The Associated Press by SEAN MURPHY – June 27, 2009
OKLAHOMA CITY, OK (AP) — A small-town sheriff and his top deputy kept close watch over a lonely stretch of interstate in eastern Oklahoma, looking for drug couriers to fleece. But one motorist carrying $30,000 in cash turned out to be an undercover federal agent. Now former McIntosh County Sheriff Terry Jones and undersheriff Mykol Brookshire are awaiting sentencing on conspiracy charges. They are among the latest in a long line of Oklahoma lawmen to go astray in a colorful history that dates to the Wild West. "Generally, the people attracted to law enforcement are similar to people attracted to a life of crime," said Bob Blackburn, director of the Oklahoma Historical Society. "They like action. They're physical. They like the excitement of the chase, whether they're the chasee or the chaser.
"In some cases, the good guys become bad guys." On Wednesday, four former female inmates filed a lawsuit accusing Delaware County Sheriff Jay Blackfox of covering up sexual assault complaints and sexual harassment by other jailers, but Blackfox contends he did nothing wrong. In March, former Custer County Sheriff Mike Burgess was sentenced to 79 years in prison for sexually abusing female inmates. A month earlier, Seminole County Sheriff Joe Craig was booted from office after he admitted he allowed a teenage girl to drink wine coolers and vodka while riding in his vehicle. U.S. Attorney Sheldon Sperling, who prosecuted Jones and Brookshire, helped secure a 25-year prison sentence four years ago against former Latimer County Sheriff Melvin Holly, who was convicted of forcing three women prisoners to have sex with him, serving one moonshine and threatening the life of another. Sperling also prosecuted former Choctaw County Sheriff J.W. Trapp, who was sent to prison in 1996 for taking bribes from marijuana growers and illegal gambling operators. Sperling said Oklahoma sheriffs may face great temptation because they hold a lot of power in rural areas where there are few people to challenge them and little oversight of their activities. It's a symptom of an outdated system of government that includes 77 separate counties, each with its own sheriff, county commission and local court. "Our system of government should be modernized, but the political reality is that folks want to hang on to their little fiefdoms," Sperling said. "Is this a smart way to operate? Should every county have three county commissioners and all the county officers they have? "It's crazy that we haven't gone to a regional system."
Samuel Walker, a criminal justice professor at the University of Nebraska, says states with similar county systems have been plagued with corruption since before the Wild West days.
"The sheriff goes back to the founding of the first colonies," Walker said. "It's really been an endemic problem, because they're independently elected. "They've got a lot of power, a lot of political power, and with power comes corruption." But there is little political will to overhaul a system that has been in place since Oklahoma became a state in 1907, and even minor tweaks to the system proposed by legislators in recent years have been met with fierce resistance from the powerful county government lobby. The sheriff's lobby is also quick to note that most of its members are law enforcers, not breakers. "It's not that many as the overall numbers go," said Ken McNair, executive director of the Oklahoma Sheriff's Association. "One is too many for a peace officer with a badge, but you're going to have some that get in and succumb to that temptation." Still, folks in Eufaula had hoped for better after electing Jones to uphold the law in McIntosh County, a community about 120 miles east of Oklahoma City and home to about 20,000 residents. "He tainted his own badge," wrecking service operator Lonnie Ballard said. "It's a bad deal that he got to that point, but everybody knows right from wrong, and he opted to go on the wrong side." Blackburn, the historian, said some crossing of the line may be inevitable since law officers often come from backgrounds similar to criminals' and live life on the edge. "The vast majority of lawmen are exemplary citizens who want to protect society and are willing to put their life on the line," he said. "But that's compounded by one other thing — to be a good lawman and find the bad guys, you've got to be able to walk the life of the criminal."