In just a few days, Bryan County’s longest-serving sheriff will be retiring.
Bill Sturch has served as Bryan County Sheriff since Dec. 31, 1992. In that time he has led the agency to grow from less than half a dozen deputies to 16 who protect county citizens.
He recently sat down with the Durant Daily Democrat to reflect on the highs and lows of two decades as the top lawman in Bryan County. Sturch decided not run for re-election this year, and his deputy, Ken Golden, will take office in January.
Sturch was born and raised in Yarnaby, about as close to the Red River as a fellow can get. He went to school in Utica and briefly in Durant before the family moved to west Texas. He graduated from OU and joined the Navy – a decision which had a profound impact on his future career as a county sheriff.
After the Navy, he enjoyed a career as a private investigator. But he “got upset with things going on around me in law enforcement.”
“So I joked that I might run for sheriff,” he said. In 1992, he made good on his one-liner.
He lost in the primary, but turned around and won the general election by 285 votes. “I was 55 years old and had to go to the Academy to learn to be a cop.”
He inherited a department with five officers and barely enough equipment to function. He wrote his first grant seeking aid for the department in 1994- it was the first of nine such grants the department would receive.
“By the end of the 1990s, we had 12 officers. Then the grants began to go away.”
So he began to charge other agencies for housing inmates in the county jail. Then the county sales tax was installed about a decade ago, bringing in between $300,000 and $350,000 per year.
“We’ve improved the operation of this department by the number of deputies and staff, and equipment.” BCSO now has 16 deputies, three office workers and 35 people employed at the county jail.
Of course, the county jail was one of the most adventurous, colorful and controversial aspects of law enforcement with which Sturch was involved. A rash of escapes over the years put the spotlight of local media squarely on the sheriff – whether or not the jail was in his hands.
“I got blamed in the next election for a lot of the escapes,” he said. “But people need to understand…” He explains that management of the jail was often not in his hands due to leadership changes at the county level. (And, obviously, Sturch won that election as well as the next three.)
He named the jail drama, the ongoing battle against drug use and production, and a frighteningly high number of suicides as the biggest issues he faced in his 20 years as sheriff. He recalled a few chases and a good number of standoffs with armed people.
“We chased murderers all over the county,” he said. “And I have a habit of going into the house where a guy has a gun. I never did feel threatened, and I never was shot at. I had a deputy that got shot by a teenager. I was so upset, I stormed into the house, but I did have a trooper behind me. I guess God was watching over me.”
He is proud of the relationships he built with other law enforcement agencies, especially Oklahoma Highway Patrol. Just like in the shooting case, OHP and the sheriff’s office had each other’s back. He also encouraged his department to work closely with Oklahoma narcotics officers and the local Drug Task Force.
“We put a big hurt on the drug world here, and we’re still going after them. I don’t think the laws do enough to the drug world.” He would like to see higher bonds to put pressure on drug manufacturers and dealers.
Another change he would like to see is more guidance from CLEET on the constant changes to laws. And he also regrets never being able to implement a three-shift system for wider county protection, due to limited staff and budgets.
Sturch said an optimum number would be around 25 deputies to protect and patrol the county. And while he did build up the force considerably, he laments that the effort “took me out of all the excitement and kept me in this office looking for funds for all of them.”
It’s all part of the balancing act of being a modern sheriff. He says he picked up a lot of management skills during his time in a number of versatile positions with the Navy. “That’s where you learn how to manage the money.”
Sturch said he will miss the camaraderie of the sheriff’s office and “having good people around you.” He plans to work on a private lake on his property and maybe travel more with his wife of 53 years, Helen. “I’ve seen a lot of the world, but unfortunately I have not seen a lot of our country.”
He will still be commissioned to wear his badge and gun, and may stay in his capacity as a member of the Drug Court. He has had a few offers from acquaintances who don’t want to see him get too inactive during retirement.
“I may get bored out of my mind. We’ll see.”
But Sturch has earned some time off. He has done plenty for Bryan County as the longest run of any county sheriff here comes to an end.