Former sheriff still has more to do |

Former sheriff still has more to do

Tamara Miller
Bret Hartman/Vail DailyA.J. Johnson

EDWARDS – As far as A.J. Johnson is concerned, what you see is what you get. Blame it on his Midwestern heritage – Johnson grew up on a farm in Nebraska where the truth is as apparent as the wind that blows across the plains. Maybe that salt-of-the-earth quality comes from his dad, who ran not only a full-fledged cattle farm but a few businesses in town. As a result, Johnson was put to work early. “I got my Social Security number at 9 years old,” he said. The Edwards resident and Republican candidate for a District 2 county commission seat believes that honesty helped get him re-elected to the Eagle County Sheriff seat for four terms. He ran as an independent for the first two terms, and as a Republican for the last two.Party affiliations don’t mean that much to him. Eagle County’s laid-back lifestyle does, he said.”We all came here for a reason,” he said. “For me, it was the lifestyle, the amenities.”But those qualities are starting to change a bit as the county grows, he said. Things are getting a little faster, and little less personal here, he said. It seems to be the plague of any fast-growing, once-rural, community. But Johnson doesn’t think it has to be inevitable and he thinks county government can take a lead in ensuring that it isn’t. Yearning to leadJohnson may not be the most outspoken of the candidates running for county commission. He prefers to have all the facts in place before giving his opinion, he said. But he’s content with where he’s at, how he makes his decisions and why he makes them, he said.

He married his middle school sweetheart, Barbara, after high school. At age 22, he was sent into the Vietnam War, leaving his wife and a young child at home. Johnson served for a year in the Coast Guard in Vietnam before returning in February 1968. Despite the controversies surrounding the Vietnam War, Johnson said he feels comfortable with his service. “I served my country and I’m very proud of that,” he said. “War is never right, but I got called and I went.”While serving in the military, Johnson gained some law enforcement experience. When he returned home, he began looking for a public safety job. He was hired by the Omaha Police Department and worked there for six years. “It was a great job,” he said. “I was enjoying it. I was working on a promotion to sergeant.”In the mid-1970s, Johnson came out to Colorado for the first time to ski with family. He had never skied before and spent most of his first day on the slopes crashing on the snow. But he was hooked, he said. “We started coming out a lot,” he said. “We would come out almost every other weekend.”While in Vail during the summer of 1976, Johnson, on a whim, decided to stop by the Vail Police Department to see if they had any openings. He was given a polygraph test that day and soon after, he was offered a job. At the time, Johnson was working nights full-time with the Omaha Police, running a few businesses, including a movie theater, on the side. He left his job, sold his businesses and moved his wife and his two sons out to Vail. “I got here in the winter of 1976,” he said. “I skied every day and worked nights.”He laughs when he remembers how poor of a snow year it was. “It was a bad winter, there were rocks everywhere,” he said. “But we really got into it.”

Moving up the ranksNo doubt, Johnson liked to have fun. But he was serious about his job. He worked himself up in the Vail Police Department from officer to sergeant to investigator. He became friends with the sheriff at the time, who retired and was replaced. It was at that time that Johnson began to consider running for sheriff. In anticipation for his bid for office, he left his job with Vail and became the director of Beaver Creek Security staff.In 1982, Johnson ran for sheriff and won. Perhaps that was the easy part. In his first year as sheriff in 1983, Johnson oversaw 18 officers, including the jail staff. His office occupied only the top floor of the old Eagle County Courthouse at the end of Broadway Street in Eagle. He also took over the office just as the department was being served with a class action lawsuit for having too small of a jail and inadequate feeding facilities for inmates. He also had to deal with a lawsuit that his office had filed against the county commissioners for failing to provide enough funding for the department. “It was a lot of trial and error,” Johnson said. During his tenure as sheriff, he increased the size of the department nearly ten-fold and worked to equip deputies with the latest technology and training. The result was a sheriff’s office that was second-rate to none in the state, he said.Sure, there were mistakes along the way. “I think the hardest thing is to be straight with the public,” he said. “When you make a mistake, you need to own up to it.”We weren’t always right, but we always tried to do better the next time,” he added. “I think people respected that.”Term limits forced Johnson to retire from the job. He took a job with a telecommunications company, selling security systems. He enjoys the change of pace, but public service is what fulfills him.

“I felt there was this piece that was missing,” he said. “I could go out and get another chief job, but I’ve already done that.”As he has for most of his life, Johnson began considering his next step early on. Running for county commissioner began to interest him while he was sheriff. His family isn’t surprised by his bid. Perhaps this scenario should have been anticipated in 2002, when he left the Sheriff’s Office. “Retirement isn’t really my lifestyle,” Johnson said then. “I won’t be gone long. I’ll be involved in some way or another.”Name: A.J. JohnsonAge: 58Hometown: EdwardsFamily: His wife, Barbara, and two adult sons, Mickey and JeffOccupation: Security systems salesmanFavorite book: “The Performance Culture” – “I like learning new philosophies, concepts. We are always looking for that Holy Grail of management. “Staff Writer Tamara Miller can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 607, or Vail Daily

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