearby county. Then came the used cruisers, computers and stun guns. Three months after taking office, Harrell now has an arsenal large enough to fight the prescription pill and meth problem in the county of 38,000.
“We may be smoking under the hood when we get there, but we will make it to the calls,” said Harrell, 64. “That’s a guarantee.”
The problems began during ex-Sheriff Lawrence Hodge’s tenure. Hodge was indicted late last year on 18 counts of abuse of public trust and three counts of tampering with evidence, charges related to allegations of missing funds and seized weapons. Hodge didn’t immediately return calls seeking comment, but he has pleaded not guilty.
Harrell blamed the former sheriff for a lack of accountability. He beat Hodge in the primary and ran unopposed in the November election.
At first, he said it was a struggle just to meet payroll, and early on, he had to pay for gas out of his own pocket.
“The first two months of this administration, I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy,” Harrell said.
Harrell’s plea for help was finally heard. Sheriffs in Jefferson and Hardin counties in central Kentucky donated two vehicles apiece. Police in nearby Corbin offered up three cars, and local Williamsburg police donated another vehicle. Most of the cruisers had many miles and would’ve been sold for just a couple of hundred dollars.
Nearby Wynn Fire Equipment donated graphics and decals to be stamped on about 10 of the “new” cruisers. A local tire plant donated new rubber and a bank sent the sheriff’s office a check.
All of these came even as sheriffs and businesses faced their own budget problems.
“I figured, the gentleman has nothing, we’ll help him out what we can,” said Rockcastle County Sheriff Mike Peters, whose office donated nine shotguns after his deputies got newer weapons.
Before Harrell took office, the department had just nine handguns, one rifle and three stun guns – an arsenal he called inadequate. Now, each deputy is assigned a shotgun and most deputies have agency-issued pistols, though two still carry their own sidearms.
“I knew the sheriff’s department was in bad shape, but I didn’t ever dream it was at this level,” Harrell said in his cramped office tucked away in the corner of a courthouse, where secondhand computers were stacked on filing cabinets, waiting to be installed.
Harrell removed most of the old guard when he took charge. He oversees 18 employees, including a chief deputy, seven full-time deputies and other officers, bailiffs and clerks.
“We knew they were financially strapped,” said Charles Wynn, owner of Wynn Fire Equipment, which donated the decals. “We’re just trying to help them get on their feet.”
The tight-knit community, known as the gateway to Cumberland falls, river and lake, is home to a Baptist-affiliated college by the same name (University of the Cumberlands). And like many rural areas, downtown Williamson is lined with mom-and-pop stores.
One of them, Community Trust Bank, made a $1,000 donation.
“Right now, it’s a pretty sad state of affairs having to be responsible for a county this size and having no tools to work with,” said bank president, Holbert Hodges Jr.
Firestone Industrial Products donated 32 tires, valued at $5,000.
“The expectation is high that things are on the right path,” plant manager Lynn Taylor said.
Harrell wasn’t able to rely solely on the hand-me-downs. He also took out a $280,000 state loan to keep his office afloat until new revenues come in.
Harrison County Sheriff Bruce Hampton, president of the Kentucky Sheriff’s Association, said it’s common for sheriff’s offices to obtain zero-interest state loans to help cover expenses early in the year. Sheriffs often repay the loans once more revenue starts flowing later on.
Besides taxpayer support, sheriff’s offices also receive fees for serving warrants and subpoenas, for transporting prisoners and they collect a portion of local property taxes.
While things have improved, the Whitley County department still has needs, especially newer vehicles. He said if General Motors or Ford had any samples in the back lot, he would take them. “No matter how ugly they are,” Harrell said, laughing.
Barrouquere reported from Louisville, Ky.