In quiet corner of rural Ky., ambition, drugs and death

Political rivals are charged in killing of popular sheriff

April 19, 2002|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

SOMERSET, Ky. - Until he was killed last Saturday in the most lawless way - shot in the head by a sniper's bullet as he left a fish fry and political rally at a tiny volunteer fire department - Sheriff Sam Catron was the law here.

In nearly two decades as sheriff of Pulaski County in rural southern Kentucky, Catron seemed to be always in uniform, always on duty. Any rumbling of trouble was met with the familiar solution: Better call Sam.

But Catron's slaying showed that life as a small-town sheriff never is that simple in a place where decades of persistent poverty have warped local elections into raw grabs for power and patronage and fueled a well-entrenched illegal drug trade.

Behind Catron's death, authorities charged this week, were a political opponent and two supporters of a rival campaign.

One was a man arrested last year on drug charges and accused of peddling the prescription painkiller OxyContin; the other was an aspiring police officer who might have been promised a job as a sheriff's deputy in exchange for pulling the trigger.

"You've got three people, and everybody's got their own motivations," said Kentucky State Police Detective G. Todd Dalton, the lead investigator in the case.

The rival candidate, "his motivation was to be sheriff, and at any cost I guess. The others, well, their motivation was to get their friend in office."

To do that would mean somehow knocking out the front-runner. And that was Catron, just as it had been in four previous elections, reaching back to 1985.

An unimposing lawman with a shy demeanor and awkward overbite, Catron had, over time, become legendary for his singular devotion to the job.

Thousands mourn

"Being sheriff, as we all know, was Sammy's all," U.S. Rep. Harold Rogers, a Republican from Somerset, told the more than 2,000 mourners who attended Catron's standing-room-only funeral yesterday.

"It was his love. It was his job. It was his joy."

Instead of a traditional hearse, Catron's casket was carried out to one of the county rescue squad's ambulances, draped in black bunting.

As his helicopter whirred overhead, and onlookers poured out of stores and schools and houses to watch, scores of police cars led the procession to the cemetery where Catron was to be buried, in a grave next to his father's.

A bugler played taps. Hundreds of officers from across the state and country stood at attention for a 21-gun salute.

And a 911 dispatcher made one last call: "Dispatch to Unit 111, Pulaski County Sheriff Sam Catron." After a moment of silence, they sounded the page again. "Dispatch to Unit 111 - you have fought the good fight."

For two days, Catron lay in state in a convention center auditorium, and hundreds of people paid their respects by filing past Catron's open casket and the trappings of his life and career - his 1967 Eagle Scout certificate, newspaper clippings from his first run for sheriff, even his unmarked, brown Ford Crown Victoria cruiser, freshly washed and waxed.

Flags flew at half-staff and brown and yellow ribbons - the color of the department's uniforms - fluttered on lamp posts and lapels. The Wal-Mart set up a photo tribute at its main entrance.

Hand-lettered signs in store windows said: "We'll Miss You Sam."

Dedication to duties

Catron was known for patrolling country roads well into the night, sometimes all night, work he could have left to his deputies.

A pilot, Catron would spend late summer days hovering over county fields in a helicopter to search for marijuana crops.

In a town of about 11,000, where police work includes warnings each spring to would-be pranksters not to pour dish soap into the town square water fountain, Catron was an ambitious, by-the-book lawman who saw police work as his calling.

The reason, friends said, could be traced to the porch of the house where Catron, who never married, still lived with his elderly mother.

As a young boy, Catron was playing inside the house when his father, then Somerset's police chief, was shot and critically injured on the porch by an alleged bootlegger. His father died from his injuries seven years later.

"It wasn't revenge, I just think he felt like he needed to pick up where his father left off, kind of fill his shoes," said Randy L. Thompson, a deputy state fire marshal who worked closely with Catron for years.

Across Kentucky, being county sheriff isn't just about a life's ambition. It is also, in no small measure, about politics. In rural and mountain counties where economies long dependent on tobacco or coal have steadily eroded, holding an elected county office - anything from coroner to jailer - means a steady paycheck and the power and influence to put friends and family to work as well.

Every election season, a slew of candidates fill the ballots and campaign yard signs cover the state. In this year's Pulaski County sheriff's race alone, five men were running in the GOP primary - the decisive vote in the heavily Republican county, about 75 miles south of Lexington.

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