Law of the land series: the Culpeper County sheriff
This year, the top criminal justice positions of every county in Virginia are on the ballot – prosecutors and sheriffs. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reviewed several of those races in our broadcast region, and spoke with incumbents and challengers. This is the final report in a five-part series.
In Culpeper County, the sheriff has made national news for facing 13 federal felony charges of conspiracy, fraud, and bribery. But he hasn't dropped out of the race for reelection. Two challengers have stepped up to try and take his place.
There's Tim Chilton, a 26-year veteran of law enforcement and the current deputy chief of the Culpeper Police Department, who's running as an independent …
TIM CHILTON: Probably in the last six or seven years, I've had a number of steering committees that came to me and asked me to run, and I was very hesitant because I don't have any political aspirations or anything like that.
… and the Republican nominee, Joe Watson – who served 25 years in the Alexandria Police Department and four in the Culpeper County Sheriff's Office. He now runs a consulting and private investigation firm.
JOE WATSON: I couldn't take hearing the news and reading the newspaper anymore. So, I knew I had the best resume in the county, and I just kept telling myself, somebody's got to go in there and do it right.
Sheriff Scott Jenkins first ran for the seat in 2007, and succeeded over his predecessor in 2011. Jenkins did not respond to multiple interview requests from WMRA. The 38-page federal indictment that was unsealed in June alleges that Jenkins accepted more than $72,000 in bribes in exchange for appointing people as auxiliary deputy sheriffs. He said this would allow them to concealed carry a firearm in any state without getting permits.
Two undercover FBI agents claim to have bought auxiliary deputy appointments from Jenkins for $5,000 and $10,000 apiece. Three businessmen who allegedly paid bribes ranging from $5,000 to $20,000 are also facing charges. One of them, Rick Rahim, had previously lost his firearm rights, although the indictment does not say why. Another defendant, Fredric Gumbinner, has a "change of plea" hearing set for November 20th, and his trial has been canceled – indicating he's likely worked out an agreement with prosecutors to plead guilty. Jenkins, Rahim, and co-defendant James Metcalf are scheduled to go to trial in May.
The indictment references email and text exchanges of the deals, as well as direct quotes from in-person conversations, which point to one or more unnamed individuals wearing a wire.
In one quote, Jenkins says, "I appreciate what support you've given me, but you didn't do it for nothing. You got a … a clean slate to carry a, not only carry a gun, we followed it up with swearing you in. Name another sheriff in the whole state of Virginia that would do that."
Candidate Joe Watson worked in the sheriff's office from 2008 until 2012, when Jenkins, then the new sheriff in town, let him go.
WATSON: There is a contingency of folks in the county that believe Mr. Jenkins is being persecuted. If you read the 38-page indictment … it appears to be he's being properly prosecuted, and not persecuted. I don't think anybody forced him to sell those badges and credentials … or not report the funds to the state as you're required to do. [chuckles]
Candidate Tim Chilton declined to comment on the charges, citing the collaborative relationship between the police department and the sheriff's office. However, he did mention later in the interview that the banker handling his campaign finances is meticulous.
CHILTON: If I give him a load of money, I better have names, addresses, every single thing that you need for your report, it better be right, or he's the guy that's going to call me on it. … We're going to do it 100% by the election manual, and you cannot defer from this at all.
Over the years, Chilton has held every rank in the police department besides chief, and has served on the SWAT team and drug and gang task forces. He recalled one formative case investigating meth distribution in Charlottesville in the mid-2000's. He used his background as an electrical contractor to go undercover.
CHILTON: I was on the ATF task force at the time, and I was also on the DEA task force, so they kind of put themselves together … doing a huge case through Charlottesville into South Carolina, Texas, down into, went into Mexico. Really, really big case. It was a lot of folks. I think it was two wiretaps, 36 individuals ended up being indicted.
Watson spent 19 years on Alexandria's SWAT team, among other assignments.
WATSON: Towards the end of my career, as a sergeant, I became in charge of a granted unit that took care of special operations and intelligence gathering for the Moussaoui trial.
That would be Zacarias Moussaoui, to this day, the only person convicted in a U.S. court in relation to the 9/11 attacks.
WATSON: We were working very closely with the United States Marshal Service at the Eastern District federal courthouse.
One of his concerns in Culpeper is fentanyl.
WATSON: So we have those issues of those things coming in on the highways. So we're going to have to up our interdiction efforts, and our cooperation with the Blue Ridge Task Force, and make sure we get in front of that stuff.
Chilton wants to introduce new technology.
CHILTON: The sheriff's office has no body cameras. Technology's a little bit behind. Some of the computer systems in the cars are 19 years old.
Based on campaign finance records, Chilton is the fundraising frontrunner. He's brought in about $30,000, mostly from local donors, plus a few thousand from the Virginia Police Benevolent Association.