Sheriff Keeler ready to step down after an eventful 46-year career

MIDDLEBURY — At age 76, Addison County Sheriff Don Keeler might not move around as well as he used to. But he still puts in a work day that could put a lot of nine-to-fivers to shame.

By day, he manages a workforce of 20 full- and part-time deputies, dispatchers and support staff.

By night, he can often be seen serving writs and other court paperwork to homes and businesses throughout the county.

And while Keeler believes he still has plenty of miles left on his odometer, he’s ready to hand over his badge to a new sheriff who will be selected by Addison County voters on Nov. 6.

“It’s time for someone else to take the helm,” Keeler said on Monday during one of his last days with a department he began serving 46 years ago.

Keeler has been outspoken in saying he hopes that “someone else” is his current lieutenant, Peter Newton, who’s involved in a race for sheriff with independent Kevin Gibbs, Bristol’s former police chief. Newton defeated fellow Middlebury Democrat Ron Holmes in a Democratic primary in August.

Keeler leave the office nice and tidy for his replacement.

He’ll keep the memories.

Keeler began as a part-time deputy with the Addison County Sheriff’s Department (ACSD) in 1972. Richard Nixon was president, just coming to grips with the Watergate scandal. A gallon of gas cost 55 cents. You could buy a Ford Pinto for $2,078. Terrorists killed 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympic games.

The ACSD had one vehicle and deputies were packing revolvers.

When the Keelers sold their filling station at 16 Court St. in 1988, Keeler’s predecessor and mentor — the late Sheriff Jim Coons — asked him to sign on as a full-time deputy.

Keeler wasn’t keen on it, but gave in.

“Jim and I were like brothers,” Keeler said. “I hope I made him proud.”

Twenty-four years later, in 2012, Keeler stepped into his dear friend’s position following his death. He ran for a term in his own right.

Coons probably would be proud of the condition in which Keeler is leaving the department, though his protégé has solidified the operation in part by dismantling down some of the amenities Coons had built during his three decades in charge.

Chief among the casualties was the county jail.

Coons during the late 1990s landed an $890,000 grant from the United States Marshals Service to substantially renovate the 1864 jailhouse and offices. The jail employed five full-time deputies to supervise federal detainees awaiting trial for various offenses, ranging from white collar crimes to drug trafficking.

Along with being a source of local jobs, the ACSD jail also provided free night-shift dispatching for five area fire departments and a no-cost detainment venue for local offenders awaiting arraignment at the Addison County Courthouse.

But by the end of a 20-year contract with the U.S. Marshals in 2012, Keeler was ready to close the jail. It had become an unprofitable enterprise as the number of inmates declined, he noted. And the department didn’t have the wherewithal to deliver the inmates their federally guaranteed access to an interpreter, law library, full-time medical staff and other services.

“It wasn’t manageable,” Keeler said. “I called the U.S. Marshals when I took over in 2012 and told them we would be closing the jail on May 1. That was one of the happiest days of my life.”

Keeler was so opposed to the county jail that he declined shifts as a jailer. But he conceded the contract with the U.S. Marshalls did yield some valuable renovations to the ACSD headquarters, including an elevator and handicap-access upgrades.

It also housed some interesting people, according to Keeler. He recalled one “guest” who had been captured after a bank robbery in Enosburg. Keeler asked the guy how he’d been caught so quick. The man, according to Keeler, confessed he’d given the teller a “give me the money” note written on one of his own deposit slips.

Funny stories aside, he was convinced the jail had to go.

“The jail didn’t serve the community the way I thought it should, and I argued with Jim about it, even though I was his best friend.” he said. “I just didn’t think we should be in the jail business.”

Keeler acknowledged some of this year’s candidates for sheriff have called for reopening the jail, which he believes is an unrealistic goal.

“This building was built in 1864,” Keeler said. “That jail has not changed. We’d be looking at $450,000 a year just in labor costs. If someone could come up with that kind of money, God bless ’em.”

And reopening the jail would mean displacing the Addison County Unit for Special Investigations (ACUSI). Led by Det. Sgt. Ruth Whitney, the ACUSI helps area police agencies bring to justice suspects in assaults and sex crimes against adults and children.

Keeler welcomed ACUSI into the renovated former jail space on Dec. 23, 2012.

“That was my goal the day I became sheriff,” Keeler said.

He noted his department also gave Whitney a vehicle and paid for her training.

“I was glad to contribute that to the SIU,” Keeler said. “I felt so strongly about the program, and I still do.”

Along with the decision to host the ACSUI, Keeler is proud of his efforts to get his deputies more engaged in law enforcement throughout the county.

The ACSD currently contracts with the United States Forest Service and 17 communities to provide traffic enforcement and other services. There were only five such contracts when he began as sheriff. Revenue from the agreements pays for the deputies’ time; meanwhile, the towns get money from traffic tickets that are issued, Keeler said.

“I now have four or five people working on these contracts every day,” said Keeler, who has placed a premium on hiring full-time deputies who are able to nimbly move from task to task. A deputy, on a typical day, might work three hours doing traffic enforcement in New Haven and then spend the rest of the day transporting prisoners to the Courthouse. The next day, that deputy might be providing security at a local event or construction site.

The sheriff’s department has six full-time deputies on staff. There were only one or two full-timers when Keeler came on board in ’72.

“It’s hard in this day and age to operate with part-time law enforcement (officers),” Keeler said.

The ACSD has also bolstered its equipment during Keeler’s tenure. The department now has 17 vehicles at its disposal, along with modern, reliable firearms. The ACSD was one of the first local law enforcement agencies to issue body cameras to its officers.

“We’ve come a long way,” Keeler said. “And I couldn’t have done this job without the staff that has worked for me. I’m proud of my staff, for how hard they work and for how loyal they are.”

Keeler’s not sure what he’ll do with all his time during retirement. He’s a big football fan. He and his longtime wife Kathy have three grandchildren and a family camp on Lake Dunmore they’d like to visit more often.

Fellow law enforcement officials said they’ll miss Keeler for the leadership he brought to the department and for his sense of humor.

“Don raised the level or professionalism in that agency,” said Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley. “He’s had a can-do attitude.”

He credited Keeler with helping Middlebury Police in many ways, whether it be security at the annual Cider Stock festival, or backup at the scene of a crash.

Vermont State Police Lt. Jeffrey R. Danoski, commander of the New Haven barracks, first met Keeler a decade ago at the Vermont Police Academy. Both were firearms instructors at the time.

“Don and I immediately hit it off and became good friends,” Danoski recalled. “Don, from the beginning, has been very supportive of me in my career… We spent a lot of time at meetings, discussing work and instructing new academy recruits on the firing range, but we also spent a lot of time talking about deer hunting and football.”

During firearms training week for the new recruits, the academy’s kitchen staff would always make seafood Newburgh for lunch on Fridays, Danoski said. Keeler, a big man with an appetite to match, didn’t want to be late for lunch on Fridays.

“It was like a tradition and it was only made twice a year, specifically only during firearms week,” he said. “Since the day I met him and worked with him, Don could not wait for Friday lunch during firearms week… All he wanted and waited for was his one, two, maybe three bowls of seafood Newburgh.”

Keeler was one of the first people to congratulate Danoski when he took command of the New Haven barracks.

“Don and his sense of humor will certainly be missed at the Addison County chiefs’ meetings,” Danoski said. “I congratulate Don on his retirement and wish him all of the best.  It was an honor to know him and work with him.

“And now he can eat seafood Newburgh anytime he wants.”

Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.


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