Incumbent, three challengers seeking sheriff post in Bollinger County

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

MARBLE HILL, Mo. -- Bollinger County Sheriff Leo McElrath faces two challengers for the Republican nomination for sheriff in the August primary. The winner will then face a challenge from an independent candidate in November's general election.

Controversy has not been lacking in McElrath's first term in the office.

A deputy who shot and killed a Chihuahua in February 2011 after allegedly being instructed to do so by the county veterinarian was charged with animal abuse. She later brought a lawsuit against the department, accusing it of employment discrimination, retaliation and Sunshine Law violations. On June 5, an inmate in the jail killed himself with a razor.

Better training for personnel and replacing the facility would help address problems in the jail, McElrath said. But the cash-strapped county can only afford about one good class for each deputy each year, he said.

"It has been an adventure. It's been a lot of work," said McElrath, who was with the Missouri State Highway Patrol for 27 years. "It's a lot different than what I'm used to."

Stash Petton

Terry Wiseman, the previous sheriff, asked McElrath to join his staff as chief deputy in 2005. When Wiseman ran for a county commission seat in 2008, McElrath ran for sheriff and bested challenger James Galloway by a vote of 4,286 to 1,404.

The sheriff administers a department with an annual budget of $457,948, which includes $42,000 for the sheriff's salary, $33,000 for the chief deputy's salary, $243,120 for other deputies' salaries, $21,000 for liability insurance and $54,000 for vehicle expenses.

The jail has a separate budget of $167,767.

The biggest challenge is running and maintaining the jail, McElrath said.

"It's dilapidated. It needs to be replaced," he said.

Leo McElrath

The structure was built in 1969, he said. It has 20 beds for inmates but was built to hold 16 people, he said.

When McElrath took the office, the jail didn't have video monitors, he said. He bought the first eight cameras in the jail out of his own pocket, he said. When the cameras wore out, the county paid for new ones.

One McElrath challenger, Denny Cato of Glenallen, Mo., said he has served as a member of search-and-rescue teams, Advance Police Department chief and a deputy. He is running for the office because he's not satisfied with the way things have been done in Bollinger County.

Denny Cato

Cato said a neighbor recently complained to him that he'd had some irrigation pipes stolen from his farm. The neighbor called the sheriff, but no investigators showed up for several days, and when they did, they didn't even get out of their patrol car to take a statement, Cato said.

"The people of Bollinger County deserve better. I'm not going to let them down," Cato said. "If you call for the sheriff, I will be there no matter what time, day or night."

Cato owns a sand and gravel-hauling company. He said, if he's elected, he will likely quit the business so he can concentrate on the sheriff's duties.

The jail would be a priority, Cato said.

When Charles Daniel Hovis was found bleeding during a dispatcher's routine check early the morning of June 5, the jailer called a nearby deputy in from their home. Because dispatchers, who act as jailers overnight, are not trained police officers, they are not allowed to open the cell doors, McElrath said. The deputy arrived in about eight minutes. An ambulance transported Hovis to a hospital, where he died.

"I would have whoever's going to be in the jail, day or night, be able to open the cells for any reason," Cato said. "I'm not going to have a person bleed to death."

But state law prohibits anyone who has not had the correct law enforcement training from opening the cell doors, McElrath said.

McElrath has asked the county to hire professional jailers but has not been successful in convincing county board members.

A third candidate for the Republican nomination, Darin Shell of Marble Hill, was unavailable for comment over several days. Shell is the statewide animal cruelty investigator for the Humane Society of Missouri.

Early this year, Shell told the Southeast Missourian that the Chihuahua shooting had no bearing on his decision to run for office. He previously said he would implement community policing through town hall meetings, building better partnerships between the department and the public. He said he would make himself available for one-on-one interactions with the public.

You won't see Stash Petton's name on the August ballot. That's because he is the only independent registered to run for Bollinger County sheriff. He will go head-to-head with the winner of the Republican nomination in November.

Petton, who was a police officer in Marble Hill and later served as chief deputy, said one of the most pressing needs the county has is Enhanced 911.

With Enhanced 911, when people call for help dispatchers will receive important information about the caller, including who they are and where they are, Petton said.

"It's a large county, and even people who have been here all their lives don't know every road," Petton said. "If they're unable to speak, getting directions from them might be impossible."

The county doesn't offer health insurance for deputies, officials said. Because of that, as deputies gain experience and training, other departments lure them away.

"I get a lot of people right out of the academy," McElrath said. "I tell them, 'If you can better yourself, I have no complaint with you leaving.'"

Petton said he would focus on getting insurance coverage for deputies so they would be more likely to stay.


Pertinent address:

202 High St., Marble Hill, MO

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