Chester Hawkins was first elected sheriff of Clearfield County in 1978. Before that he served five months as acting sheriff after the resignation of Sheriff John Anderson.
When the governor appointed Carl Rowles to fill the vacancy, Hawkins ran against him in the next election and won. Thus most residents have come to know and respect Hawkins over the last 36 years as sheriff.
Hawkins grew up in Madera. His father was a construction worker. Hawkins worked summers through high school on a dairy farm. After graduating he joined the U.S. Air Force, where he served in the military police. He had a brief interlude working construction before he joined the state police force.
Hawkins said he worked with the state police for two years when a friend suggested he check into a job as deputy with the county sheriff’s office. He called and was offered a job immediately, as the office had just had a deputy quit. That was in 1972.
Hawkins remembers when he first began his job at the sheriff’s office. The department neither had radios nor a dispatcher. He had to provide his own gun.
Anderson had applied for a state grant to provide the county with a control center, plus car and portable radios. When Hawkins became acting sheriff, he had the task of administering the grant funds. He established a 911 control center that was originally housed in the basement of Mountain Laurel Nursing Home, rented through the county.
At first the center only dispatched for the sheriff’s office, as most of the other municipal police departments had their own systems. But eventually the other municipalities came under the county control center.
Hawkins said his last official act as “acting sheriff” was to hire Sharon Porter as supervisor for the 911 center. When the county commissioners took over control of the center in 1982-83, Porter was made director of the center.
Hawkins said Debra Archer was one of the original dispatchers and is still a dispatcher today. The 911 control center is now located on Leonard Street.
The sheriff’s office also ran the county jail, until the new jail was built in 1982. The previous jail was not as secure and had several incidents of breakouts. Hawkins remembered one such breakout, when he was still deputy.
The inmates had managed to get above a drop ceiling in the prison library and chipped away the cement that held a window in place. They were able to move the window to set on the wood supports for the ceiling, and get around it to jump to the ground.
Hawkins, who was deputy at the time, assisted in recapturing the escapees. One in particular was driving a truck to get away. Hawkins shot out the back window of the truck. He said when that window blew out the escapee pulled over right away and allowed himself to be captured.
Hawkins met his first wife, Sandy while he was deputy. Hawkins said their daughter, Roemehl, is a costume designer living and working in Los Angeles. He said the toughest part of his job when it came to family life was being on call 24-hours-per-day and seven-days-per-week.
He was the only one on call until Sandy was diagnosed with cancer and died in 1998-99. Then he shared the on-call duties with his Chief Deputy, Robert Snyder. They have continued to share the duties since.
Bad Days as Sheriff
When asked about the worst day he could recall as sheriff, Hawkins said it had to be February of 1989 when Chet Ogden tried to take hostages at the courthouse. He explained that Ogden, enraged over recent court decisions in his divorce case, had developed a plan to take then District Attorney Fred Ammerman, Judge John Riley and Hawkins hostage at the courthouse by asking them to attend a special meeting.
Hawkins said he decided not to bother attending but received the call while on his way from home about Ogden’s attempt. It turned out that Ammerman and Riley had not taken the bait for the special meeting either. However, Judge Cherry was holding court, for which several state troopers were in attendance. Ogden tried to make the best of a plan gone wrong and take Cherry hostage instead.
Hawkins said when Ogden pulled his gun on Cherry, all the police officers in the room pulled their guns as well. Snyder happened to be standing in front of the judge as he came into the court, and Cherry stepped back from the room to safety. Ogden quickly gave himself up in light of the circumstances. Hawkins keeps the pistol Ogden carried that day, with the evidence tag, in his desk.
Another incident Hawkins recalled was in 1979 when luck happened to be with him. He had been standing in the kitchen at the jail this particular day. Shortly after he left, a person(s) drove by the jail and fired six shots through the kitchen window. The same individual(s) also left a dead deer on the steps of the courthouse, with a rather unpleasant note for the sheriff.
Other dark memories include the Mark Spotz murders, trials and appeals, and the Gallows Harbor murder on Mother’s Day of 1998 when a group of teens hung, then killed a 15-year-old mentally-handicapped girl.
Progress, Growth and Change
Hawkins said Clearfield County Sheriff’s Office was a lot later than other places in going digital. Before computers, everything was done by hand or with typewriters. He said he depends a great deal on Snyder for his computer expertise.
When Hawkins first became sheriff, he had four deputies and two office staff-persons. He pointed out that there was only one court and one judge then, as well. Now the court has been divided, and there are two judges, which has doubled the court duties of the sheriff’s office. Plus, his office handles transport of prisoners for court, as well as the civil and warrant work.
Hawkins said Clearfield is the only county that doesn’t house state inmates for court. In a recent court case, his office had to transport a prisoner from Camp Hill for trial. The trial was continued, so the prisoner was then transported to the State Correctional Institution at Benner, State College, for the night, then back to Camp Hill the next morning.
Today, the sheriff’s office employs six full-time deputies, as well as the chief deputy, plus three part-time deputies, and four office staff.
When asked if the criminals have changed over the years, Hawkins said there are several differences. For one, the attitudes have changed over the generations. He quoted Clearfield County Jail Warden Sam Lombardo in saying, “The caliber of inmates has gotten worse.”
He said in his earlier days as sheriff, when you treated criminals with respect, they gave respect, and had respect for the office of sheriff. But, he said, with the younger generations the criminals just don’t care, they show no respect.
He said he also sees a change in the severity of crimes. Early on it was mostly minor and alcohol-related crimes. He said a few people violated parole or got arrested for minor offences when weather turned cold, to have a place to stay for the winter.
Now he said there are more drug arrests, harder drugs and more violent crimes.
Hawkins said he believes the methadone clinic location in Lawrence Township draws drugs and drug users to the area. For one reason, it serves such a large area, with clients from as far as Johnstown, Altoona and further. He said he thinks the clinic should be in a more remote area, farther from populations where drugs can be dealt.
Hawkins said there is also an increase in crime rate. In the old jail, 30 inmates was a lot. The average population of inmates was 15 to 20.
The Sheriff’s Job
Hawkins explained that much of his job as sheriff is administrative. He said he answers the tough questions for the office. He jokingly noted that he has to decide each morning whether to wear his uniform or a suit for work that day.
Hawkins has served as president of the Pennsylvania Sheriffs Association, and has been on the Deputy Sheriff Training Board since 1995.
Hawkins’ wife, Elizabeth recalled one of her proudest moments. In 2007, when many residents had fallen on financial difficulties and the sheriff’s office was serving a lot of papers in that regard, she said the sheriff directed his staff, saying “These people aren’t criminals. Treat them with respect.”
Hawkins said he went into public service because he enjoys this kind of work and likes helping people. The best part has been the public approval he has received all these years. “I must be doing something right,” he said.
The Next Phase
Hawkins’ advice to the next sheriff: “Be patient, and don’t let the job go to your head.” When asked if the job has changed him, Hawkins said he feels he is the same person he always was.
As for plans after he retires as sheriff, he said Elizabeth has a lot of things lined up for him. He enjoys landscaping and working in his yard; watching birds, which he said Elizabeth taught him about. He enjoys photography, hunting and fishing. As to continuing in public service, he digressed to answer. But it is hard to imagine, for someone who has lived his life in public service as Hawkins has, that he would not continue in that line.
He said, “It has been a pleasure serving the residents [of Clearfield County]. I thank them for all their support over the years. And best of luck to whomever is elected [sheriff].”