Sheriff reflects on 20 years with county

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Epperly's friends, coworkers honor longest-running BarCo sheriff

Loyal, dedicated and congenial are just some of the words friends and coworkers of Mick Epperly use to describe the longest-running sheriff in Barry County.

Epperly

Last week, Epperly gathered his employees at the Barry Electric Cooperative's building to announce he would not be seeking a sixth consecutive term as sheriff.

"I'm 60 now and at a time in my life where I've had a few health issues," Epperly said. "And if every sheriff could sit here and talk, they'd say there's a lot of stress in this job. You're never off duty, and there are phone calls in the middle of the night. This is a position someone at my age can do, but you have to be on your 'A' game all the time.

"When I joined the department in 1989, my kids were really young. I missed a lot of ballgames and events, and I'm looking forward to spending some time with my grandkids, fishing and hunting. I'm sure I'll be doing something, but not with the stress level of this job."

Changes over the years

Throughout his time as sheriff, Epperly said a lot has changed.

"We only had three deputies and the sheriff when I started in January of 1997," he said. "Now we have 22 deputies when you count the new bailiff. The Drug Task Force started in the 1980s in Lawrence and Newton counties. It had been effective until last year, when we moved to the Ozark Drug Enforcement Team."

He said crime itself has changed a lot over the years as well.

"There's been a lot of trends over the years," he said. "Growing marijuana was a big thing back [when the Drug Task Force started]. People still grow it, but it's changed a lot more over to prescription drugs and meth now. We've taken numerous labs down in recent years and sent a lot of people to prison over drugs."

Epperly said many crimes now do not even take place where they may be seen, but over the Internet. This has led to the office adapting in certain ways.

"Cyber crime has grown tremendously, and it's sad," he said. "But, we've got some of the best investigators. I've put them up against any investigators in any other counties. I was skeptical of starting up a Facebook page, but the detectives talked me into it, and it's been tremendous. I would have never dreamed it would have been this beneficial. Technology has advanced so much since I started here."

Crimes against children have also been an issue throughout Epperly's time as sheriff.

"Some of the hardest things I've had to do involve children, taking them away from homes or dealing with sexual abuse," he said. "You just wonder why? One of the toughest things happened 14 years ago, when three boys were out fishing and they drowned. It took us a few days to find them, and while we were trying to locate them, their family was on the banks wanting to see their children. It was tough to think about what was going through their minds."

Keeping up relationships

Epperly said his accomplishments over his career are numerous, but start with the relationships he has maintained with the county and other law enforcement agencies.

"Everyone comes together and gets things handled," he said. "It has been a battle for me from when I started in 1997 until now, but I have stepped up and accepted those challenges, especially when we have to lay off officers. Monett has almost as many officers up there as I have to cover the whole county. I've learned over the years that not all the money from general revenue comes to the sheriff's office. But, I've felt we've had a good, working relationship with the county commission. We have disagreed at times, but we've always worked things out.

"We're not into buying luxury items, and the county commission has helped me when we have things we've needed, and I thank them for their trust. We've added onto the jail a few times and built an evidence room that's been very helpful. It was an accomplishment to get the sales tax passed. It was a tough job, but myself, the commission and the clerk tried hard. It didn't pass the first time, but the second time it did. Before then, we were running cars up to 300,000 miles and we had four layoffs. The commission was straight forward that if we passed it I would get my four officers back, and I did. One of our newest accomplishments is getting a chaplain on the force in Mike Moore, who is also the D.A.R.E. officer now. When we do anything, it's great to have a chaplain there with us, and when you see the SWAT team, they always say a prayer before they go out."

Cherry Warren, Barry County presiding commissioner, said Epperly has done a fine job as sheriff.

"Micky has always been very personable and easy to get along with," he said. "Throughout all his time as sheriff, he's had a good relationship with the commission. Funding for sheriff's offices in every county is a lot of times an issue. We didn't always agree, but we could always work out our differences.

"Being sheriff is a very stressful job. It's a tough job and it's getting tougher all the time. I'm sure there will be a lot of people who want his job. I'd say he's done a satisfactory job for the county. He's been re-elected five times and that says quite a bit to get the approval of the people five straight times."

Epperly said although most relationships are good, it has not always been easy.

"In every job you make enemies, especially sheriffs, judges and prosecutors, but overall I feel people have known I've had an open door here, and I've enjoyed working with the public," he said. "It's a lot of weight on a person with 37,000 people in the county, and you feel you're responsible for all of them. When something goes right, you might hear about it, but when something goes wrong, you definitely hear about it. I've made some mistakes, but overall, I think I have a lot of accomplishments, and I dedicate that to my good staff."

Tough cases

During Epperly's time as sheriff, Barry County has seen 22 homicides, only three of which are still not solved.

"I feel like that's a pretty good average, but those three still bug me to death," he said. "The first is the Justin Hocutt case in Seligman, where a boy was found on the railroad tracks. It seemed like he had been run over by a train, but there was very little blood, so we think he was murdered and then put on the tracks. The second was the McCullough case in 1999, and that one really haunts me. Me and the Highway Patrol are still working on that case. Gary McCullough came up missing and his wife reported it two or three days later after she'd last seen him. She moved her new boyfriend in not long after that, and since then, her own daughter has come up missing.

"The last case was Ayers in Eagle Rock. We're almost certain we know who did that one, but we didn't have the right evidence. The suspect agreed to take a polygraph test but left town before we did it."

Victor Head, former associate circuit judge, said another case stands out in his mind, one that was solved.

"One homicide that comes to mind was Rowan Ford, who was found in a sink hole or a cave in Newton County but was murdered in Wheaton," he said. "That was such a big case with so much publicity because it was such a horrific case. It was her stepfather and a friend, and there was a sexual assault and the girl was killed. I can't imagine the amount of time Mick put into that case. He worked really hard on it, and given what he had to work with, he did a really good job."

Epperly as a person

Head said he has known Epperly since before he became sheriff, and Epperly's work ethic is above the norm.

"He's a hard worker who is dedicated and has his heart in the right place," Head said. "He's also always been good to work with the media and very open. He doesn't like to brag about himself, and at the same time, if he slips up, he's the first to admit it. He's hard-working, honorable and dedicated, and he cares about the people and always wants what's best for Barry County."

Kathy Emo, Epperly's longtime secretary and now administrator, said the news of his decision came as somewhat of a surprise.

"I'm a little mad he retired, but I understand," she said. "He is a loyal friend, and if he tells you something, he sticks by it. He's a very understanding person, easygoing and is a good boss."

She said his work ethic earned him a special moniker around the office.

"We call him the working sheriff because he doesn't stay in the office that much, she said. "He's like an institution, and I don't know if I'll be able to call anyone else sheriff."

Emo said he also always tried to teach lessons when working with his employees, and he was a great friend.

"He was always nice and personable, and always tried to teach us lessons," she said. One time, when we were hiring another secretary, he told me I was being too picky. He's serious when he needs to be. Otherwise, he treats you as a friend.

"We've had a lot of people call since his announcement leaving messages about how good of a friend he was to the county. He is a lifelong, loyal friend to Barry County. He's loyal to his job, his family and his friends, and he's always been that way. I wish him well, and I've told him he can come in and still work any time."

Looking forward

Epperly said to his staff last week that his tenure has been quite a ride.

"What a wonderful experience," he said. "If someone said in 1986 I'd be a deputy or sheriff, I would have laughed at them. But, God blessed me and got me through every day of my career. And when I go to bed every night, I pray for my officers and my staff."

Epperly said for the next sheriff, a similar experience awaits, and he had some advice to make things run smoothly.

"To the next sheriff, I would say be open-minded, have an open door and ear to the public, and work with your employees," he said. "The next sheriff will also have the same drug problem, and I hope he stays hooked into the task force and maybe considers having a narcotics officer. Also, the next sheriff should take time away because this job can be overwhelming at times."

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