Sheriff Jimmy Thornton’s cell phone number isn’t exactly a secret. Plenty of people have it and use it liberally. When he doesn’t answer, he returns his messages. No receptionist; no red tape.
Thornton likes to get things done, and doesn’t appreciate getting the run-around when he has a question or concern. He tries to accommodate those who reach out to him, whether it is an inmate’s family member, a citizen with a pressing issue or just someone wishing to vent about an arrest, incident, neighbor or anything under the sun.
If it is important to them, it becomes important to Thornton.
“Anyone that has ever called me, I talk to,” he said. “If you call me with a concern, I’m going to do my best to deal with it. I give the time it takes to solve a problem. I dare say there’s plenty out there just like me. I’m all about protecting the people of this county.”
Thornton has served as sheriff for 15 years, since his election in 2002. Last week, he announced he would be seeking his fifth term in 2018. When he first ran, his campaign revolved around three main objectives — build a new jail, increase drug enforcement and implement a renewed attack on domestic violence.
Those promises have been kept, he attested.
A new 252-bed Detention Center was opened a decade ago, taking the place of an old run-down structure in the downtown that has was condemned and razed. The $11 million state-of-the-art facility now houses inmates from here and other counties in a clean environment, while generating over $13 million — well over $1 million annually — to be put in county coffers to offset operational costs, according to figures provided by the Sheriff’s Office.
A grant from the Governor’s Crime Commission aided the establishment of a domestic violence unit, one that Thornton said is now used as a model for other agencies. Those agencies send their officers to Sampson to get trained.
In the early 2000s, Sampson’s drug unit was the subject of a major corruption investigation. Not only was it turned around through a reorganization, a Criminal Interdiction Team was installed and gang officers added. That renewed drug enforcement in recent years, headed by the Special Investigations Division (SID), has coordinated efforts that have led to the Sheriff’s Office joining several task forces and having officers sworn through the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF),
Recently, Sampson’s SID agents were recognized by the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina and awarded the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces 2017 Case of the Year for its work on a joint investigation spanning eight years that ultimately took down the leader of a trafficking operation responsible for distributing billions of dollars worth of drugs between four different states.
The sheriff said that commendation “speaks volumes” for Sampson County and its drug enforcement, calling the honor “huge.”
And that massive drug probe all started with a phone call back in 2009 about drug activity in Sampson County, just like the ones Thornton gets on a daily basis to his cell phone.
“There’s not a day that passes that someone doesn’t call me about drug activity going on,” the sheriff stated. “We check them all out. That’s benefited us 10-fold. The people like seeing us make these drug arrests. They have children or grandchildren impacted by it.”
Whether meth manufacturing, opioid abuse or the trafficking of marijuana, cocaine and heroin, there are so many things to worry about from a drug enforcement perspective, Thornton noted. Drug activity, abuse and addiction leads to every other type of crime, said Thornton, estimating that drug and alcohol abuse are the driving force behind 85 percent of crime.
“This drug culture that is out there is epidemic,” Thornton continued. “I’m not trying to scare people, but that is just the reality.”
Sampson County is not unique in that regard. That is the case in many towns, counties and other states, Thornton is quick to add.
“We can have a drug officer on every corner of the 962 square miles we have in this county, and you would never be adequately able to deal with everything going on,” said Thornton. “We have to stay ahead as much as we can. I think we do a good job. Nobody’s stopped calling me.”
Thornton said there are plenty of others within the Sampson County Sheriff’s Office who regularly get calls about criminal activity due to the rapport built with citizens and the network established in the agency. Those calls don’t just mean more safety for Sampsonians, but can translate to drug dealers footing the bill for county costs.
Seized asset funds over the years total approximately $1.5 million, the spoils of various drug seizures once the process is complete and cases are adjudicated. Over the years, that money has purchased sheriff’s vehicles, K-9s, pistols, equipment, tactical gear and been utilized to match grants for drug, traffic and gang enforcement.
“I don’t try to gouge the taxpayers and never will,” the sheriff said, crediting the Sampson County Board of Commissioners for their assistance over the years. “You give me the money and I’ll be a good steward.”
Thornton said he believes the Sheriff’s Office has established itself as a reputable agency in his tenure, and said he is humbled by the confidence of the citizens and the hard work of the men and women who are in his charge.
“I certainly feel like there is a lot of credibility and trust in us. I believe in what we do and using the resources it takes to do the job,” said Thornton. “It certainly has been a pleasure being sheriff, knowing that you are able to help somebody. I’m dead-focused on making lives better for the people of this county and I will not deviate from that.”
Reach Managing Editor Chris Berendt at 910-249-4616. Follow the paper on twitter @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.