For about four years as a volunteer special deputy, Tom Kochert had a front row seat to observe the operations of the Williams County Sheriff’s Office. And what he saw concerned him.
“In my time as a special deputy I noted some things in the (sheriff’s office) that were ... lacking,” Kochert said in an interview last week, taking a long pause before choosing the word lacking. “I decided that because of my training and my experience that running for sheriff was a natural fit.”
Kochert, 54, retired in October 2015 after 23 years as the Williams County wildlife officer. He said the very next day after retiring he joined the county sheriff’s office as a volunteer (unpaid) special deputy.
His service included two, two-year terms as president of the special deputies group until Aug. 18, 2019, when Sheriff Steve Towns asked him to step down when Towns learned that Kochert would run against him.
Kochert is one of four candidates to date who are running for county sheriff, including Towns, the incumbent; Pioneer Police Chief Tim Livengood; and former sheriff’s deputy and current part-time Stryker police officer Shaun Fulk. However, Towns’ candidacy is uncertain after he was convicted in Bryan Municipal Court Nov. 5 of a first-degree misdemeanor charge of posting confidential child abuse reports to the department’s website and Facebook page.
Towns said he is appealing the conviction and the county election board is expected to make a determination of his candidacy sometime before Jan. 17.
Kochert said he is the best candidate due to his extensive training and experience as an Ohio Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Officer.
Kochert said while wildlife officers are responsible for management of fish and wildlife resources as mandated by Ohio law, it’s not generally known that wildlife officers are also state-certified peace officers.
“Wildlife officers are some of the most highly trained law enforcement officers in the state,” with full police power on state property, Kochert said. He noted that in his two-plus decades as a wildlife officer, he accumulated considerable experience in a wide range of law enforcement issues, including drug busts and clandestine meth labs, crime investigations, drug cartel operations, traffic stops and search and seizures.
He said he also received extensive training in constitutional law, policy and procedures, firearms, evidence collection and processing crime scenes.
In addition to Ohio Revised Code statutory authority, wildlife officers have statewide jurisdiction, so Kochert said he routinely dealt with sheriff’s offices and law enforcement agencies, courts and county officials in up to 13 other counties.
“People don’t realize the scope of offenses that a wildlife officer can deal with. It’s something different everyday ... in different jurisdictions. But through that I was able develop very, very good working relationships with prosecutors and judges ... I dealt with and worked with numerous agencies and courts,” which is key for a county sheriff, said Kochert.
He added that as a wildlife officer, “your backup is typically a sheriff’s deputy.”
All of those factors, plus his training, give him the necessary experience to succeed as a county sheriff, he said.
Kochert is a Lexington, Ohio, native and 1983 Lexington High School graduate. He joined the U.S. Army right out of high school and did a four-year tour in psychological operations (psy ops).
After the Army, he earned a two-year degree in wildlife management at Hocking College, then joined Mansfield Police Department, serving two years (1989-91) as a dispatcher while he applied to the ODNR.
“My goal was always to be a wildlife officer,” Kochert said.
In Mansfield, a city of just less than 50,000 halfway between Cleveland and Columbus, Kochert said he got a crash course in law enforcement.
“Almost every week we had an armed robbery, or violent domestic, (vehicle) pursuits, and we had several officer-involved shootings in the time I was there,” he said.
Also during that time, he married his wife, Claudia. They have three adult children.
Just before Memorial Day weekend 1993, after two years at the Richland County Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service (now called the Farm Service Center), he finally got the call that he been accepted at the academy as a wildlife officer (then called a game protector).
After the academy, he was assigned to Williams County.
“I’d never been to Williams County before. I said, ‘Thank you sir, how do I get there?’ He gave me accurate instructions. He said, ‘Get on the turnpike and go west and when you see the Indiana state line, stop and turn around, you’re in (Williams County),’” Kochert recalled, laughing.
“And by golly, I don’t live too far north of the turnpike to this day,” said the rural Edon resident.
Kochert noted that he had opportunities to transfer to another county, due to seniority, or transfer across the state for promotion. “And I turned them all down simply because I love Williams County. I absolutely love the people, I love this country, the small towns, the farms ... to me it’s the perfect mix, and I love serving here in Williams County.”
When not working, Kochert is an “ardent” bow hunter, enjoys vegetable gardening (along with growing some berries and grapes), is an amateur woodworker and, he said, “(has) a passion for cutting wood.”
Kochert said his emphasis will be on some of the things he saw at the sheriff’s office over the past four years as a special deputy that he felt were lacking —training and implementing and following policies and procedures.
“I saw a lack of basic policing, a lack of direction, a lack of consistency and continuity, and that leads to indecision ... officers questioning themselves and each other, and that’s no good,” he said, adding, “The deputies there now are phenomenal, they love their job they want to do their job and they want to solve cases. They just need a little bit of direction, some leadership.”
He plans to create in-house quarterly training sessions on all aspects of law enforcement, including everything from firearms and investigative work to evidence collection and constitutional law. He said he’ll also reach out to all the other law enforcement agencies in the county and invite them to participate, which will be part of his efforts to create a sense of continuity and camaraderie that he said has been lacking among county law enforcement agencies.
“Most of (the training) can be conducted (inexpensively) ... and that money will pay off in dividends,” Kochert said.
Kochert said he has chosen Jeff Lehman, former Montpelier police chief (2001-2013), to serve as his chief deputy, due to his police administrative experience and his unblemished record as Montpelier’s police chief.
“He’s honest to a fault. He simply will not do anything that is wrong. Plus, he’s huge on training, as I am. Training is everything,” Kochert said of Lehman.
Lehman said he’s known Kochert since 1993 and said they share some similarities, such as both having earned Eagle Scout honors. “I think he’s the person to re-establish the basis of law enforcement with the (sheriff’s) office that’s been lacking,” he said.
Kochert said his campaign to date is focused on meeting various county officials, including local farmers and the farm bureau, attending GOP events and speaking to civic groups.
“After I retired, I always knew there was something more for me, and probably it would be something in law enforcement. I think it became clear to me that after the first few years of retirement, I could do this job (as sheriff).
“Absolutely, having been this many years in law enforcement, there’s no way I’d put my name on the ballot if I didn’t know, know, know I could do this job with 110 percent effectiveness,” Kochert said.