March 24, 2010 12:00

Sheriff without a gun

In an episode of “The Andy Griffith Show”, a Hollywood producer makes a movie about a sheriff from North Carolina who doesn’t carry a sidearm. The title of the fictional film was Sheriff Without a Gun. Now, 40 years later, life could imitate art if former Davidson County sheriff Gerald Hege wins his old job back.

In his day, Hege was a made-for-TV lawman. He put chain gangs back to work. He removed TVs and other amenities from the jail. He painted jail cells pink with crying blue teddy bears as a way to humiliate prisoners. And he also painted his squad car to look like a spider who catches criminals in its web. It’s no wonder that Hege was a media darling. He appeared regularly on “America’s Most Wanted,” and became the star of Court TV’s “Inside Cell Block F.” Hege also had his patrol cars outfitted with license plates which proclaimed “No Deals”. He reveled in his role as America’s Toughest Sheriff.

All that came to an end in 2004 when Hege was charged with 15 felony counts, which ranged from embezzlement to obtaining property by false pretenses. In the end, the sheriff who never made deals with criminals made one for himself, and pleaded to two counts dealing with obstruction of justice for covering up missing monies from the vice and narcotics unit. The other 13 counts were dismissed, and he avoided prison time, serving just three years probation.

Now, the one-time sheriff wants to return to crime fighting, and that doesn’t set too well with some of his former counterparts in other jurisdictions. Last week, the NC Sheriffs Association came out in support of Senate Bill 351. The bill proposed by Sen. Stan Bingham would prohibit a felon from running for sheriff. If passed, the law would not affect Hege or five other felons who are currently seeking office. Among them are Avery County’s Nub Taylor who once pleaded guilty to obstruction charges; Mark Stewart in McDowell County, who was convicted of selling drugs; former Washington County Sheriff Stanley Jones who served time for embezzlement; and David Morrow of Cleveland County who had a drug conviction more than 20 years ago.

Still, there are several reasons why SB 351 should pass. First, a felon turned sheriff doesn’t have much credibility when it comes to urging young folks to stay on the straight and narrow. A lecture on how crime doesn’t pay would seem disingenuous. Second, our existing laws contradict each other. For example, a sheriff is not allowed to hire a felon as his deputy, but the sheriff himself can be a felon. Finally, a convicted felon is prohibited from carrying a firearm, which means if Hege were to reclaim his old job, he could become a target for hardcore criminals such as the mafia drug dealers he once claimed had a contract hit out on him.

Gerald Hege is, among other things, a study in contrasts. He was accused of racial profiling, yet claims he was responsible for bullying no less than eight Ku Klux Klansmen into hanging up their robes. He was accused of misappropriating funds, yet his spider car merchandising raised a ton of money for local charities. That’s why I am ambivalent about his candidacy and, to some degree, about the proposed legislation. For now, though, I am most concerned about the possibility of a man getting elected sheriff, knowing that he wouldn’t be able to wear a sidearm.

True enough, sheriffs are mainly administrators, but in addition to not being able to protect himself, he would be of little use to a civilian in distress should he happen upon a dangerous situation.

Andy Taylor chose not to wear a gun because there was no serious crime in Mayberry, but Gerald Hege is prohibited from carrying a gun because he committed a serious crime. Moreover, Davidson County is not Mayberry circa 1960. 2010 is a dangerous place, and it is no longer a good idea for a sheriff to try and keep the peace, without a piece.

Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Fridays at 6:30 a.m. on ABC 45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 10 p.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15). !

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