By Aila Boyd email@example.com
American Legion Post 240 held a meet and greet for candidates for sheriff of Botetourt County last Thursday night at VFW Post 1841 in Daleville.
All of the candidates, Republicans Jeff Stritesky, Matt Ward, and Matt Vineyard and Independent William Stowell, were in attendance.
Ray Gabay, commander of Post 240, started off the event by offering a few comments. Each candidate spoke about their background and what they hope to accomplish as sheriff for roughly 10 minutes, before mingling with members of the community.
Stritesky, Ward, and Vineyard are all vying for the Republican nomination. The primary will be held on June 11. Because Stowell is running as an Independent, he does not have to go through the primary process. Instead, he will face off against whoever emerges victorious following the primary.
The speaking order of the candidates was chosen based on a random drawing with Ward speaking first, followed by Stowell, Stritesky, and Vineyard.
Ward started off by explaining that he is “very interested” in the community and has a “vested interest” in it. He noted that he has been a member of the Botetourt County Republican Committee for roughly eight or nine years and that he and his mother coordinate Toys 4 Bot-e-Tots, a yearly toy drive that collects and distributes toys to needy children during the holiday season.
Ward said that if elected sheriff, his “focus will be on what matters here at home.”
When considering what changes the Sheriff’s Office should undergo, Ward said that he can’t think of many. However, he did note that some of the computers that are in the cars used by officers need further updates. The updates, he said, could prevent the overburdening of the Criminal Investigations Division. He added that he plans on “embracing technology.”
Before discussing the opioid crisis, Ward noted that some of the other candidates have similar views on the matter.
Placing the current opioid crisis into a broader context, he said that there was a drug problem before he was born and that there still will be one after he’s gone. “We’re not winning the war on drugs,” he said. “We never have been.” However, he said as sheriff, he will work on “minimizing and reducing” drug use in the county.
In order to minimize and reduce drug use, he suggested implementing a year-round drug takeback box. He said that he knows of a steel provider who is willing to supply the raw material, adding that students at Botetourt Technical Education Center could weld it together.
“I am asking you to help me in moving Botetourt County forward by allowing me the privilege of serving you as sheriff,” he said to the audience. “I ask for you support in this campaign and your vote on June 11. Thank you very much.”
Ward has been with the Botetourt County Sheriff’s Office since 1996, when he was an auxiliary deputy. He’s currently a master deputy. Prior to joining the Sheriff’s Office, Ward served six years as a United States Marine.
“Don’t let my New York accent fool you,” Stowell said, going on to mention that he has lived in Botetourt County for over 20 years.
“I love Fincastle,” he said of the county seat. “No one has been a bigger ambassador of the Town of Fincastle than me. I’m constantly sending out pamphlets about our community.”
Stowell acknowledged that he brings a “unique perspective” as an outsider to the race for sheriff. “Sometimes it takes an outsider to point out what’s been going on,” he said. Unlike the three Republican candidates, he doesn’t currently work in law enforcement and has a criminal history— three DUIs.
“I have no shame about it,” he said. “I wish it hadn’t happened, but it did happen. It happens to a lot of veterans.”
Speaking of the other candidates, he said “they seem like wonderful officers and wonderful human beings.” He added that presumably all of the candidates want to “keep children safe” and want to address the drug problems that the county is facing.
“People are addicted to drugs, but we have to take a look in the mirror and see how we as a society are dealing with this problem,” he said.
He explained that it’s “easy” to charge people for drug offenses and lock them up, forgetting about them in the process.
“I’m totally against labeling people who are drug users as criminals,” he proclaimed. “Even if they manage to beat their own personal addiction, when they get out into the world, they have a criminal record. Why? Because they were hooked on drugs.”
He stressed the point that people who are currently in jail are “no less a part of the community” than anyone who was in the audience at the meet and greet. “The way we treat them and handle them is going to be what happens to the future of our county,” he said.
The other major policy stance that Stowell discussed was his opposition to House Bill 2748, which Governor Ralph Northam, who Stowell described as “our now disgraced governor,” signed into law on February 21. The law changed the minimum age to buy tobacco from 18 to 21 years of age. It will go into effect on July 21.
He said that the legislation is going to create a “black market” and that tobacco use among youth will continue.
“All it’s going to be is a way for local law enforcement of any municipality, not just this one, to give more tickets, generate more revenue,” Stowell said.
“Why do we always have to be the county that’s 20 years behind everybody else? Why can’t we assert our liberty for a change?” Stowell asked. “When I’m sheriff, I’m not going to enforce this law. Eighteen to 20-year-old kids, you’re an adult.”
He added that laws such as House Bill 2748 “prolong adolescence.”
Briefly mentioning the safety of public schools, Stowell said that it’s a security issue, not a law enforcement matter.
“I don’t think it’s good to acclimate young children to a surveillance state,” he added. “You don’t need to be watching children constantly so that they grow up thinking that it’s normal to be under surveillance. It’s not normal.”
He closed his statements by stressing the position of sheriff is elected, meaning that it belongs to the people.
“I haven’t been working in the Sheriff’s Office here. I don’t know what’s likely to come across my desk, but I promise you whatever decision I make as sheriff is going to be one that increases individual liberty and decreases the mechanisms of control that the state has over your lives.”
Stowell currently owns and operates a Fincastle-based ATM business and a YouTube channel, “Fincastle Underground.”
He previously served in the Air Force and was a military police officer, even working security for President George W. Bush.
Stritesky started by stressing the importance of such a forum, noting that free elections aren’t allowed in some countries.
“Do your own due diligence and find out about these candidates,” he said.
Stritesky explained that even though he could have retired several years ago, he doesn’t want to. “I think if I retired, I’d be getting Amazon and Ebay packages every day. I’d never get anything done,” he said, jokingly.
He went on to articulate the qualities that he feels best serve a sheriff.
“I think the sheriff is more than a uniform,” he said. “I think the sheriff is a leader. You need someone in leadership who can lead.”
Recounting a bit of Botetourt County history to underscore the growth that the office has undergone in recent years, Stritesky explained that when the county was first founded, there were only five deputies. In 1959, when Norman Sprinkle, the father of the current sheriff, was sheriff, the number of deputies had only increased by one.
“There wasn’t much change,” Stritesky said.
Now, the Sheriff’s Office employees 97 sworn officers. Fifty-three of the officers are on the road, with the remaining 44 working in the jail. Including sworn officers, the Sheriff’s Office employees 128 individuals.
“What do you think the budget is?” he asked the audience. “It’s good to know this because it’s your money. It’s not my money.”
According to Stritesky, the budget for the Sheriff’s Office is $8.9 million, a budget that he, along with two other officers, helped devise.
One of the reasons for the large budget is because it’s a “full service” Sheriff’s Office, meaning that it does everything from patrolling the roads, to operating the jail, to providing security for the courts.
“It’s a big budget,” he said. “You want somebody who knows what’s going on.”
He noted that he thinks his current boss, Sheriff Ronnie Sprinkle, has done a good job. “We want to continue many of the good things he has done,” Stritesky said.
When considering areas of improvement for the Sheriff’s Office, Stritesky first mentioned the issue of transparency. He explained that law enforcement officers typically like to keep things “close to the chest,” adding that despite the desire of law enforcement to do so, citizens often want to know what’s going on in the community and when there’s a potential for danger.
He suggested that technology could help with that issue.
“People want to know what’s going on in their community,” he said. “They want to know what’s happening.”
Another improvement that he said he’d like to implement if elected is the better utilization of data when it comes to preventing crimes from occurring.
Pulling a play from former Botetourt County Sheriff Reed Kelly’s playbook, Stritesky said that one of the ways to build trust and support from the community is to have officers drive through various communities throughout the county on the weekends when people are more likely to be at home.
“We should be in those communities on a day-to-day basis and visible,” he said.
One of the other ways that the Sheriff’s Office could bolster its profile throughout the community is through the use of school resource officers, he said.
Stritesky noted that he was the first resource officer in the county, starting at Lord Botetourt High School in 1998.
Currently, all of the high schools and middle schools in the county have designated resource officers.
Ideally, Stritesky said, there should be resource officers posted at all of the elementary schools throughout the county. He explained that he frequently worries about some of the more rural schools when it comes to matters of safety. As it stands, two officers rotate throughout all seven of the elementary schools.
“What else do we have that’s more important than our kids?” he asked the audience. “They’re the most valuable resource we have.”
In placing resource officers at all of the schools, Stritesky said that the Sheriff’s Office would be able to continue its effort in building strong relations with the community that it serves.
The last issue he raised was drug use. He explained that even though the effects of drugs aren’t always visible, they’re still there.
He encouraged those in attendance to read “Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America,” a book written by journalist Beth Macy. He explained that the book weaves together a fascinating narrative about how the current opioid epidemic started and its ramifications.
He noted that he would also like to increase the drug takeback program.
Over the 34 years that Stritesky has served in law enforcement, he has worked stints in law enforcement in Botetourt County, Miami, and as a military police officer. For the past 23 years, he has been with the Sheriff’s Office, where he is a lieutenant.
“We’re fortunate to live in this county,” he said. “We have a good county.”
Vineyard started off by speaking about his background, noting that he and his wife have lived in Troutville for the past 25 years.
The only combat veteran currently running for sheriff, Vineyard served in Beirut, Lebanon.
“It’s funny how life works,” he said. “You can’t seem to wait to get away from home, then when you’re gone, you can’t wait to get back home.”
Vineyard has 34 years’ worth of law enforcement experience. Before becoming a senior special agent for the state, he was a detective with the Roanoke City Police Department.
He explained that when he first started in Roanoke City, he had to “walk the beat on cold winter nights.” Within three months, he was promoted to the patrol division, where he stayed for 13 years.
During that time, he was a founding member of the Roanoke City SWAT (special weapons and tactics) Team. “Those folks are the cream of the crop,” he said. “I’m proud to be a founding member of that group.”
He later obtained his degree in criminal justice and was transferred to the detective bureau. As a detective, he started out working child molestation cases, before moving on to working on white collar crimes. “I thrived in that,” he said of working white collar crimes, adding that it’s all about chasing paper. “I never thought I would.”
“This is a very important election,” he said. He encouraged those in attendance to go to his Facebook page and website to review his policy positions and highlights from throughout his career. “I’m more well-rounded than the other folks on this stage.”