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Undersheriff takes job with state council

perry johnson2By Michael Howell


Ravalli County Undersheriff Perry Johnson is resigning from his 27-year tenure with the Ravalli County Sheriff’s Office to take a job as Executive Director of the Public Safety Officer Standards and Training (POST) Council in Helena.

The POST Council is an independent quasi-judicial board that was formed in 2007. The Council is required by law to set employment and training standards for all public safety officers and provide for the certification or recertification of public safety officers as well as for the suspension or revocation of certification of public safety officers.

In an interview with the press last Friday, Johnson took questions about his career and his career move with Sheriff Chris Hoffman sitting at his side.

Hoffman called the move “a bittersweet thing for us, losing a friend and a partner.” He expressed excitement about the move in relation to his longtime associate’s career advancement and said that he was sure that his office and Ravalli County were going to benefit from the move.

“This job will have an impact on law enforcement across the state,” said Hoffman, “but it will impact Ravalli County, too.” He said certification of officers at various levels was crucial in working towards career advancement and every police department was interested in that. He said the POST council was also crucial in dealing with officers who do not live up to standards and need to be de-certified. Also something every police office in the state is interested in.

Johnson said that Montana and the Bitterroot Valley have been very good to him.

“I came to Montana with nothing but a truck and a saddle,” said Johnson. He said he ended up with a “wonderful Montana girl for a wife and a wonderful career,” even if it was a bit varied at first. He started out working at Purdue Furniture in Stevensville. Then he did some construction work and re-modeling.

“I roughnecked, bartended, cowboyed, and drove truck,” said Johnson.

Then, in 1986, he saw an ad in the newspaper for a position as Sheriff’s Deputy at the County. Sheriff Dale Dye hired him although, according to Johnson, he expressed a little concern that Johnson didn’t seem to be able to hold down a job for very long.

Sheriff Hoffman chimed in, saying that it was actually one of Johnson’s major assets as a peace officer.

“I like that this guy had a life before coming here,” said Hoffman. He said there were very few people in the county that Johnson couldn’t talk to based on his wide experience.

“People can talk to him and that’s one of the most valuable skills for someone in law enforcement,” said Hoffman.

Except for several months off in 1993, Johnson served as a Sheriff’s Deputy from 1986 to the present time. For four of those years, he served as Sheriff.

Anyone who knows Johnson knows his deep devotion to his job and his service to the community. This dedication and the toll it took in the year 2000 led him to decline running for office for a second term. Since that time he has served as Undersheriff to Sheriff Chris Hoffman.

“I served under him when he was Sheriff and then he served under me when I became Sheriff,” said Hoffman. “There are not many people that can do that, but Johnson and I were able to do that.”

The Fires of 2000 are indelibly etched into the minds of most Bitterrooters who lived through them. With all the evacuations and other work related to the fires piled on top of their regular duties, the Sheriff’s Office was taxed to the limit. It took the job of Sheriff beyond the limits of ordinary duty. Then came the triple homicide in Florence. Friends and family began to notice the toll it was taking on Johnson, while he ignored it.

Sheriff Hoffman relates how one morning he came into the office and saw Johnson, who was obviously in need of some rest, and told him to go home and shave the other half of his face and get some rest. Johnson said his family “intervened” and got him to pull back and consider not running for Sheriff a second time. He listened to their advice.

But he also continued working and, as Undersheriff, continued to make a difference in the lives of county residents. He’s proud of a few accomplishments that happened under his tenure. He said that the work of the Ravalli County Sheriff’s Office contributed to the arrest and conviction of two serial killers.

Based on their investigation, a warrant was put out for Ron Ward for the death of a man whose body had been found in the Soft Rock area in 2000. He was arrested on that warrant in Colorado and was subsequently convicted of four murders committed within five months, one in Montana, one in Arkansas and two in California.

The investigation of a death in which a body was found where The Edge Restaurant was being built led to the arrest of Scott Kimble, who also pleaded guilty to four killings in Colorado.

Johnson also spoke about the unsolved cases in the county that still linger, some after many years.

“These cases don’t go away,” said Johnson. He said he returns to all the cold cases regularly, hoping that some new bit of information may have emerged that could break it open again.

In fact, one his last days on the job will be spent following up a possible lead in an old cold case.

In 1970, a 26-year-old University of Montana student named Dorothy Freeman was supposed to start student teaching in Hamilton. Instead, she disappeared. This weekend Johnson hopes to interview a potential witness in the case who lives out of state but agreed to an interview.

“There’s a possibility that this case could still be made,” said Johnson.

Johnson’s last day at the Sheriff’s Office will be Thursday, August 15. He starts work at the POST Council on the 19th.

Johnson said that taking on the reins of executive director at the POST Council will be made easier by the fact that the current director will remain for a month of transition.

“I’m very proud of him,” said Hoffman. “No one has given more to this community in the last 27 years than Perry.”

The public is invited to a going away cake ceremony in the elections room of the Courthouse building at 4 pm on Thursday, August 15, to celebrate Johnson’s 27 years of service and wish him well in his new position.

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