Although Friday was Jon Lopey’s final day as sheriff of Siskiyou County, his passion for law enforcement remains strong.
Before starting a sentimental last shift, he had time to pull over a speeder as he drove to the sheriff’s office in Yreka from his home outside Mount Shasta.
Good thing Lopey was in a forgiving mood. “I gave him a verbal warning,” he said.
“This is kind of an emotional time for me,” Lopey said. “I’m turning over my badge today and yes, I’ll be a retired peace officer in good standing but it’s different.
“I made a stop on the way to work this morning and well, this is the last day I’ll do stops. This is the last day I’ll wear the uniform of the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office,” he said.
In a nearly hourlong interview, Lopey reflected on his 43 years in law enforcement with about 10 of those years as the Siskiyou sheriff-coroner. He touched on his impressive military career and spoke about some regrets as he leaves office.
Lopey wants to spend more time with wife Maxine and his family, including grandkids, and will volunteer to benefit youths and veterans.
Maybe not so surprising is Lopey’s return to law enforcement. He’s not done wearing a uniform as he’s taking training toward certification to become a part-time reserve officer with the Los Angeles Police Department.
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His plan is to work several days a month on the streets of Hollenback next to East Los Angeles, where in 1977 he started his California Highway Patrol career. He’d eventually like to get into narcotics work.
“Because of my age, I figure I can still try and contribute,” said Lopey, who turned 66 last month.
Lopey has great admiration for the L.A. police department and still plans to keep his primary residence near Mount Shasta.
He has some apprehension about leaving the sheriff’s office because he said he loves law enforcement, the staff he works with and the people in Siskiyou County.
“I just reached a point where I think it’s time to go,” he said. He’s about halfway through his third term as the county’s top lawman.
He’s recommending to the county Board of Supervisors that Undersheriff Karl Houtman take his place. “He’s by far the best qualified law enforcement, administrator leader to assume the sheriff’s position until an election is held a couple years down the road,” Lopey said.
Lopey said that while law enforcement is a fun job, “not all of it is fun.”
Looking back, Lopey has been through a lot since winning three elections.
“We’ve had a lot of fire. We’ve had floods. Obviously we’ve had an upsurge in crime. We’ve had an influx of illicit marijuana cultivators. We’ve had officer-involved shootings. We’ve had a lot of things happen here,” he said.
He was there when the Boles Fire ripped through Weed in September 2014 and destroyed 165 buildings. He attended community meetings to reassure residents when the 46,150-acre Hirz Fire came dangerously close to Dunsmuir in August 2018.
Twelve days after he announced his retirement, the more than 143,000-acre Slater Fire hit the Happy Camp community, forcing evacuations and killing two people.
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Lopey said he’s leaving at a time when law enforcement is going through trying times and has suffered.
“Law enforcement is going through a very difficult era right now. Law enforcement no doubt nationally — we’re under attack,” he said.
On June 3, Lopey posted a passionate essay on Facebook where he described George Floyd’s death as “senseless.”
The tragedy prompted Lopey to re-evaluate policies at the sheriff’s office “to determine if there is anything we can do better.”
He believes law enforcement will come out better and stronger after the national Floyd experience.
“This is a time when we have to band together, be professional and we have to continually try to improve law enforcement,” he said Friday.
Plenty of uniforms
While still pursuing the part-time assignment in Los Angeles, Lopey says he’s overdue for a stronger family commitment. Working 60-hour weeks as sheriff has taken a lot out of him and it’s time to put on civilian clothes.
“During the last almost 50 years, I’ve been in uniform almost continuously since I was 18 years old because I joined the Marines Corps on my 18th birthday,” he said.
Lopey started his law enforcement career as an officer with the Vacaville Police Department prior to joining the CHP. He was elected sheriff in November 2010 on the heels of a 15-month deployment mostly in Iraq.
His military career includes one year in the Philippines as a Marine during the Vietnam War, and as a soldier in the California Army National Guard, serving in Haiti and Bosnia twice, and in Afghanistan.
“Those took a real heavy toll not only on me but mostly my family,” he said.
He had combat roles with hostile fire in Haiti and Bosnia, and his time in Afghanistan was on a combat mission. All told, he’s spent 30 years as a commissioned officer. He retired in 2011 as a colonel in the Army Reserve.
Serving the community
As a veteran, Lopey says he’s made a lot of speeches at various veterans events through the years and has marched in color guard ceremonies.
A scrapbook of photos shows Lopey at many community events, from driving a military vehicle at a veteran parade in Weed to getting drenched at a dunk tank during fair time.
One of his accomplishments is the formation of Lopey Foundation with a board of directors, which ended a year ago.
He had retired as an assistant CHP chief in Mount Shasta when he became sheriff and volunteered to make pay concessions.
“I didn’t need another retirement so what I did with the sheriff’s office and the county of Siskiyou is I waived retirement,” he said.
He also skipped the medical benefits, saving the county about $60,000 a year.
He put some of his salary into the foundation and with help from others, distributed about $1 million toward activities for youths and the elderly, veterans and chaplain services.
Some of the contributions paid for department Christmas parties and aided the Living Memorial Sculpture Garden off Highway 97. Money also went to a fallen heroes memorial for first responders and the military that’s being built at the northbound I-5 Weed rest area.
Cold cases weigh heavy
One of Lopey’s disappointments is not being able to solve more cold cases.
A Hornbrook man was arrested in Lopey’s first year in office from a 1989 case when 19-year-old Kimberly Kantonen was shot and killed.
Lopey is still haunted by the 1997 disappearances of Hannah Zaccaglini, 15, and Karin Mero, 27, from the McCloud area.
“I’m in the American Legion in McCloud and every time I go to McCloud I think about Hannah Zaccaglini and Karin Mero,” he said.
The death of 56-year-old Patricia Joseph of Fort Jones, whose body was found in July 2005 in the Klamath River, and the disappearance of 34-year-old Mount Shasta woman Angie Fullmer, who disappeared from the Lake Siskiyou area in December 2002, are other unresolved cases.
“I have a passion for solving cold cases,” Lopey said. “This is one of my biggest regrets — we did not solve these cases,” he said.
Lopey said investigators aren’t giving up and he’s confident they’ll be solved.
Drug enforcement a priority
Lopey takes a hard line on drugs and didn’t like the state disbanding a drug task force last year.
He says Siskiyou County does a good job uncovering illegal pot sites but stresses the county has a widespread problem with methamphetamine, cocaine and opioids.
“What a lot of people don’t realize is we’re a major, million-dollar hub of illicit drug trafficking for points east,” he said.
Other states are making highway busts with drugs that originate in the county.
Lopey says there are 2,400 illegal marijuana grows in Siskiyou that are ravaging the land with chemicals and causing other environmental damage.
He figures the illegal grows require 3 million to 4 million gallons of water every day. “Our aquifers in the county are getting sucked dry,” he said.
County, state and federal agents have seized 100,000 illegal marijuana plants this year. “For people to say it’s not a problem — it is a problem,” Lopey said.
Retirement plans and last day
Lopey should be busy enough spending time with family and his part-time police role, but he has other pursuits.
Lopey says he’s an amateur military historian and wants to write a book on the topic. He’s already authored an article for an infantry magazine about Glenn Hall, a tribal member of the Shasta Nation and highly decorated Korean War veteran who was killed in action.
“I like history and if we don’t remember it, we’re doomed to repeat it,” Lopey said.
Lopey was busy Friday taking calls and texts from friends and fellow county sheriffs elsewhere in the state.
He didn’t want a going-way celebration at the office due to concerns over a COVID-19 gathering. He said a get-together may happen later when the virus isn’t as much a concern.
Friday was another big occasion in the Lopey household. He and Maxine celebrated 30 years of marriage and Lopey said they’ll go out for a special dinner when he gets home.
Despite Lopey’s law enforcement and military careers, he’ll look back on his time as sheriff as the best.
“There’s some trepidations and some sadness because I’m going to miss it. I already do,” Lopey said. “The highlight of my career has been working as the sheriff-coroner of Siskiyou County.”
Mike Chapman is a reporter and photographer for the Record Searchlight in Redding, Calif. His newspaper career spans Yreka and Eureka in Northern California and Bellingham, Wash. Follow him on Twitter @mikechapman_RS. Subscribe today!