Richard Warner knew in high school that he wanted to pursue a career in law enforcement.
“When the guidance counselor asked me what I wanted to do, I said I wanted to go into law enforcement,” said Warner during an interview Tuesday.
The 1993 Lynchburg-Clay graduate said, “I set goals for myself in school, to go to the police academy, into law enforcement, and eventually to work at the sheriff’s department and to become sheriff someday. I’m now pursuing my dream.”
Warner, 39, is quiet and soft-spoken by nature. In fact, some of his own supporters often express frustration over their inability to convince him to aggressively work a room and shake hands like a seasoned politician.
Warner is aware of the criticism, but said, “I’m not going to make myself somebody I’m not. I’m not always out there in the spotlight. It’s difficult to be a politician. I don’t shy away from people, but I am who I am. It’s hard to be something you’re not. Some people see right through that, and they say, ‘Well, he didn’t come up to me for any other reason’” than to get votes.
Warner, a lifelong resident of Highland County, grew up in the Lynchburg area, one of six children – three boys and three girls – the son of Richard and Connie Warner. His father was a dairy farmer and truck driver – “He still drives a truck,” said Warner – and his mother “always worked at a grocery or department store,” along with working for about seven years at Highland District Hospital.
Warner said he did not have a lot of material things growing up. “My kids are going to have what I didn’t have,” he said. But in high school, he was a member of the Mustang squad that reached the Final Four in the 1993 state basketball tournament.
Immediately following school, Warner attended and graduated from the Great Oaks Police Academy, and by December of 1993 was working full-time with the Lynchburg Police Department as a patrolman.
In 1995, Warner began working at the Highland County Sheriff’s Office as a corrections officer. He also served as dispatcher, road patrol officer, road patrol supervisor, investigator, and then as detective sergeant until his appointment as sheriff last November.
Campaign finance reports are not required to be filed until April 25, but Warner recognizes what appears to be a considerable fundraising advantage by his opponent, Donnie Barrera, based on yard signs, vehicles emblazoned with Barrera’s name and other campaign materials.
“From what I’ve spent, and what it appears he is spending, it’s a huge difference,” Warner acknowledges. “But I strongly feel that our records speak for themselves.”
Warner believes that his years as a detective with the sheriff’s department provide him with an edge in experience and qualifications. From 2011 through 2013, Warner said he was responsible for 291 felony arrests as a detective.
In particular, Warner points to the countless narcotics crimes he has investigated and on which the prosecutor’s office has built successful cases. Warner said that “ridding the streets of Highland County of the narcotics problem” is his top priority.
“Eighty to 85 percent of crime is related to narcotics,” said Warner. “It’s easy to hit the street level drugs, but you need the knowledge to work it top to bottom, and to cut off the suppliers.”
The suppliers, he said, come mostly from Dayton, and some from Columbus.
“There’s a lot of heroin from Dayton,” said Warner. “It’s cheap. They can buy it at half-price and double their money here. You have to have the patience and the knowledge” to cut off the supply.
Warner said he has those attributes, and has spent years working cases with local police departments, area task forces and the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation.
“We have to work together with all local departments and agencies and get the community involved,” said Warner. “We have to rely on the community getting involved.”
Warner said that in 2013 the sheriff’s office dealt with 99 meth labs. He said the county’s high number of meth labs in relation to other areas is not necessarily because there is a bigger meth problem in Highland County, but because the county’s law enforcement agencies have been proactive and taken strides to combat the problem.
Warner said officers, both in the sheriff’s office and local police departments, have been trained to deal with the hazardous materials involved in meth labs and to neutralize the scenes.
He also oversees the Crime Watch Program at Rocky Fork Lake, and has started a new Crime Watch Program in Buford.
Warner recognizes that shrinking budgets are making it more difficult for sheriff’s departments and police agencies to fight the drug war, but he said he has made some changes to free up funds that will eventually allow him to hire more deputies.
For instance, he is negotiating a new contract on inmate meals that should take the cost from nearly $3 per meal to about $2 per meal, which he said would amount to an annual savings of $30,000 to $40,000. And, “One thing I started is watching our overtime, and looking at what’s necessary and what’s not,” he said.
Additionally, he started a program requiring inmates to make their own uniforms. He said the county was paying $30 to $40 for inmate uniforms, and they are now being made by prisoners for $5 to $6 each.
The sheriff campaign has sometimes been brutal, with supporters of both candidates taking to social media and websites to make accusations and derogatory comments about the other side. Warner said he is upset by many of the allegations.
“There’s been nobody that’s been fired,” he said, addressing one frequent claim. An unpaid special deputy’s commission was discontinued, and some deputies were “offered different positions and chose to resign,” he said.
“It’s tough when you hear (the rumors), but I didn’t get to make those decisions,” he said, adding, “They were made for me.”
Warner hopes the rifts eventually heal. “There are friendships on both sides,” he said. “I hope that after this is over they can continue to be friends.”
Warner said he has made a point of not promising jobs to any friends or supporters.
“There is not one person in or out of the office that will tell you any jobs have been promised, or anything else,” said Warner. “You can’t make promises. It’s not proper.”
Warner said that while Barrera has some high-profile supporters, “there are a lot of (well-known) people supporting me” less visibly. “It’s frustrating,” he acknowledges. “But I understand it.”
Warner said the campaign has been “a roller coaster,” but he relies on his family and his faith. And a health crisis with his oldest child years ago gave him a different perspective on life.
“I was not really raised going to church,” said Warner. But about nine years ago, his week-old son was diagnosed with a serious heart condition, and required open heart surgery.
“That changed my whole perception and outlook,” said Warner. “You have to put things in the Lord’s hands.”
Warner, his wife, Kristy, and their two young children are now “very active” at the Pricetown Church of Christ, and the health crisis with his son also led him to commit to finding ways of “doing things for others. What can we do for each other?” He sees the sheriff’s job as “a way I can make a difference.”
“My whole career has been about giving back,” said Warner. “With two young children, I have a vested interest in my county, and making sure everyone’s children and grandchildren have a safe community.”
Aside from fighting drugs, Warner said child abuse and molestation are a top concern. “Making sure children are safe” is important, said Warner, who initiated the placing of a full-time deputy at the Department of Job and Family Services dedicated to child abuse.
Among his recognition and awards, Warner in 2011 was awarded the Drug Buster Award through the county, and in 2013 he was the recipient of the Outstanding Peace Officer Award given by the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association for his work on a child molestation case. He was also honored this year with the Red Cross Heroes Award for his work on the same case.
The latter two awards recognized Warner for his ability to gain the trust of three young girls who were victimized by abuse.
When it was announced last year that Warner would receive the award, Highland County Prosecutor Anneka Collins said, “He made them feel safe. People don’t understand the impact an officer can have. Those girls trusted him” as they had to recount the abuse they had suffered. The perpetrator was put behind bars for two consecutive life sentences.
Warner said that when he received the Red Cross award, he thought to himself, “It really shouldn’t be me up there, it should be the kids who have been through this who that guy can no longer victimize. It takes a lot for kids like that to come forward. They’re the heroes.”
Warner is president of the Republican Club and a member of the Republican Executive Committee. He is also a member of the Hillsboro Rotary Club, the boards for the Highland County Habitat for Humanity and the Lynchburg Area Joint Fire and Ambulance District, a member of the Highland County Farm Bureau, Ohio Trustees Association, and NRA. Warner is also a part of the U.S. 23 Pipeline Major Crimes Task Force.
More about Richard Warner’s background, accomplishments and awards can be found on his campaign website at www.keepwarnersheriff.com.