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Sheriff shares spotlight as he pins on new badge

Wolfinger acknowledges importance of family, faith

Ben Wolfinger took the oath as Kootenai County’s new top cop Monday, but he shared the spotlight with Boston Wolfinger, his 5-week-old grandson whose tiny outfit declared, “New sheriff in town.”

The first grandchild for Wolfinger and his wife, Mary, marked a peak in a rollercoaster year for the 30-year veteran of the sheriff’s department.

Emerging from the spring primary as the Republican nominee, Wolfinger was swept into office last November with 72 percent of the vote.

But four days before the victory, his mother, Alice, died from congestive heart failure. “She was one of my best campaigners,” Wolfinger said.

Shortly before Christmas, Boston was born. The baby’s father, Brad, is Wolfinger’s youngest son and a patrol deputy in the sheriff’s department.

At the same time, the 51-year-old sheriff-elect was suffering from a kidney stone larger than a 9 mm bullet, as he describes it. Wolfinger underwent surgeries Jan. 1 and again last Thursday to eliminate the painful deposit.

He was still sore Monday as his father-in-law, First District Magistrate Eugene Marano, administered the oath of office at a packed ceremony. Then Wolfinger zipped over to the Salvation Army Kroc Center to administer the oath to most of his 292 officers and civilian employees and pose for group photos.

“It’s been kind of a crazy year,” he said later, sitting in his old office. “I get emotional even thinking about it all. I couldn’t have done it without a strong wife – she’s been amazing – and my faith in God. … Those two things have gotten me through it.”

Wolfinger, the county’s 28th sheriff in 130 years, succeeds Rocky Watson, who served 17 years in two stretches. The position pays $84,873 a year.

Wolfinger has managed all aspects of the sheriff’s office and worn many hats. But his name and face became well known in the summer of 2005 when he regularly briefed the news media on the Wolf Lodge Bay murders and the kidnapping of young Dylan and Shasta Groene.

Joseph Duncan’s brutal attack on the family and the subsequent torture and murder of Dylan in Montana stand as the most atrocious crime spree Wolfinger has seen in his career.

The new sheriff grew up in neighboring Shoshone County and knew as a young boy he wanted to be a policeman. He cooked his way through school and was a burro wrangler at Ross Point Baptist Camp.

He’s passionate about fly fishing, enjoys a good cigar and is on the board of elders in his church, Real Life Ministries. He served five years on the Coeur d’Alene City Council and chaired the Chamber of Commerce board.

For 10 years he has taught a driver’s education traffic law class, and he intends to keep doing it. “That’s a hoot, a riot,” he said.

Wolfinger said he’s drawn to being deeply engaged in the community he serves. “People want you just to listen to them,” he said.

He told employees Monday he plans to make no radical changes out of the gate. But Wolfinger does aim to tackle two chronic problems: inadequate jail space and high staff turnover.

Taxpayer reluctance to build a larger jail has prompted county leaders to study another option: having a private company finance a new jail that the county would lease and operate.

“We can’t build for the need today every 10 years. We’ll always be behind the curve,” Wolfinger said.

He also wants to improve pay for employees, who often leave for higher salaries and more opportunities in neighboring jurisdictions, he said.

“We’re the lowest-paid agency in our competition area, this I-90 corridor here,” Wolfinger said.

He said he’s especially concerned about keeping employees long enough to work their way into supervisory and administrative roles to replace those who retire.

In a quiet moment Monday, former Sheriff Pierce Clegg gave Wolfinger a five-point badge previously worn by himself and Sheriff Watson, with all three of their names engraved on it.

“Very touching,” Wolfinger said.