Printed on: January 08, 2013

Lifelong Dream

Bingham County Sheriff Dave Johnson retires after 45 years in law enforcement

By Ruth Brown
rbrown@postregister.com

From the time he was a boy playing "cowboys and robbers," Dave Johnson said he always wanted to be a police officer.

"It's very rewarding helping people, being able to be a support and be a protection figure to individuals," Johnson said. "It helps them to know they have somebody out there that keeps them from getting hurt."

After eight years as Bingham County sheriff and a 45-year career in law enforcement, Johnson, 69, has removed his badge to spend more time with his family. Dec. 28 was his last day as sheriff.

He said he was sad to see the career come to end after losing last year's primary election, but said retirement will bring new opportunities.

Johnson lost the Republican primary election to challenger Craig Rowland, who received 60.3 percent of the vote.

"I enjoyed every minute of my career, and if I had it to do over, I'd do the same thing," Johnson said. "I feel sorry for people who spend their whole lifetime doing something that they don't like.

"I love it, and hate to see it come to an end."

Johnson's father, Cecil; brother, Gene; and sister, Mickey, all worked for police departments. It helped Johnson develop a deep respect for law enforcement.

When Johnson graduated from Emmett High School at 18, he knew he wanted to be a cop but was too young to join the civilian force.

Instead, he spent four years with the U.S. Air Force military police. It was an experience offering great training for his civilian career, he said.

Johnson later worked for a year-and-a-half with the Emmett Police Department and 32 years with the Idaho State Police.

"I retired from the state police and wasn't ready to get out of this kind of work," Johnson said. "So I decided to run for sheriff and am glad I did."

Becoming sheriff presented new challenges and significant change after years of patrolling.

"I was prepared but had a lot to learn after working the street and working as a state police officer," he said. "It was a big change."

As sheriff, he had detectives, patrol and a 100-inmate jail to supervise -- something he wasn't used to.

Johnson said he is most proud of the teamwork he built within the Bingham County Sheriff's Office.

"There was a lot of animosity between patrol and jail, a lot of animosity between detectives and patrol," Johnson said. "That went away (after I took office), and we started helping each other. We got the right people in the right positions to supervise and had a great staff ....working together as a unit rather than individually."

Rather than having a chief deputy, as many sheriff's offices do, Johnson elected to have two captains -- one in charge of patrol, the other running the jail. Splitting responsibilities between two captains helped create more teamwork by working toward a common goal, Johnson said.

Bingham County Sheriff's Capt. Mark Cowley was promoted during Johnson's time as sheriff.

"Sheriff Johnson was a great leader and leads by example," Cowley said. "He wouldn't ask us to do anything he wouldn't do."

Cowley said he's still getting used to the idea of not seeing Johnson in the office.

"He was always on the frontlines and willing to do anything," Cowley said. "I keep expecting to see him walk in any minute."

The eight years spent as sheriff brought both triumphs and troubles for Johnson.

The day after Johnson's first swearing in, there was a triple homicide and suicide outside Blackfoot.

In January 2005, Donald Booth used a shotgun to kill his wife, Michelle, as well as the couple's 2-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter, before he killed himself.

The incident occurred at the couple's home 13 miles west of Blackfoot off U.S. Highway 26, according to previous reports.

Bingham County Sheriff's Capt. Robert Sobieski worked with the sheriff on the murder case and remembers collaborating with him.

"That was sort of trial by fire when he came in," Sobieski said. "He had a great career."

One case in which Johnson took special pride was the August 2009 discovery of a large marijuana growing operation in Wolverine Canyon.

Johnson's office shut down the biggest outdoor marijuana growing operation in state history, up to that time.

The 6,750 mature plants seized had an estimated street value of $20.5 million, according to previous reports.

No one was ever arrested, but Johnson said the case still was rewarding.

"We found, destroyed and took over $20 million worth of marijuana off the streets in Bingham County," he said.

While the election loss was a hardship, Johnson said it will give him a chance to make up for time lost with his family.

Johnson -- a father of four, grandfather of 14 and great-grandfather of one -- hopes to spend more time with his family now that he's retired.

"This is a hard life for a family to live because you're gone so much," he said.

Johnson said his wife, Vicki, was a huge support and always understood what law enforcement demanded of him. They've been married 50 years.

"I love my work, but sometimes it's not pleasant, and (Vicki) always understood that and the fact that I had a lot of things I couldn't bring home," he said. "... It's a tough life, and they've supported me every day."

Ruth Brown can be reached at 542-6750. Follow on Twitter: @ruthbrown1. Comment on this story on Post Talk at www.postregis ter.com/posttalk/.