On Monday afternoon, Nowata County Sheriff Terry Sue Barnett stood before a hastily gathered crowd of reporters and made a shocking announcement: She had handed in her resignation, as had the county’s undersheriff, all of the deputies, most of the jail staff and the head dispatcher. The department, which is tasked with overseeing a rural northeastern Oklahoma county where more than 10,000 people are spread out over nearly 600 square miles, previously had about 20 full-time employees. Now, there were just a handful of people left. Even the canine officer had resigned and signed his letter with a paw print, Barnett said.
“That’s supposed to be funny,” she added when no one laughed.
There were few other sources of levity that day. The reason almost everyone at the sheriff’s office was quitting, Barnett explained, was that she had been ordered to move prisoners back into the aging county jail, which had been closed ever since high levels of carbon monoxide sent four employees to the emergency room in February. Doing so, she said, would be “inexcusable.”
The leak still hadn’t been repaired, she said, and it was just one of the things that worried her, along with the presence of potentially toxic black mold, the lack of fire alarms and the fact that a snake had once fallen on an inmate’s head when they opened a door. Earlier in March, an auditor from the American Correctional Association had toured the jail and ended up finding enough problems to fill a 69-page report. Among them: The facility lacked cameras, there were exposed wires everywhere and a broken sink that could have potentially been used as a weapon was lying haphazardly on the floor.
Despite all that, a judge had threatened to hold Barnett in contempt of court if she didn’t immediately reopen the building and bring all the inmates back, she said.
Citing an “inadequate” budget in her resignation letter, Barnett told reporters on Monday that a “good old boy” mentality in the county had prevented her from making the kind of changes that she had hoped for when she was elected four months ago.
“Instead of looking for solutions, many would prefer to hope and pray that nothing would happen,” she said. “Today, as I leave this office . . . I, too, hope and pray that nothing happens, that our prisoners remain safe wherever they are and our employees remain safe. But I will not sweep these things under the carpet.”
She added, “I believe in doing the right thing and I am not going to stand down from doing the right thing.”
Barnett, a veteran law enforcement officer who had spent more than two decades with the Tulsa Police Department before working as part of a security detail on overseas missions, was sworn in as sheriff in November. Earlier that month, an overwhelming majority of voters had chosen her over the incumbent, who had been arrested in October and charged with embezzlement after allegedly misappropriating at least 90 lunchboxes that Walmart had donated for a school supply drive and handing them out to promote his own reelection campaign.
Ever since 2015, the Nowata County Sheriff’s Office has been mired in one scandal after another, and no sheriff ever seemed to stay in office for very long, KTUL reported. But Barnett pledged that things would be different.
“There will be a lot of changes,” she said in her acceptance speech. “I ask that you bear with us on the changes . . . I’m sure some of them, you’re not going to like. . . . In the future, you’ll have a sheriff’s department you can be proud of.”
Nowata is the third poorest county in Oklahoma, with a total operating budget of less than $1 million, according to KJRH. Faced with an extreme staffing shortage, Barnett recruited volunteers to help out with administrative tasks and asked neighboring departments to provide extra manpower. But complications continued to mount: In January, she fired a detention officer who had been arrested after allegedly stealing guns and equipment from the department, along with one of her four deputies, who was arrested separately after allegedly using stolen funds to buy gas.
Budget shortfalls also meant that the department didn’t have any carbon monoxide detectors. When the gas leak was discovered in February, Nowata County Commissioner Burke LaRue brought his own from home and installed it in the dispatch area, according to the Tulsa World. Then, last week, KTUL reported that county employees were starting to realize that had they no longer had health insurance. Someone had missed a payment, LaRue said. Barnett told the station that she had only become aware of the issue when she had started getting unusually high medical bills in the mail.
Scott Walton, the sheriff in neighboring Rogers County, told reporters on Tuesday that it had seemed like Barnett was making some positive changes within the department after taking over. But she had been faced with an untenable situation, he suggested.
“Sheriff Barnett had nothing to work with,” he said. “She’s never been issued a car to drive. They’ve got one or two vehicles that will run up here. This would be a great place in northeast Oklahoma to be a criminal.” In his experience, he said, the “criminal element” in Nowata County had “no reason to fear law enforcement, because there’s nobody looking.”
"Again, I’ll say it: It’s a great place to be a thug if that’s what you want to do.”
It was unlikely that he would be sending his own deputies to respond to calls in Nowata County now that there was no sheriff there, Walton added. “I don’t have any reason to send people up here to put them in harm’s way,” he said.
An ultimatum from a judge ended up being the last straw for Barnett. At Monday’s news conference, she said that Nowata County Associate District Judge Carl Gibson had threatened to hold her in contempt of court if she did not reopen the jail. Ever since the carbon monoxide leak, inmates had been housed in a different county, which Gibson contended was too expensive, Barnett said. She alleged that he had also told her that he could raise her salary to $75,000 a year, an offer which she considered to be a bribe.
When reached Tuesday night by The Washington Post, Gibson said he was unable to comment.
During the same news conference, Nowata County Undersheriff Mark Kirschner said that the judge had issued an order on Monday morning, demanding that all inmates be moved back to Nowata County by 1 p.m. that afternoon. But along with all the other problems, the sheriff’s office didn’t have enough people to staff the jail, he said. Rather than put them in an unsafe position, he and Barnett had both chosen to resign, only to be told by Gibson that they couldn’t do that.
“I do not work for the judge,” Barnett said on Monday. “The judge is an elected official. I am also an elected official. I do not believe that we live in a country where I can be ordered to go to work after I have already tendered my resignation.”
On Tuesday, Gibson called Barnett into court for what he described as an “administrative hearing” and accused her of showing a “willful indifference” to the county’s budget, KTUL reported. When Barnett’s attorney, Paul DeMuro, questioned whether the judge had authority over the budget and the jail, Gibson said that he was acting in the community’s interest. Ultimately, he issued no orders and scheduled no future hearings, leading those present to question what the point had been. DeMuro told reporters that it was “one of the most bizarre proceedings” that he had ever witnessed.
Amid all the drama, county commissioners scheduled an emergency meeting for Wednesday to decide what to do next, and possibly appoint an interim sheriff, KOTV reported. But in the meantime, residents were left wondering exactly who was in charge. Only two towns in the county have their own police departments, according to the station.
“We have no jail staff, we have no sheriff’s department,” LaRue told KOTV. “We’re at the mercy now, of I don’t know who, the highway patrol?”
Barnett told local media outlets on Monday that citizens could indeed get help from the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, or from game wardens or the National Guard. The few remaining dispatchers at the sheriff’s office would continue to take calls and direct them to other agencies, she said.
A woman who answered the phone at the sheriff’s office late on Tuesday night and declined to give her name said that there were five remaining employees who hadn’t quit, and are still working in various capacities across the department. Asked who was currently in charge, she replied that she was not at liberty to say. “It’s been completely fine,” she said. “We have it covered.”
Reactions to the mass resignations appear to have been largely supportive, with numerous community members leaving encouraging comments on the Nowata County Sheriff’s Office’s Facebook page and thanking Barnett for trying to do the right thing. Several residents told KOTV that they were concerned about the lack of law enforcement in the area, but respected her decision. The real problem, longtime resident Butch Sink told the station, was that the county didn’t have any money and couldn’t afford to fix the jail.
“I know they are prisoners but they still got rights,” he said. “You don’t put them in there where they are breathing bad stuff.”
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