New sheriff to monitor secretive group

Rapid City Journal/June 24, 2006
By Ryan Woodard

Custer - Although the FBI hasn’t received any new tips about Warren Jeffs — the fugitive leader of a polygamist group linked to a group living near Pringle — Custer County’s sheriff-elect said he will be watching the situation closely when he gets into office in January.

“What I would like to do is keep in contact with people in the immediate area and touch base with law enforcement in the areas where colonies are set up,” said Rick Wheeler, who defeated incumbent Phil Hespen in the June 6 primary to become Custer’s new sheriff.

Wheeler said he doesn’t know if a direct confrontation would be the best tactic.

“There’s ways of getting in there,” he said. “I think we should probably try to avoid that right now. I know the FBI is working hard. My goal is to keep in touch with those guys and work with them as much as I can.”

Bob Perry, director of the Rapid City FBI office, said there is no “actionable” information that would lead authorities to Jeffs.

“We don’t have any information he lives there,” Perry said.

Jeffs, 51, is the leader of the Hildale, Utah-based Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which practices polygamy.

Jeffs is wanted on a federal charge of unlawful flight to avoid prosecution on an Arizona charge that he arranged for a 16-year-old girl to enter a plural marriage with an older man. He also faces two first-degree felony charges in Utah of rape as an accomplice, both of which carry a maximum penalty of life in prison upon conviction.

In addition to keeping tabs on the secretive compound southwest of Pringle, sheriff-elect Wheeler said, he would like to revive the sheriff’s reserve program in Custer County.

Wheeler said he hopes to bring change for the Custer County voters who elected him.

Wheeler said he will take his time to think about a plan before January, when he takes office.

“It’s a little fresh,” Wheeler said. “I’ll have to see how things will go. I have some ideas, but I don’t have them all figured out yet.”

However, Wheeler says he plans to station a full-time deputy in Hermosa to serve the rapidly developing area there.

Wheeler was the only challenger to oust an incumbent sheriff in the five Republican primaries in Black Hills counties on June 6.

The incumbent sheriffs won their primaries in Meade, Fall River, Butte and Lawrence counties. Butte County Sheriff Fred Lamphere is the only sheriff who will face a challenge in November. He will face J.D. Peppmeier of Belle Fourche, who filed as an independent affiliated with the Republican Party.

Sheriffs in the other three counties will resume their terms unopposed. Pennington County Sheriff Don Holloway did not face opposition in the primary.

Wheeler, 52, said he has 12 years of experience in law enforcement with the Custer, Shannon and Fall River county sheriff’s offices. Wheeler owns French Creek Supply, but he also works as a Shannon County deputy and for the Fall River County State’s Attorney’s Office.

Wheeler said he is confident that he can handle the job, despite not being as experienced as some other law enforcement officials.

“I’m a straight shooter. I think (I’ll) do a good job,” he said.

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