Jackson County sheriff reflects on the past year, 2021

Suzette Lowe
Special to Jackson Newspapers

When a new year starts, it’s often a time to reflect on the year just completed.

Jackson County Sheriff Ross Mellinger considers 2021 as a challenging one with some successes that will impact the upcoming years.

Mellinger sees much of the success stemming from organization and finding ways to streamline costs while making improvements.

One of the biggest savings came with the adoption of the Enterprise Fleet Management program.

“The savings we have realized from this program, while allowing us to replace and add vehicles, has made a world of difference,” Mellinger said. “We’ve probably saved 50 percent of our vehicle replacement costs. And it allows our officers to drive new vehicles which helps in their duties.”

Drug asset forfeitures, which topped $99,000 in 2021, were used for a variety of training and equipment. One of the most ironic purchases was the two K-9 corps.

“These two dogs, Hak and Rex, are tearing it up,” Mellinger said. “It’s pretty sweet when drug assets are used to buy animals that are helping us make more drug arrests.”

Safety is always a high priority for the department.

“We’ve been able to purchase body cameras for every officer,” Mellinger said. “They all wear them. This is protection for the officer as well as the civilian. Replacement vests for those which had expired panels have been added too.”

Jackson County Sheriff's Department faces challenges in 2021, but also makes improvements that will impact upcoming years.

One improvement came as a result of working with 911 Director Montana Boggess.

Many areas of the county are notorious for having ‘dead zones’ which makes communication with other officers as well as the 911 center very difficult.

“Director Boggess was able to coordinate funds from the Cares Act which provided new portable and mobile radios for each cruiser and deputy, “said Mellinger. “This has made a world of difference to the safety and efficiency of our officers.”

The formation of two special teams is a source of pride for the sheriff’s department.

The Special Response Team, comprised of members of county and city officers, can be mobilized quickly to address major crimes, terroristic threats, school-related incidents or any other emergency.

Towards the end of the year, a Crime Scene Team and vehicle were established and will be ready to launch in 2022.

“The addition of these two specialized teams makes us less reliant on Kanawha County,” Mellinger stated. “In the past, we would have to rely on the assistance of that department. They were always willing but it took time and resources away from them. For a county of our size to have this level of training and ability is a real asset.”

With the call volume seeing an increase of 26 percent from 2020, some additions to personnel were made.

“We now have three sergeants up from two,” he said. “This helped us to add vital supervision to our night shift. That is the most challenging time for our officers. We have also been able to promote two detectives.”

One job of the county sheriff is tax collection. Mellinger said that area has seen improvement as well.

“I give complete credit to our incredible tax department,” he said. “Delinquent tax publication has decreased but tax collection has increased.”

Ultimately, the work of the sheriff department comes down to the well-known slogan, ‘protect and serve.’ Doing that involves cases that make an impact personally as well as professionally.

Operation Centennial Sweep last January saw 113 drug related warrants executed in a 48-hour period.

“This was the single largest drug warrant sweep and investigation in West Virginia history,” said Mellinger. “That was highly satisfying.”

Another drug arrest removed a heroin dealer who Mellinger said had been the cause of many overdose deaths in the county. Cooperation with federal agencies led to the conclusion of that case.

The investigation into the death of Cheyenne Johnson by a Jackson County deputy led to the discovery of her body and arrests in the case that concluded in Kanawha County.

“That family has dealt with a lot in the past few years,” said Mellinger. “We’re glad that work done here could be turned over to Kanawha County and that case could be solved.”

Sometimes the conclusion to a case means there was no crime committed. Working with the state fire marshal, the sheriff’s department was able to determine that the fire at the historic McIntosh building in Ravenswood was not the result of arson.

Crimes against children, either deliberate or the result of neglect, are often the hardest for officers to face.

“When the child in Cottageville was found in the trunk of a vehicle, that was a tough one,” Mellinger recalled. “Thankfully, result was not what we were expecting, quite honestly. There had to be divine intervention in that case.”

The most memorable event for Mellinger and his officers did not involve a crime investigation.

“Escorting the body of Korean War veteran Corporal Pete Conley home to Logan was truly one of the most emotional, rewarding things we’ve done,” the sheriff said. “There was a huge gathering as the procession passed by. It was truly touching.”

One final addition to the department has made things a little easier.

“Along with Ripley’s police department, we now have Seth Greenlee as our chaplain,” Mellinger said. “We appreciate his volunteer services for our people. Nobody can deny that being a police officer is a tough job.”