Lives & Times Of Valley Folks: Sheriff Tom Allman
by Steve Sparks, June 9, 2011
I met with Sheriff Allman at his office in Ukiah a couple of weeks ago. He was very welcoming, told me to call him ‘Tom,’ and we sat down at a large table for our chat.
Tom was born in 1962, the youngest of four children born to Dean Allman and Norma Slagle, following sister Susan (now a school administrator in Nevada County), and brothers Dan, an equipment operator in Fortuna, and Mike, who committed suicide in 2005 after a period of personal tragedy. Tom was born in Sylva, about 40 miles from the city of Asheville between the Appalachians and the Great Smoky Mountains of western North Carolina. On his father’s side, his heritage can be traced back to England, from where the Allman’s moved in the mid-1700s and settled in Carolina. Initially they were from a very poor background but Tom’s grandparents owned a car dealership and had a hotel with cabins. The Slagle’s were from Germany and they settled in Washington State before moving back east to Carolina in the 1940’s, where Norma met Dean at college.
“My mother’s family were always in the logging industry and growing up we moved between Sylva and the Garberville area of northern California on a couple of occasions. My father was an accountant for a timber company and moved with the job. My mother was a second grade teacher for most of her working life. From kindergarten through 5th grade I was in school in Humboldt County, and then we moved back east, driving across country in our Ford Station Wagon, with me in the worst seat — the one that faced backwards because I was the youngest. I attended school in Carolina from 6th grade thru 10th and then we moved back again and for my final two years I went to South Fork High, from where I graduated in 1979.”
Although he was a country boy, Tom was never a hunter. “When we lived in Carolina in the seventies, we had a working ranch and I helped with the milking of the cows, the hay-gathering, raising chickens, and collecting honey from our bees, but I never wanted to hunt. When I was only in 6th grade I joined the local high school’s marching band — as the tuba player. I loved being in that band and still enjoy playing the tuba to this day — I will be playing in the Willits Marching Band for the third year at the Willits 4th of July Parade next month. At one point I stopped playing for about 25 years but have gone back to it and discovered it’s like riding a bike. Having said that my family did not enjoy my first month of re-learning and did not want to be at home. I say that with humor but there is an edge of truth.
At school, I was just an average student despite a good GPA of 3.7 — that just showed that the school was very easy. I enjoyed civics and history, particularly the Civil War, and there was lots of history on that subject in North Carolina, the Tar Heel State, so called because the soldiers there stood their ground in battle as if their feet were stuck in tar. The Civil War was about State’s rights, as are many issues facing us today — marijuana for example, which is something I deal with extensively every single day.”
Most of Tom’s leisure time in Carolina was taken up with his farm duties and the band, which reached the National Championships in Washington DC and came in second. “The band was an all-year round activity but when we moved back to California and I went to South Fork High in Miranda, north of Garberville, I stopped playing. It was nowhere near the same level that I’d been used to. I always wanted to see if I could make a difference, a change in something, so I entered and won the election for Student Body President. I guess I was popular but my plan to show a movie every Friday afternoon in the school cafeteria was certainly a big vote getter! I was a very social kid and spent lots of time at school, even when school was over for the day as my siblings had all moved out and I was the only kid still at home. My Dad bought the local liquor store and Mom was the 2nd grade teacher, and both were very busy. I volunteered for the Volunteer Fire Fighters for my last two summers at high school, and following graduation in 1979, I worked for the CDF (California Department of Forestry, now Cal Fire) in Thorn, southern California outside San Bernardino. In January 1980, I returned north and went to Chico State and that summer worked in Garberville as a firefighter once again. It was there that the Chief, Chris Christenson, told me that if I ever smoked marijuana I would never be a firefighter anywhere. Many of my friends smoked. It was what California kids did, but he scared me to death with that threat and I never did.”
In 1981 Tom enrolled at the Fire Academy at the Butte Community College in Oroville, not far from Chico, intending to pursue a firefighting career. It was not to be. “I was at a bar-b-q and spoke to my girlfriend’s brother who was a police officer in Fairfield, in the north east of the Bay Area. He invited me on a drive-along in a patrol car and I found it fascinating. I particularly remember dealing with a situation where an elderly lady had been physically assaulted. As soon as she saw the police arrive in their uniform, she relaxed. She knew that the police arriving meant that she was safe and that all would be well. That really stuck in my mind — that cops could make a big difference in terms of making people feel secure. I decided to sign up and became a Public Safety Officer (PSO), an unarmed position with duties as a firefighter too. That was the ultimate, I thought — basic police work with the exciting firefighting too — a great job. Although I never went back to the firefighting I have great respect for those guys. They are inactive for about 90% of the time and then for the other 10% it’s ‘Wow!’”
Fairfield ended up hiring three PSOs soon afterwards and Tom was one of them, entering the Police Academy for a 14-week program, before being hired by Fairfield as a police officer in 1982. He stayed for three-and-a-half years, during which time he married northern California girl Laura, in 1984. However, in 1985, with his father in poor health, Tom applied for a job closer to his family home and was hired by Mendocino Sheriff Tim Shea to be the resident Deputy in Laytonville, where he worked for two years, his father passing in 1987. “That job was very comfortable. I once went seven days without a call and my backgammon game was never better! Those days are long gone of course. I moved on to the Narcotics Task Force which was County-wide before settling in Willits, where we still live, and becoming Deputy Sheriff there in 1990.”
By the early 90s, police work in the county had changed. With the introduction of a new computer system in 1991, tracking crime and the workload greatly increased. In 1993, Sheriff Tuso promoted Tom to Patrol Sergeant. “That is the best job in law enforcement. Whether it’s before you become one or after you’ve been one, you always dream about doing things differently, the way you could if only you were a patrol sergeant. I was there for three years at which time Sheriff Tuso made me the Sergeant in Internal Affairs. Now that will ruin your social life and I was no doubt taken off many Christmas Card lists! No, I should stress that we were very careful to make sure everyone was treated fairly. They are innocent until proven guilty and we were always very fair with the men. You must have an unbiased opinion, don’t let it linger, and in the end there should be no bad feelings.”
Tom was Internal Affairs for two years before, in 1998, he became acting Lieutenant in Willits and was back to patrol again. “That was great, for a time. Then one day I noticed a flyer on the bulletin board that was from the US Department of State asking for 400 police officers, nationwide, to become civilian peacekeepers in Kosovo, a southern region of Yugoslavia being fought over by the ruling Serbs and the majority Albanians who wanted their autonomy. I found this very interesting and, being in my late 30s, I refer to how it became my ‘mid-life crisis’.”
“That day I called Laura at work to ask her to join me for lunch. She only worked 100 yards away where she was a bank manager but despite that we were always so busy we never got together for lunch. She immediately said ‘Oh, my God, what happened?’ We met up and I showed her the memo and she said, ‘I think I’ll be paying for my own lunch today.’ By that time we had two young children — Adam who was eight and Josh six, and the house was in the middle of being remodeled. I still wanted to go. Laura and I decided that for that to be acceptable, four conditions would have to be met — then-Sheriff Craver would have to agree to my one-year absence; my Mother and In-laws would have to agree; the boys would too; and the new baseboards would have to be done before I left! Well, the Sheriff said ‘Do it’; my mother was fine, Laura’s parents agreed, but only after we had called them telling them we had something to tell them and they drove eight hours to see us, thinking we were going to announce our divorce; the boys were fine with it; and the baseboards would be done. I had the whole immediate family together and any one of them could have vetoed it. I did not want anyone to say later that they had told me not to go.”
“In a weird way there was a sense of ‘romance’ to this — building democracy in another country; to make a difference, something I had always thought was the main reason for me being in law enforcement. It just really interested me and fortunately nobody said ‘no’.”
Tom applied and the US government flew several thousand applicants to Fort Worth, Texas for testing — physical, psychological, firearms, etc. The 400 were asked to stay on and took further examinations and given lessons in the history of the Balkan region and knowledge of the etiquette and customs that were necessary to fit in there. Tom was one of those.
On October 21st, 1999, the peacekeepers were flown to Macedonia under the impression that they would be training the local police officers. “They had not even hired any at that point. We were the police for the whole 12 months there, although after six months they did get some of their own. I rented an apartment from some Albanians for four months then from Serbs for the remaining eight months. I worked mainly with the Brits and became friendly with their commander, a Brigadier General who had vacationed in Napa. In fact, when I returned home for a brief break, I picked up some Mendocino wine and took it back for him. He was a very good leader. Every day at precisely 5”30pm, there was ‘The Bird Table’ — a meeting at which 50 people had to give him their daily report, all of them in 20 minutes. There could be no fluff; it had to be quick and concise. I was the only non-Brit and the main liaison between the British military and the civilian police and had to give a report too. On one occasion in late July 2000, he announced that a Captain’s promotion to Major would be retroactive to a few weeks earlier — back to July 4th. I commented, ‘Will you guys quit giving us a reason to celebrate that date?’ He burst into laughter. We got on very well and he is now a Major General and in charge of NATO forces in Germany.”
In October 2000, Tom’s tour ended and he returned to his job as Lieutenant in Mendocino. “I returned in time for the presidential election fiasco that year. Ironically we had just presided over a very successful election process in Kosovo and here in the US ours was decided by the courts in DC. Anyway, I got right back in the saddle and while I did not want to go back a second time, I would certainly do it that first time again. My time in Kosovo changed my perspective in that I saw so many people who were happy, and who basically had nothing. The experience changed my life; it gave me a sense of proportion and gave more meaning to my existence, too. I learned that the absolute primary responsibility of law enforcement has to be focused where the people are the victims; all other crimes come after that... There were some terrible atrocities committed by the Serbian police and army — basically the same people. They threw people down wells — contaminating the water for years; created mass graves; committed widespread rape; took down street signs to cause maximum disruption and chaos; etc. There remains so much hatred between the two groups. One day I was sitting with a Serbian friend having lunch — goat cheese, hard-boiled egg, thick sliced bread, the usual meal, when an Albania interpreter I knew approached us. I introduced them and they greeted with handshakes. The next day the Albanian came to me and said, ‘Do not ever make me shake hands with a Serb again — I will kill you.’ He meant it and I had to fire him.”
Tom settled back into his job here in Mendocino County but was still prepared to travel if necessary. Following Hurricane Katrina he went to New Orleans as a paid volunteer for three weeks to protect a couple of hospitals from looting. Then, in March 2006, he volunteered with members of the Rotary Club and they went to southern India to help clear up the mess left by the devastating tsunami a few months earlier and, helped by the $10,000 that he and others raised in Willits and Ukiah, the group built an orphanage. This interrupted his run for Sheriff but on his return he campaigned seriously and it was a success. He became County Sheriff in November 2006. “I have always worked for good sheriffs. I had tried to learn their good qualities and wanted to give it a shot. Laura and I agreed that I would do a maximum of two terms and I won re-election in 2010. However, just a week or so ago, I reminded her of this and said that I sure would like to be Sheriff when the budget was not the primary topic of the job. This, along with marijuana and the issues confronting us in Covelo, take up about 80% of my time. They are each very important obviously. Anyway, Laura and I agreed that a third term was an option. Perhaps at that point my job would be less about the budget and money talk and marijuana, and I’d get to concentrate on the problems of domestic violence and methamphetamine use.”
“I try to wear my uniform every day; I drive around in a marked patrol car, and walk through the jail twice a week. I am very aware that not everyone in jail is a bad person. I like to think I’m still involved at the street level, know the trends, and keep in touch with the big investigations. I have also learned that in this job, the phrase ‘God laughs at those people who make plans’ is very appropriate. It is hard to make plans with situations and priorities changing daily. Luckily, we have a core group here in the department who have been here a long time . That is my most valuable asset in many ways.”
Away from work Tom dabbles in a couple of hobbies (see below) and he does like to travel — to England particularly where he has been several times. “I have a friend who is Major in the British army over there and he comes here to see us too. I am the godfather to his son. Both Laura and I are so busy and always have been it seems. However, I feel like I am very lucky. I have a great job, I love it and feel I have some say in the County’s destiny, planning for a decent future.”
I asked Tom for his thoughts on various issues that are often discussed by many Valley folks.
The wineries and their impact? “Obviously from the economic point of view they are very good because of the employment they offer and the tax revenue they bring in. Unfortunately drunk driving has to be dealt with and their impact on water supplies and the use of fertilizers is a work in progress.”
The AVA? “Before editor Bruce Anderson went to Oregon he seemed to have an axe to grind but that no longer seems to be the case since his return. He told me that if I see something in the paper that is incorrect, I should notify him immediately and he will correct it. I have told him many things in confidence and they have always remained confidential. I am thrilled to see ‘major contributor’ Mark Scaramella involved with the re-districting for the County, where common sense must reign. Finally on this, let me just say you cannot out bullshit a bullshitter so I never try.”
Law and order in the Valley? “One of the best groups we deal with is the valley’s Community Action Coalition. They e-mail when things are not good and I love that. I am very satisfied with what the two resident deputies there are doing — Keith Squires and Craig Walker. We make great efforts to ensure that our resident deputies fit in where they work, that they are ‘the right hand for the right glove,’ and it is no coincidence that Craig Walker has settled so well and is doing such a good job in Anderson Valley.”
And his thoughts on Marijuana, a big part of his terms in office so far? “If I found the genie in the bottle, I would have just one wish and it would not be for lots of money. It would to please have consistent marijuana laws in California for all 58 counties. This is our biggest problem. The three C’s need to know the laws and be on the same page — the Citizens, the Courts, and the Cops. I get calls from deputies in the field and sometimes I really am not sure exactly what the answer to their valid questions might be. Coming from a conservative family, I never thought I would be advocating for the rights of legitimate medical marijuana patients but in 2005, a very good friend of mine spilled the beans and told me he used marijuana for health reasons, and now I do advocate for those rights, as long as they are legitimate. My time in Kosovo also had something to do with this change in me too. My role is not to legalize medical marijuana but to link people who want to talk about it. More and more, people want to talk. It used to be they whispered when pot was the subject. Then, they began to speak in a normal tone of voice. In the last few years, they’ve been shouting. I think history will judge us favorably and that future historians will say that opting for legal medical marijuana was the right road to take. So let’s get that consistency and get marijuana off the front page. That is my line by the way, not the DA’s. And I can’t think of a better legacy.”
At this moment the phone ringing interrupted the interview and Tom answered the call. It was a neighbor of District Attorney David Eyster. The man asked if Tom would call the DA and let Mr. Eyster know that his garage door at his home was open. Tom did so and then turned to me and asked, “Where else would a Sheriff get a call like that?” as he chuckled loudly.
I posed a few questions to my guest. Some are from a questionnaire featured on television’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton” and the rest I have added over time.
What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “When things go together; when plans work.”
What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “Incompetence.”
Sound or noise you love? “A marching band.”
Sound or noise you hate? “A surprising gunshot.”
Favorite food or meal? “BBQ chicken pizza at Willits’ House of Pizza. That is the bomb.”
If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that person be? “Either George Washington or John Lennon.”
If you were sitting at home and a fire broke out in the building, what three things would you make sure you took with you? “The last Christmas card from my father; the latest family photograph, my wife and her dog.”
Favorite film, or one that has influenced you? “That would be ‘The Untouchables’ (and Tom pointed out a framed poster for that film on his office wall). I like the Sean Connery character — the cop; not the Kevin Costner federal agent.”
Favorite hobby? “I don’t have much time for hobbies, working over 60 hours a week. My latest interest would be making pens on a lathe. I also enjoy welding, or raising chickens.”
Do you subscribe to any publications or newspapers? “The AVA; the Ukiah Daily Journal; the NRA — I am a member although I have never been a hunter, as I mentioned. I love humor and get the Reader’s Digest for the jokes. I guess I need to get a life, eh?
What scares you? “Other than electricity, I do not like horror movies. Not scared as such — we get scared enough at work. I just do not enjoy them. Laura loves them though.”
Is there something you would do differently if you could do it over again? “I don’t live with any serious regrets. But when I was young, just out of high school, perhaps I would have really enjoyed four years in the Coast Guard.”
What profession other than your own would you like to have attempted if you were given the chance to do anything? “I would love to have been a diplomat for the State Department.”
What profession would you not like to do? “A waiter — that seems like very hard work.”
Where would you like to visit if you could go anywhere in the world? “The islands of Fiji in the Pacific.”
Tell me about a memorable moment; a time you will never forget. “March 27th, 2009 — Sipping a gin and tonic at Buckingham Palace in London as I watched the Changing of the Guard from the balcony of the Queen’s Birthday Room. A friend of mine, the major in the British army I mentioned earlier, had a good friend who was the Queen’s Equerry or personal assistant, and he set the whole visit up. They asked me if I’d like a drink and without asking what I’d like I was given the gin and tonic. It crossed my mind to ‘borrow’ the glass but they were watching me, I’m sure!”
What is something that you are really proud of and why? “My two sons, Adam and Josh, now 20 and 18. I am very proud of them. They both work here in Ukiah, one is a lineman, the other a welder.”
What is your favorite thing about yourself? “That I enjoy meeting people for the first time.”
Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “Well, I hope it’s not — ‘Oh, you again..Didn’t St. Peter get the memo?’ I guess something like ‘It started off kind of rough with you; but I like the way you finished.’ That would be good.” ¥¥
(To read the ‘stories’ of other Valley Folk, visit the archives at www.avalleylife.wordpress.com. Next week the guest interviewee from the Valley will be to be announced.)