By Corey Thompson and Debbie Hall
The race for the Henry County sheriff’s Office is underway. Seeking a fourth term is the incumbent, Lane Perry and challengers Jerry Farmer and John Cassell.
Cassell and Farmer are veterans of the Sheriff’s Department and Perry’s administration.
Cassell, who boasts an extensive resume as a law enforcement officer (LEO), says he’s been working his whole career to run in this race. He graduated from Bassett High School in 1986 before joining the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. After receiving an honorable discharge, he attended Patrick Henry Community College and earned an Associate’s Degree in Administration of Justice in 1994. He then went on to join the Martinsville Sheriff’s Department and eventually the Henry County Sheriff’s Department. He received the LEO of the Year award in 2000, 2001, and 2014. “Neither of the other candidates has done as much,” said Cassell.
When he isn’t working as member of the Carillion Police Force in Roanoke, Cassell spends his free time on the campaign. He has a support group of friends, family, and community members who all lend a hand to help. He says the biggest issue facing his campaign right now is the misconception that he is related to the former sheriff, Frank Cassell – he is not. He lives in Ridgeway with his wife and three children.
As far as platforms go, Cassell and Farmer have some topics in common. They both want to strengthen the relationship with the community while steering the department into a more proactive stance on crime. The candidates have expressed concern for the lack of transparency and honesty in the current administration.
Cassell’s approach to a better bond with the community is the implementation of a community review board. The individuals that make up the board would help decide on topics such as promotions and disciplinary actions within the Sheriff’s Office. He believes it is important to change the public’s perception of the police. “With a positive relationship you can see the effect it has on [crime] numbers,” said Cassell.
Noting the high turnover rate of employees in the department, Cassell said there has been a large decrease in officers in the county. Some candidates are being trained and then leaving soon after. Cassell, if successful, plans to make changes to retain more officers. He wants to focus on recruiting the ideal candidates while fixing scheduling issues and “backing” the employees. He would like to add exit interviews to the employment process. “Knowing what your employees think when they are leaving is important.”
When it comes to the criminal issues facing the area, both candidates highlighted the biggest issue as the high number of drug related offenses and deaths. Cassell’s approach is to change the procedure of how the department deals with different offenders. He wants to see more education being taught on the subject with more treatment for users rather than punishment. He says it is important to stop the dealers and their suppliers, but some “users are just as much victims as others.”
Farmer’s approach to the drug crimes is to crack down on known hot spots for activity. He would like to spend time canvassing areas and gaining insight into the issues so that he can better direct the office on how to deal with the problem. “You have to stop the substance from getting in,” said Farmer. As a deputy, he had a lot of firsthand experience with drug overdoses so he understands the reality and severity of the opium crisis in Henry County.
This is Farmer’s second time on the ballot. He lost a 2015 bid against Perry in the 2015. But this time around, Farmer said he is “concentrating on the platform,” to right the wrongs he said he has seen in the department. For him, the biggest concern is budgeting. He says that in recent years money has been spent on things the department didn’t need, such as a new armored vehicle. He mostly disagrees with the initiative for the new jail and thinks that the funds would be better suited for hiring more resource officers for the county’s schools. If elected, Farmer plans to hire nine more officers to fill these roles. “They always seem to find money for (things) they want,” commented Farmer “but they can’t find enough to hire nine more officers to protect our kids?”
Farmer too, has gained insight into the current administration through years of service to the Henry County Sheriff’s Office. He joined the force in 1995. Before that he attended Lord Botetourt High School and graduated in 1988 and then served the Army for four years. After an honorable discharge, he went on to become a member of the Virginia National Guard’s 19th Infantry division in Rocky Mount. He attended Patrick Henry Community College, the New River Criminal Justice Academy, and the Virginia Department of Corrections Academy.
While working for the department, Farmer served as a correctional officer, road officer, road supervisor, vice investigator, criminal investigator, and school resource officer. He was also a member of the search-and –rescue team, lead the Crimes Against Children Task Force, and received the Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) Award in 2000. After leaving the Henry County Sheriff’s Department, he went on to work at the Department of Corrections. He then moved to the Blue Ridge Jail Authority.
He is currently retired and lives with his family in Ridgeway. He and his wife have one teenaged son, however the couple served as foster parents for troubled youth for several years. He says they are currently taking time off from fostering but intend to return to it. “We love it and we still have connections and close relationships with some of the kids,” said Farmer.
Overall, he is very confident in his campaign. He would like the public to know that his website is currently being constructed but urges everyone to visit his Facebook page in the meantime. He feels he is bringing attention to the issues and that’s all he can hope for, he said. Farmer and Cassell both expressed their belief that the people of Henry County are looking for a change.
Perry was appointed interim sheriff in 2006, after then sheriff H. Frank Cassell, several in his department and some residents were indicted in a round of federal charges. Perry won the race in 2007 and then again in 2011 and 2015.
Noting that the office “came out from under some very difficult circumstances” at the onset, Perry said he and his staff have worked to ensure professional and ethical standards were met or exceeded.
During his time in office, Perry said he has been and continues to be “mindful of taxpayers money.” The budget increased little and during the economic downturn, Perry said that asset forfeiture funds were tapped to buy needed equipment.
Even now, “we’ve had numerous meetings on the jail, and cut more than $4 million” from the building cost “to get it in the price range for the county,” Perry said.
Officers in his department “have done a tremendous amount of work,” with more 675 drug related indictments on about 275 people, Perry said of the vice unit. The patrol division made over than 500 more arrests, Perry said, adding that while doing that, his office also cares for 300-plus inmates per day and answered calls about 170,000 calls for service.
“We’ve had 35 SWAT operations, seized more than $238,000 in U.S. currency, seized “numerous illegally possessed firearms, multiple sets of body armor—all from drug dealers—two homes, 31 autos, 11 motorcycles, 10 ATVs, a boat and a camper,” Perry said.
The 46.75 percent clearance rate “on all of our reportable offenses” is above the 29 percent state average, he said, adding that of the nine homicides in this term, seven have been cleared with arrests and there are suspects in the remaining two.
“We operate in five schools, the Henry County Courthouse and Animal Control, and we do all that with 133 employees,” Perry said, adding his platform has changed little during his tenure in office.
“The people in this community have been very good to me and I will continue trying to operate a very good and efficient office for them and an office that will serve them well,” Perry said.
A lifelong resident of Henry County, Perry has been married for 26 years. He and his wife have two daughters – one is in college, the other is in high school.