THE GOLDEN BADGE

A history of the Albemarle County Sheriff’s Office

By Al Highsmith

Years Gone by

The office of sheriff is steeped in rich history.  It is celebrated, and sometimes condemned, in literature, from the heroic Western sheriff’s in America’s early days to the nemesis of Robin Hood, the Sheriff of Nottingham. 


     Early records indicate that the office was created in England before the Norman Conquest of 1066.  The title of sheriff is believed to have come from combining the two words in the title of the Shire Reeve, the personal representative of the king.  The Shire Reeve was charged with collecting taxes, enforcing laws and keeping the peace in the governmental divisions known as “shires.”


     The office of sheriff was brought to the New World by the English as they established colonies in North America during the seventeenth century.


     In 1747, less than a hundred years after the office of sheriff was introduced in the colonies, Joseph Thompson was named to the newly created post of Sheriff of Albemarle County. Since Joseph Thompson took office fifty-four men have held the office.  Until 1851, the Sheriff of Albemarle County was appointed to the position.  In that year a new state constitution provided for the election of sheriffs in the counties of the commonwealth.


     Joseph Thompson was sheriff for two years, the term of most of his successors until Lucian Watts took office in 1895 and held it for seventeen years.   Since then sheriffs have stayed in office for longer periods.   George Bailey served in the office for twenty years, from 1967 until 1987 after having been a deputy since 1955.


     The shortest tenure in the office was only one month. Charles Wingfield, Jr. died one month after taking office as Albemarle County Sheriff in 1819.  The term of another sheriff, Cameron Thomas, was cut short in 1922 when he died in a hotel fire in
  

Richmond.


     Each Albemarle sheriff has a fascinating story of his own.    We will discuss some of the highlights, and low points, in the history of Sheriff of Albemarle County, but, regrettably, time and space will not allow us to chronicle each of the fifty-five.  However, in later pages, we will take a closer look, at the most recent sheriffs.


A Tragic Day

In 1905, his official duties drew Sheriff Lucian Watts into one of the most tragic events in Albemarle’s history.


     Charlottesville
was granted a charter as a city by the General Assembly effective July 1, 1888, and, thus, elected its own sheriff. But until 1936, the county’s sheriff was charged with custody of prisoners and implementing the sentences handed down to prisoners by both the courts of Albemarle County and the City of Charlottesville.

Some of the devices to carry out sentencing only a hundred years ago were unique by today’s standards. They seemed more attuned to punishment than corrections. For example, there stood on the courthouse grounds a stock, a whipping post and a pillory.  And, just across the street at the jail was the ultimate device of them all: the gallows of Virginia’s last legal hanging site.

Thus, on February 10, 1905 the task of overseeing the last legal hanging in Virginia fell on Sheriff Lucian Watts.  The prisoner sentenced to the gallows was none other than Samuel McCue, a three-term mayor of Charlottesville.

Mayor McCue was accused of murdering his wife on September 4, 1904, at their Park Street home just four days after he left office as mayor. He strongly denied that he had committed the crime, even offering a $1,000 reward for capture of the real killer, but it took the jury only twenty minutes after a November trial to conclude that he had done the deed.  Four days later, he was sentenced to the gallows.  Justice was swift in the early 1900s.  Only five months passed between the date of the murder and the execution of Mayor McCue.

The hanging of Mayor McCue was the last legal hanging in the county, but not the only hanging during Sheriff Watts’ term.

It was just before the turn of the century, three years after Lucian Watts took office as sheriff, that there was a hanging that was not legal and at least as tragic.  Because of its tragic nature, we will omit the names of the principal players in this event.

A beautiful and personable young lady of a very prominent family, returning from having her horse shod on a fateful day in 1898, dismounted to open the gate to the farm where she lived, suddenly, a man appeared and savagely attacked her with the apparent goal being rape.  She fought back so effectively that the rape was foiled but she was seriously injured.

A suspect was promptly apprehended in a local bar.  Sheriff Watts, himself a cousin of the victim, imprisoned the accused in the county jail, near the site were Mayor McCue was to meet his fate.  But growing public resentment quickly reached such a fever pitch that Sheriff Watts became concerned for the prisoner’s safety.  He was afraid that the growing mob outside the jail might storm the jail and extract their own form of punishment. 

As the agitated mob grew outside the jail, Sheriff Watts spirited the prisoner out the back door of the jail and over the wall.  They hurried through dark alleys to avoid meeting anyone to the train station and the prisoner was secretly moved across Afton Mountain to the safety of Staunton’s jail.

When the accused was to face the courts, Sheriff Watts accompanied the prisoner back to Albemarle County by train.  Somehow, the plans got out and when the train reached the tiny train station of Woods’ Crossing near the entrance to Farmington, there was a mob at the station.

Sheriff Watts begged the conductor to pass the station without stopping, but the conductor refused.  As soon as the train stopped, the car filled with angry men bent on vengeance. Sheriff Watts drew his pistol to protect the prisoner, but his effort to defend the prisoner was thwarted as he was attacked from behind and disarmed.

Sheriff Watts’ fears became fact as the prisoner was hanged near the spot the train stopped and, it is reported, members of the mob emptied “forty or fifty” shots from their pistols into the body as it hung.

Historic Jail

The very jail itself is rich in history of its own.  The current “old jail,” which still stands on Court Square, was not the first in the area of the court house.

The first Albemarle County jail was built across High Street from the court house in 1749.   It was replaced by a bigger and better jail seventeen years later in 1766.  It, too, was replaced after eighteen years in 1785, again in 1798 and then by the still-standing “Old Jail” in 1876.  The site for the newest jail was across High Street, where its predecessors had stood, to Court Square.

By the standards of the day, it was a modern facility.  It was constructed with stone walls three feet thick and was secured by riveted steel doors.  Four years after it was completed, an addition was added that included, on its first floor, an iron cage with six cells inside it that earned a notorious reputation. A survey of Virginia jails conducted in 1935 by three professors at the University of Virginia, in commenting on the “cage,” said: that the floors of the jail were reasonable clean “except near the windows [a few feet from the cage] where prisoners have failed in their attempts to expectorate tobacco.”  The same survey commended the jail as a modern facility with a toilet for each cell “although some did not work.”

It was in this cage that Black male prisoners were kept.  Other male inmates where housed in the old section of the jail and women prisoners of both races were kept on the second floor of the new section.  The jail sported a sign announcing that visiting “hours” were the thirty minutes between noon and 12:30.

Yet another addition was added in the early Twentieth Century.  It was a home for the jailer, Deputy Max Elliott and his wife.

While the sheriff remained charged with keeping prisoners,   the addition of a jailer to his staff assigned day-to-day responsibility to him. The jailer and his wife lived in the house constructed next to the jail and Mrs. Elliott, sometimes with the help of a prisoner, who had worked in a restaurant, cooked the two meals a day served to the prisoners.

Before the jailer’s house was built, facilities for preparing meals for the prisoners were very limited.  The kitchen consisted of an oil stove under the stair to the second floor of the jail.

Although an eighteen foot wall surrounded the jail, there were a few dramatic but short-lived escapes. One prisoner used a saw blade that somehow had been smuggled in to him to cut the lock on his cell.  Then he chopped his way through the outside wall to get away.  His freedom did not last long. He was quickly recaptured and returned to jail.

The “Old Jail” continued to play its role of holding Albemarle County prisoners until it was long out of date.  In 1974, Albemarle County joined with the City of Charlottesville to construct the Albemarle-Charlottesville Joint Security Complex south of the city. 

This modern facility can hold two hundred and thirty inmates while the Old Jail was designed to house no more than thirty-five or forty, and much more securely.

The current sheriff is a member of the board that oversees operation of the complex, with primary responsibility assigned to a Superintendent and his highly trained staff.  The sheriff continues to be responsible for transporting prisoners to court and, occasionally, to see a doctor or for some other necessary trip outside the confines of the jail itself.  The sheriff must arrange for security for such visits outside the actual confines of the jail itself.


A Dreaded Call

     There is no message more dreaded by a law enforcement supervisor than that one of his officers has been shot.  That is the message that shattered the afternoon of Albemarle Sheriff W. C. Cook in May of 1952.  Thomas Wolfe, a 51-year-old, deputy who had been a valuable member of the sheriff’s staff for fourteen years, had been shot.

Deputy Wolfe and Deputy Earl Davis had gone to the Free Union area to bring in Ike Shifflett.   Shifflett, a 40-year-old deaf mute, was well known to the sheriff’s department. Although he had been described by neighbors as “harmless,” the previous February, when he had gone missing, to their total surprise, the search party Sheriff Cook had organized to try to find Shifflett found them selves being shot at by him.

And, now, on this Wednesday in May, Fountaine Moran, a neighbor of Shifflett, had reported that on Monday, for no reason Moran could fathom, Shifflett had fired a 22 caliber rifle into his home and had shot into the home again on Tuesday.

As the two deputies went to apprehend Shifflett, to facilitate communicating with the deaf mute,    Deputies Wolfe and Davis had asked another neighbor, Cecil Maupin, to accompany them.

When the three arrived at Sifflett’s home, he was sitting in an upstairs door above the porch.  Parking the police car in the road in front of the house, Deputy Davis signaled for Shiflett to come out.  He then went around the house to a door that opened from the second floor onto the hill against which the house was sitting.

As Davis approached the door, he heard Wolf call out, “He’s loading his gun!” 

Almost immediately, a shotgun blast came through the door just missing Davis.  Davis heard a second shot an instant later. That shot had been fired at the police car where Wolfe and Maupin were waiting. Wolfe ducked down a ten foot embankment for cover while Maupin ran toward Moran’s house to call for help.

Shifflett came out the door on the lower level, ran around the police car, and from a distance of twenty feet, shot Wolfe seriously wounding him.   Maupin stopped his run long enough to call to Davis that Wolfe had been hit, and Davis started around the house.

He was met with a hail of gunfire leveled at him by Shifflett.  Davis ducked behind a large boulder for cover and returned fire.  The two engaged in a fast paced gunfight.

Down to his last two bullets, Davis, recognizing that he had wounded Shifflett, decided it was safe to run to Wolfe. He found Wolfe to be badly wounded and losing blood at an alarming rate. Shifflett, who was lying in the road, continued to fire his gun, but was too wounded to take aim so the shots went harmlessly into the air, giving Davis an opportunity to carry Wolfe to the police car and speed away,.  He used his radio to call for an ambulance.  The ambulance met the police car on Garth Road and took Wolfe to the hospital.

Davis and another deputy returned to the Shifflett home.  Ike Shifflett, seriously wounded, had been disarmed by family members so Davis put him in the police car and rushed him to the hospital.

Wolfe died two weeks later on May 28, 1952.  Two hours after Wolfe’s funeral, on May 30, Shifflett also died.

Newspaper accounts at the time reported that Sheriff Cook informed them that there was no other instance of a member of the Sheriff’s Department being gunned down.  Charlottesville Police Chief J. E. Adams was quoted as saying that he knew of no death of a police officer in the line of duty during his thirty years on the force, but former Police Chief Maurice Greaver told the press that Office Meredith Thomas was shot with his own gun after he was overpowered by criminals while he was guarding some stolen meat on Garrett Street and that Officer Tom Seal had died in the line of duty on Vinegar Hill prior to 1900.  No sheriff’s officer has died in the line of duty since the death of Deputy Wolfe.

However, fifty-one years later, Sheriff Ed Robb received a call that shots had been fired at one of his deputies.  Although the deputy’s hat had a bullet hole in it, the deputy himself was not hit. The incident set off an urgent search by local and state law enforcement for the reported assailant.  One man was arrested whom the deputy declared he was “sixty percent” sure was the shooter.

A few hectic days later, Sheriff Robb was informed by County Police Chief John Miller that investigators had evidence that the deputy himself had staged the incident and   had actually fired the shots himself.

An indignant and outraged Sheriff Robb called for the deputy to come to the office.  When he arrived, Sheriff Robb tersely instructed him to put his weapon and badge on the desk and get out. The sheriff then issued a heartfelt apology to the community, especially the Afro-American community which, due to the report of the deputy, had been the focus of the investigation. Sheriff Robb declared the incident to be a “disgusting thing.”


Two Hats for the Sheriff

George Bailey was one of the longest serving Sheriffs of Albemarle County.  He became Sheriff, then called “High Sheriff,” in 1967 after he had served for twelve years as a deputy - the last several as Chief Deputy. 

Initially, he was not elected to the post but was appointed by Circuit Court Judge Lyttelton Waddel to fill the unexpired term of W. S. Cook who left office following a heart attack.

Before he retired in 1987, Sheriff Bailey presided over one of the most far   reaching changes    in law enforcement   in Albemarle County: Creation of County Police Department.

The idea of a county police department had been considered for many years, but it did not move forward until the General Assembly passed a law in 1983 that might have prevented a county police force being formed.

Writing about the matter in an article in The Daily Progress in the spring of 1983, reporter Daniel Lehman wrote: “A law passed by the General Assembly this year that was intended to short-circuit Virginia counties considering creation of county police departments may have the opposite effect in Albemarle County.”

The act the General Assembly adopted mandated that before any county could form a police department independent of the sheriff it must first get a majority vote in a referendum and then have the General Assembly give legislative approval. The effective date of the act was July 1, 1983.  The police department would take over law enforcement authority from the sheriff leaving him to handle court security, custody of prisoners and the service of court papers.

     Shortly after the legislation  and before it became effective, the County Board voted five to one to “see if it is possible to beat the July  1  deadline,”  Lehman wrote in  The Daily Progress.  Convinced that they could beat the deadline the County Board moved quickly toward establishment of a police department before they would be required to submit the matter to the voters and get legislative approval.

Public hearings were scheduled to gauge public sentiment.  Sheriff Bailey, who had not been an enthusiastic supporter of the proposal, recalls that at some public hearings as much as ninety percent of those present opposed creation of a police force for Albemarle County.
 

Opponents of the move vehemently held that person overseeing law enforcement would be more responsive to the public good if he was accountable to the voters.  Proponents of the move took exactly the opposite view contending that law enforcement would be more responsive if it was removed from direct political influence by having it headed by a police chief reporting to the County Executive and the County Board.

By a late night vote on June 30, the last day before the restrictive legislation would take effect, the County Board voted to create a county police department.  This left too little time to organize the department or find a police chief, so the Board appointed Sheriff Bailey to serve as police chief while continuing as sheriff.

Initially,  the  county  police  force  was  little  more  than  a  skeleton frame for the future.  Officially the police force had an only five officers and they were assigned to the Sheriff’s Department so that responsibility for law enforcement remained vested in the sheriff. 

     Later Frank Johnstone, formerly head of the University of Virginia security force, was appointed as Bailey’s assistant and then to take over as Albemarle County Chief of Police. George Bailey was once again a full time sheriff.

The effective date for the police department to become fully operational was a year later, July, 1984.   To differentiate the change in authority, the police department adopted blue and tan uniforms while the sheriff’s office continued wearing its traditional brown ones.  The vehicles that were transferred from the sheriff to the police department were repainted and had large seals on them identifying them, as “County Police.”  It was reported that Chief Johnstone commented that spelling out “Albemarle County Police Department” was too long to go on the seal.

By November, 1984, the police force numbered thirty-eight officers.

Today the Albemarle County Police Department and the Albemarle County Sheriff’s Department cooperate closely in their joint efforts for the community

           

             From Police Captain to Sheriff

When Sheriff Bailey decided to not run for reelection, Terry Hawkins entered the race to succeed him.

Hawkins had been a member of the UVa Police Force and then an officer in the Richmond Police Department.  As he tells the story,  he wanted to return to the Charlottesville area to raise his children, so, when he saw an advertisement for applicants  for  the  position  of  a  deputy sheriff in Albemarle, he immediately applied and became an Albemarle deputy.

It was while he was a deputy that three juveniles being held in the county jail managed to escape. They were being held on the second floor of the jail.  They managed to squeeze through a ten-inch opening for a light fixture in the ceiling and get into the attic.  Once in the attic, they cut their way through the slate roof and made their escape by jumping from the roof of the jail to the roof of an adjacent garage.  They fled on foot several miles to the the Stone-Robinson School.

Later, before the escape had been discovered, the burglar alarm at the school sounded. Ironically, Stone-Robinson was the only school in Albemarle County equipped with an alarm system.

Terry Hawkins was one of the two deputies who responded to the alarm.  When Hawkins and his fellow deputy arrived at the school they thought they were probably dealing with a faulty alarm.

The “faulty alarm” theory was discarded quickly when they found, to their surprise, food being cooked in the kitchen.  This discovery sent them on a search of the school.

As Hawkins was passing through the auditorium, he glanced up and spotted a teenager hiding on the catwalk above the stage.  Seconds later he spotted shoes protruding under a stage curtain.

He gave the intruders false confidence by calling to the other deputy that they might as well leave because there were no intruders in the building.  As he spoke, he moved to capture the boy behind the curtain and order the one hiding above the stage to come down.

Hawkins and the fellow deputy took the juveniles to the jail to lock them up only to have them recognized as prisoners who were supposed to already be locked up on the second floor.  It was only then that the jailer discovered that there had been an escape.

When the Albemarle County Police Department was established, Terry Hawkins joined it.  He quickly rose to the rank of captain from which position he played a major role in the operation of the department.  His rich career made him a natural to succeed Sheriff Bailey and he easily won election in 1987 and remained sheriff until 2000.

Among the many accomplishments of Sheriff Hawkins was reinstatement of the Sheriff’s Reserves.  Under this program, interested citizens serve along side the regular deputies in performance of such duties as providing court room security.  The Reserves wear uniforms similar to the uniforms of deputies.  They also receive extensive on the job training so they can move on to fully effective careers in law enforcement with a minimum delay in becoming proficient.

Sheriff Hawkins estimates that this program was the springboard for more than a hundred men and women who became deputies or police officers in the Commonwealth.


The FBI’s “Mafia Boss”


Many of the fifty-five men who have served as Sheriff of Albemarle County have enjoyed distinguished careers before becoming sheriff, and some after their terms.  In the early days, it was accepted that any man who wanted to be sheriff must first serve as a magistrate or judge.  Some served decades on the bench before taking office as sheriff, but only Edgar S. “Ed” Robb had as an entry on his resume: “Mafia boss.”  He played that role as part of his assignment as a Special Agent of the FBI to infiltrate the Mafia which he did with dramatic success.

For several years, using the name “Tony Rossi,” Ed Robb functioned as a top level Mafia boss in Florida.  He ran a club, “King’s Court,” that was a favorite meeting place for Mafia leaders from all parts of the nation.   He had as regular companions some of the most dangerous men in America. “Tony Rossi” was a name given him by the FBI, for whom he was a Special Agent, as part of his cover during his assignment to infiltrate the Mafia. 

     Unknown to the criminals who held their meetings there was the fact that King’s Court was built by the FBI for the very purpose which it served: A meeting place for top Mafia operatives.  They only learned, when more than two hundred of them were successfully prosecuted as a result of the investigation of which “Tony Rossi” was an integral part, which their conversations were recorded and their meetings filmed by the elaborate electronic systems built into King’s Court by the FBI.

Ed Robb, as Tony Rossi spent a harrowing three days in jail when King’s Court was raided by the local police.  Although he had regularly “paid off” the local police, one day he found King’s Court being raided and himself being carted off to jail.

He could not tell the local police that he was an FBI agent because it was obvious that there were connections between them and the Mafia. Ed Robb spent three anxious days in jail, afraid that the electronic recording equipment in King’s Court would be discovered and its true role made clear.  In all probability that would have spelled his immediate death.

Fortunately, the FBI sent another agent, posing as a Mafia member, to bail “Tony” out before the facts were discovered.

Ed Robb’s career in the Mafia has been chronicled in a riveting book titled “Friend of the Family.”

In addition to being a Special Agent of the FBI, Ed Robb has served as a member of the Virginia Senate and been a successful private investigator.

As sheriff, Ed Robb expanded the community out-reach of the Sheriff’s Office.   He adopted a goal “Crime Prevention Through Education.”
 

He continued and increased the Reserves program Sheriff Hawkins had resurrected and introduced many elements to further service to the community.  In keeping with the goal of “Crime Prevention Through Education”, the Sheriff’s Office operated a Crime Prevention Academy.  The Academy offered programs free of charge to community groups on how to prevent being a crime victim and programs especially designed for children.

Ed Robb created the highly trained search and rescue unit to help locate missing persons and to rescue those in danger.

One innovation Ed Robb introduced in the area was an electronic system that facilitated locating lost Alzheimer’s patients, “Project Lifesaver”.  Persons who might get lost wear an electronic transmitter to give their location to law enforcement searching for them.

Ed Robb’s sheriff’s office even provided a Pipe and Drum Band to add color to the office and local celebrations.

The office of Sheriff of Albemarle County has made impressive strides since Joseph Thompson became the first sheriff in 1747, while continuing to put public safety and service as its first goal.

In preparing this paper, we have turned to newspapers of the times when they were available, the memories of helpful individuals and the files of the Albemarle Historical Society.  We have tried to be accurate as possible and believe we have met our goal.

We believe the facts, as we have found them, weaves an interesting story of law enforcement in our community over the past two centuries.




Sheriff
J. E. "Chip" Harding

Albemarle Sheriff's Office
410 E. High Street
Charlottesville, Va 22902
(434)972-4001