CROWN POINT — Democratic Party leaders decide Saturday whether an insider or an outsider can restore the Lake County Sheriff's Department to good repute.
Six active and retired law enforcement officials and two civilians seek command of a law enforcement agency with the responsibility to protect all of the county's 485,000 residents, supervise 475 county police, corrections officers and civilian employees, the county jail and a $32 million-a-year budget.
A U.S. District Court jury convicted and removed former Sheriff John Buncich Aug. 24 on bribery and wire fraud charges that he took illegal kickbacks from towing firms seeking more lucrative work.
The next election for sheriff doesn't take place until 2018.
State law gives Buncich's political party the authority to name his replacement until then. More than 500 precinct committee members are to gather Saturday in Crown Point to choose a new sheriff from among their ranks.
Those who had filed since Friday are:
- Schererville Police Chief David Dowling
- Retired federal law enforcement agent Richard Ligon
- Lake County Police Sgt. Oscar Martinez
- Lake County Deputy Police Chief Daniel Murchek
- Gary landlord Jim Nowacki
- Retired San Diego Harbor police Lt. Todd Rakos of Munster
- Former Lake County Commissioner Gerry Scheub
- Lake County sheriff's Cpl. Maria Trajkovich
Dowling said, "I'm neither an insider nor an outsider. I'm an independent voice for officers and the community. The next sheriff needs to be a law enforcement official. I consider myself first and foremost to be a cop who serves the public and an administrator who demands performance." He said he would work to have the Sheriff's Department nationally accredited.
Dowling started with the Schererville Police Department in 1984. He rose to serve as Schererville police chief from 2005 to 2008. He returned in 2012 and currently commands 65 employees.
Ligon said, "I am an outsider. My purpose is to bring integrity back." He said he will employ a department veteran as his chief of police.
Ligon has 36 years of military service, and was a federal law enforcement agent for 23 years. He also has served as a Gary police commissioner, an Indiana parole agent and a juvenile probation officer and supervisor.
Martinez, a county policeman since 1993, writes in a Times guest editorial that he sympathizes with his fellow officers over a department, which is "at one of its lowest points because the hardworking men and women of the force have had to do their jobs with one eye on the street, and the other eye over their shoulders."
He made headlines working in the department's drug interdiction program by seizing large amounts of narcotics and illicit profits from drug runners using the county's interstate highways.
Murchek is in his 23rd year as a county police officer and has been third in command of the department since 2011. He said, "As an insider, I will be able to hit the ground running with my operational experience in the department. I will bring in an outside police chief."
Murchek served nine years on the Dyer Police Department and worked as a sheriff's detective, gang crimes unit investigator and a canine officer.
Nowacki said he is running for sheriff because the department has been under the control of Democratic Party insiders for too long.
"Voters are unaware that this small group of insiders, as apologists for Lake County's corrupt reputation, receive benefits and special treatment while leaving voters on a political plantation," he wrote in a Times guest editorial.
Rakos, a 1982 Munster High School graduate, said he would bring 25 years of progressive, contemporary law enforcement and supervisory experience, from California's San Diego Harbor Police Department.
"There is probably no more agency in need of an 'outsider' to come in and take over the leadership position than the Lake County Sheriff's Department. This agency has in essence been run by insiders for the last 20-plus years and during that time they have gone from a federal consent decree overseeing the jail, to an illegal sale of automatic weapon scandal, to the top officers either being found guilty or pleading guilty to bribery and corruption," Rakos said.
Scheub, who served 20 years as St. John Township trustee and 20 years as a county commissioner, said he would only complete Buncich's unexpired term and won't run for sheriff next year so he can concentrate his administrative talents on healing the department.
"I will work on day one to do everything possible to honorably and effectively support the men and women who wear the uniform and risk their lives protecting and serving Lake County," he writes in a Times guest editorial.
Maria D. Trajkovich is a corporal with the Lake County Sheriff's Department. She has been on the force since 1997.
"I feel that being an insider makes me a better candidate, as I know where our strengths and weaknesses are. I have an established working relationship with officers from each division," she said.
Other Democrats can file as sheriff candidates until early Wednesday.