Time for a new sheriff in town

The two Republicans battling for a chance to be Routt County's next sheriff are as different as night and day

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Garrett Wiggins is a man of many talents. He has rebuilt classic cars, ranched in Florida, worked on an alligator farm, been a taxidermist and served as a police officer, a Routt County Sheriff's Office deputy and the assistant plant manager at a large tobacco company.

Although he has worn many hats, the one that has always fit the best is a cowboy hat.

"I always wanted to be a mountain man. I wanted to live and work in the mountains," he said. "When I came (to Routt County), I fell in love with the area."

Wiggins lives on a sprawling ranch near Stagecoach with his wife, Melinda, and their two young sons, Cody and Cutter, who have the luxury of spending time with horses on their own land.

Wiggins' first law enforcement position was as a 19-year-old police officer in Florida. After a short time, he took a break from law enforcement to work at Swisher International, which gave him management experience.

After working in Pueblo for a short time, Wiggins took a job with the Steamboat Springs Police Department in 1999. Wiggins left the police department a short time later to work for the Routt County Sheriff's Office to fulfill a desire to work in rural law enforcement.

"I've always wanted to work in rural areas. I took a cut in pay and benefits to do it, but it's what I wanted to do," he said. "I really enjoyed being in that rural setting. I'm a country boy myself."

In 2003, Wiggins left the Sheriff's Office and returned to the Steamboat Springs Police Department. He most recently has been a drug task force officer with the Greater Routt and Moffat Narcotics Enforcement Team.

Learning politics

Wiggins was the last candidate to announce his candidacy for Routt County sheriff. He became a candidate after learning that former Steamboat Springs police Officer Dwight Murphy withdrew from the race.

"I announced my candidacy in April after I started getting so many calls from so many people encouraging me to run. They knew at one time I was thinking about it," he said.

After garnering 47 percent of the vote at the Routt County Republican Assembly, Wiggins was placed on the Republican primary ballot next to opponent Ray Birch.

"This is all very new to me. I never, ever thought I'd run for a political office. I just wanted to give people a choice," he said.

"I literally have had two months of political experience. It's been a learning experience. Politicians have always gotten a bad rep. But I've gained a new respect for those who have made a life in politics. I never realized the amount of time and hard work that goes into a campaign."

But Wiggins said working hard is his forte and that it's exactly what he plans to do as Routt County sheriff.

Build it, they will come

One of Wiggins' biggest concerns with the Sheriff's Office is its extremely high rate of turnover.

Wiggins thinks he may have the solution to attracting and retaining quality employees.

"Over the last few years there has been nearly a 100 percent turnover rate. There have been a lot of good employees who have come and gone," he said.

One of the main reasons for the turnover is the current management style," Wiggins said.

"There is a difference in the current management style and mine. I manage by cooperating with my employees. Intimidation is not my style," he said. "You get a lot farther with sugar than salt."

If elected, Wiggins said he would offer the Sheriff's Office accountability and uniformity, qualities that he thinks have been lacking for some time.

"There are a lot of things that can make the place more efficient. Employee retention is one of my main goals. We need quality, experienced professional employees," he said. "The citizens of Routt County deserve experienced law enforcement officers to deal with the issues in Routt County."

Wiggins said he would like more frequent trainings for officers.

"If you don't stay up to par in your training, you're a liability waiting to happen," he said.

Ray Birch is an imposing man with a strong jaw and broad shoulders. To some, he appears intimidating. To Birch, it's just a façade.

"It's been said that I can look hard, but I'm very easy to get along with. My wife says I'm a teddy bear in a grizzly bear suit," he said.

Regardless, it's hard to deny Birch's presence when he walks into a room. Years of serving in the Air Force and Marine Corps, working as a police officer in Los Angeles County and working out can have that effect.

Birch -- a sergeant with the Routt County Sheriff's Office -- hopes to apply what he's learned during a lifetime of law enforcement to lead the Sheriff's Office to the next level.

A mover and a shaker

When Birch doesn't like something, he changes it.

Take, for example, his many stints of service in the military.

Birch enlisted in the Air Force as a 17-year-old from Inglewood, Calif. He served his four years and was discharged. He went to work as an officer with the Pomona Police Department in Los Angeles County.

A national crisis led to his return to the military. In 1983, the Marine Corps' barracks in Beirut were bombed, and Birch felt he had to do something. He re-enlisted in the Marine Corps and served another three years. After his service, Birch went back to work in Pomona. He eventually ended his tenure with the department after 17 years and headed to Colorado in search of cooler weather.

He went to work for the Clear Creek Sheriff's Office but quickly decided it wasn't for him. Birch moved to Oklahoma for a year with his wife, Marlene, and their children before coming back to Colorado to work as the 14th Judicial District's chief investigator.

Then came Sept. 11, 2001.

Birch was driving over Rabbit Ears Pass when he learned about the terrorist attack.

"I'll never forget that moment. When I got to Grand County, I sat there with a partner and we were watching the TV, just sitting there and crying. It was tough. It was really tough," he said. "After I left there, I drove straight to Craig to see the Marine recruiter."

Thus began Birch's third tour with the military -- one he had to fight for.

"They thought I was too old," he said. "I had to convince them that I was in good enough shape, and there I was, doing my physical with 17-year-old kids," he said.

Birch was sent twice to Iraq during his most recent service -- from December 2001 to January 2003 and from August 2004 to March 2005.

Upon his return, Birch decided he wanted a change of pace. He left his job as an investigator and was hired as a sergeant with the Sheriff's Office.

After learning that incumbent Sheriff John Warner didn't plan to run for a fourth term, Birch threw his hat in the ring.

"Why am I doing this? Because I'm a cop. This is what I've done for 30 years. It's what I do and what I plan to do until I decide not to," he said. "I love this life. It's as simple as that."

Five steps

Birch has a clear plan for the future of the Sheriff's Office. It includes five themes he said can be applied to any business or organization. Birch thinks his plan will strengthen the Sheriff's Office bonds with the community, its employees and its future.

A major theme is risk management -- identifying, assessing and eliminating risk by being prepared for any situation.

The other themes focus on looking at, updating and implementing new policies and operating procedures for the department; improving customer service; holding deputies and other RCSO employees accountable; and doing everything ethically and with integrity.

Birch said he is concerned with the state of the Sheriff's Office because the department is lacking structure, accountability and good customer service.

"The status quo is not having a progressive idea. I want people to know that the way it is now doesn't mean it always has to be that way," he said. "There are always better ways."

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