Three Deaths In County Jail Loom Over Albany County Sheriff’s Race

Whichever candidate wins the election for Wyomings Albany County Sheriff will face a tall order of continuing to reform the sheriffs office and rebuilding its reputation with the public.

Mark Heinz

November 01, 20226 min read

Aaron Applehans and Joel Senior 11 1 22
(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

No matter which candidate wins the election for Albany County Sheriff on Nov. 8, he’ll face a tough task of continuing to rebuild public trust in the sheriff’s office. 

Sheriff Aaron Appelhans, a Democrat, said he walked into an office that was essentially in shambles when he was appointed to the office about two years ago, but he’s on track to reform it. 

His Republican challenger, Joel Senior, said the office is still lagging too much in public trust and performance, and he has the right ideas to fix it.

Jail Deaths

Perhaps the highest-profile issue in the buildup to the election is three deaths in the Albany County Jail during Appelhans’ tenure. 

Senior told Cowboy State Daily that the deaths, which he said were two suicides and a fentanyl overdose, are evidence that the Albany County Sheriff’s Office needs new leadership and broader reforms. 

Appelhans claims the cases were handled according to protocol and necessary reforms are happening. Each death case was immediately handed over to the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation, Appelhans said in a press release, noting that the deaths had been brought up in a recent election debate with Senior. 

The sheriff’s office has since purchased a body scanner to better detect fentanyl pills inmates are attempting to smuggle into the jail and deputies are receiving more extensive body search training, Appelhans told Cowboy State Daily. 

Experience with LPD, UWPD

Each candidate comes with a strong law enforcement background. 

Senior grew up in Saratoga and joined the Laramie Police Department in 2001. During his 19-year tenure with the LPD, he served as a training officer, child abuse investigator, detective, background investigator and leader of the department’s SWAT team. 

He now works as a criminal investigator for the Wyoming Livestock Board. 

Appelhans was born in Denver and moved to Laramie in 1999. He joined the University of Wyoming Police Department in 2010. He served as a patrol officer, detective, command sergeant and a crime prevention and security specialist. He was appointed county sheriff in December 2020 after the previous sheriff, Dave O’Malley, retired under public pressure. 

Shooting Caused Rift With Public

The sheriff’s office’s recent troubles began with the fatal shooting of Laramie resident Robbie Ramirez by then-deputy Derek Colling in November 2018.

A grand jury later cleared Colling of any wrongdoing in the shooting. But there was a strong public perception that Colling was in the wrong for using deadly force during a struggle with Ramirez, who suffered from mental illness. 

O’Malley was widely criticized for hiring Colling, who came with a history of alleged excessive use of force, including a previous fatal shooting of a suspect in another jurisdiction.

A wrongful death lawsuit filed by Ramirez’s mother, Debra Hinkel, was settled out of court and Colling resigned as a deputy. 

Appelhans and Senior both said they want sheriff’s deputies to receive better training in dealing with mentally ill residents and in how to defuse tense situations. 

A Troubled Office

Appelhans said that we he took over the sheriff’s office, it was still facing litigation from the Ramirez shooting, as well as a lawsuit stemming from allegations of discrimination based on sexual orientation. 

The office’s budget also was $160,000 in the red, he said. That’s because the previous administration had receive that same amount in one-time federal funding to boost salaries for deputies, but hadn’t made up for it during following few budget years. 

Appelhans said he’s since balanced the office’s budget and helped create a roughly $2.8 million surplus. That in turn has helped boost the base starting salary for deputies from $43,000 to $50,000.

There also are yearly raises for deputies, which should help with recruitment and retention, Appelhans said. The sheriff’s office is budgeted for 46 deputies and now has 44. 

A Culture Change

Appelhans said he’s also worked on changing the office’s culture, taking such steps as training deputies how to better interact with the public, as well as hiring more women and deputies from diverse backgrounds. 

“Our department should better reflect the community,” he said. “We are a more welcoming office.”

Looking forward, Appelhans said he wants to continue gaining ground against fentanyl abuse, which Senior agreed is a major problem facing the county. 

Appelhans said he also wants to work with the state highway department, the county road department and other agencies to curb traffic fatalities. 

Of 10 highway deaths in Wyoming last month, three were in Albany County, he said. 

“Three of 10 fatalities is a lot. Even one is a lot,” he said. 

Much Reform Needed

While Appelhans touted his accomplishments so far and said he wants to finish what he started, Senior said the sheriff’s office remains lacking and needs more leadership. 

“They’ve just been a foster home for wayward law enforcement,” he said. “I want our deputies to be better trained.”

The sheriff’s office needs better training in community engagement, use of force and emergency vehicle operation, he said, noting that he has plans to tackle all of those matters promptly if elected. 

As it is, the loss of the public’s trust in the sheriff’s office is too great for the force to effectively meet the county’s current and looming crime problems, he said. 

In addition to responding to the area’s drug problem, Senior said he’d also put more resources into investigating internet crimes against children, which is another rapidly growing threat. 

He also criticized the sheriff’s office for providing shoddy responses to more routine matters, such as dealing with abandoned vehicles or promptly providing vehicle identification number (VIN) inspections for newly bought vehicles and trailers. 

Appelhans insisted his office has kept up with VIN inspections.

First Black Sheriff

Appelhans’ appointment made him Wyoming’s first black sheriff, and if he wins on Nov. 8, he’ll become the state’s first elected black sheriff. 

“It’s a huge opportunity to take that step and be the first, but it’s a huge responsibility as well,” he said. “I want to make sure I hold that door open behind me for others to have those opportunities.”

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Mark Heinz

Outdoors Reporter