Responding to a police call a couple of years ago, Hutchinson Police Chief Dick Heitschmidt found himself the first officer on the scene – “with four or five young guys who were not behaving.”
“It ran through my mind that these guys could take a 60-year-old pretty quick,” Heitschmidt said last week as a reminisced about his years of service with the department.
He decided then perhaps it was time to cut back on the weekend night patrols, or at least arrive later. He still occasionally goes on calls – “I still feel capable of lending a hand if someone needs help,” he said – but he’s not been on the street much these days. In fact, his last duty was working the Hutchinson High School homecoming parade.
Heitschmidt, 66, will officially retire Oct. 1 as Hutchinson’s Police Chief after 46 years in law enforcement, including 26 years in the top spot.
His last day at work, however, was Saturday at a public reception.
He got his official start in law enforcement when he was 19, though he’d expressed interest earlier than that.
“When I was 15, my dad took me to the old police station on West B Street and introduced me to Chief (Bob) Adams… I remember him telling me, ‘If you want to be a detective or the chief, you have to learn the job first, and be a cop on the streets.”
It wasn’t his first career choice, however.
After attending Kansas State University on a football scholarship, having transferred from Hutchinson Community College after a semester as a wide receiver and kick returner, Heitschmidt decided “school was not my forte.”
“In March 1972, I tried to enlist in the Army,” he said.
At the induction center in Kansas City, he failed the physical.
“It came back 4-F, not fit for duty,” he said. “They said I had the beginnings of a hernia.”
His family doctor, however, found nothing.
Barred from the military, he fell back to law enforcement.
“I met the local KBI agent here, who put me in touch with the captain of the detective division,” the chief said. “When I was 19, I went to work for the KBI as an undercover agent."
He was involved in about a dozen busts around the state before he applied in February 1973 to the Reno County Sheriff’s Department, where all recruits start out as jailers.
“Roughly a year later, I came out of the jail as a road deputy on patrol,” Heitschmidt said.
He quickly became a patrol sergeant and then a detective captain in 1976.
“We had five or six detectives at the time, and one of two of them were warrant officers,” he said. “I was just supervising at that point.”
In 1977, as Richard McLeskey, a trained bomb technician on the Hutchinson Fire Department, prepared to retire, the sheriff and police chief talked about finding a replacement, and Fountain asked Heitschmidt if he was interested.
He attended a four-week bomb technician training at the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama, where, Heitschmidt said, he learned nearly as much from his roommate, Bill Sullivan, an officer on the New York City bomb squad for 14 years, as he did the classes.
He still belongs to the International Association of Bomb Technicians, but hasn’t attended an annual meeting – or responded to dismantle a bomb – in more than a decade.
Over his career, he did respond to more than a dozen possible explosive devices, though only four turned out to be real.
“At one point, there wasn’t anybody west of Highway 81 who did it, so I got called to a lot of different places to help,” he said, including several calls in Garden City and Dodge City.
He never found working on the explosive devices frightening while doing the work, but “it was something you thought about afterward.”
“One of the things I learned from Bill is there is always a certain sequence of things to do, and you don’t go from one to three because you don’t think you need to do two. Always follow the sequence.”
Bombs today are so sophisticated, Heitschmidt said, and the Wichita Police Department has such a well-trained and outfitted bomb squad that Reno County doesn’t need its own expert.
In 1979 Heitschmidt graduated from the three-month FBI National Academy in Quantico, Virginia, the premier national training for law enforcement officers.
In 1981, at age 27, he was appointed undersheriff by Sheriff Jim Fountain. Then in 1982, he completed the three-week National Sheriff’s Institute, which is course aimed at public administration.
In 1986, he was one of three finalists for Hutchinson Police Chief. While Jack Heidebrecht won the job, Heitschmidt became director of administrative services at the PD.
“I was given the task of automating records for both the sheriff and police department and implementing a new 911 system countywide,” he said.
He’s been involved with 911 ever since, for the past couple of years heading a statewide task force as chairman of the 911 Coordinating Council.
When Chief Heidebrecht retired in 1992, Heitschmidt again applied for chief and was appointed to the post by Hutchinson City Manager Joe Palacioz that July.
The average tenure for chiefs nationwide at the time, Heitschmidt said, was five years.
“I never really thought much about how long I’d be chief,” he said. “But at 39, I was fairly young.”
A primary goal when he took the job was to keep the department technologically up-to-date.
“When I was a patrol deputy way back, we had a radio mounted under the dash and drilled a hole through the dash for a switch to turn on the gumball-machine light on top of the car,” Heitschmidt said. “Today it’s like crawling into the cockpit of a jet.”
The department installed its first video camera in a patrol car – which recorded on a VHS player in the trunk – in 1995. Today all patrol units are equipped with cameras that automatically download from the vehicle to a hard drive inside the Law Enforcement Center when the unit pulls into the parking lot.
“Also, everyone is wearing body cameras today,” Heidschmidt said.
The radio system local law enforcement is operating on “is a very, very good system,” Heitschmidt said. “We’re able to communicate with anybody in the state who’s on the radio system, regardless of where they are at.”
“Reno County was the first county go to on a new IP-based 911 system,” Heitschmidt said. “Now over 80 counties are on it. Since September of last year, we’ve added statewide Emergency Service Internet protocol, which is a nationwide network. Again, Reno County was the first in the state. We’re at 35 or 40 of the 80 counties that are going to be one it.”
One drawback of the local radio system is that the public can no longer pick up the majority of scanner traffic, with the radio signal automatically scrambled.
Yet, he’s always tried to instill in his officers, “that we work for the community, that the citizens are our customers.”
“For some people we deal with, what we do doesn’t make them happy,” he said. “But a lot of things we do can show the community we work for them, and we want them to feel we’re the police department and not just policing them.”
“They (officers) see a good side and a bad side of the community every day, all day long,” Heitschmidt said. “I think that can make you cynical if you let it. But I think our officers understand a lot of people simply make mistakes. It doesn’t make them bad people. There are a lot of really good people that make some serious mistakes in their lives.”
Twice during his tenure, Heitschmidt introduced Community Policing to Hutchinson.
Both times, the chief said, he believes it was successful, though both times the program ended abruptly because of budgets.
The first time was shortly after he became chief, in 1993. One officer worked a citywide beat. A federal grant funded the position, and the officer went back on routine patrol when the grant ended.
The second effort, started last year, involved three officers in two specific neighborhoods. It ended just weeks ago, with the officers again back on patrol.
One of the biggest challenges police face today, Heitschmidt said, is the attitude of youth.
“When I was a kid, we would never have considered resisting a police officer or fighting,” Heitschmidt said.
“I think it’s that respect, courtesy and politeness are missing in today’s kids. It’s not their fault; it’s their parents. They’re a product of their environment. I truly believe that.”
Scenes that come to mind from his four decades of police work include videotaping the crime scene in the Arnold Ruebke murder case, the shooting and disarming of J.D. Jennings near the courthouse steps, and his detectives solving the Jennifer Heckel murder.
Ruebke, 19, was convicted in 1984 in the shotgun slayings of 2-year-old rural Arlington twins James and Andrew Volgelsang and their 18-year-old babysitter, Tammey Mooney.
“I think about that a lot,” Heitschmidt said. “My son was older than the twins, but he was still relatively young.”
James Dewey Jennings, 32, appeared at the courthouse with a pair of bombs, hidden under a poncho, strapped to his chest. After a 90-minute standoff, he was shot by a sniper from across the street as he attempted to leave, and then Heitschmidt disarmed the live bombs.
“He was still alive when I got there, but I think the shot severed his spine. He still held a (detonator) switch in each hand, but he couldn’t move his arms. He talked a little bit, but I don’t think he could have set them off.”
Heitschmidt also recalled helping search through waist-deep water in the flooded basement of the former Wichita Zoo Farm off Fourth and Buhler Road for the bodies of the two caretakers killed in a fire that burned the structure down.
Intruders shot Jennifer Heckel, 27, in her home as her 5-year-old son watched television in an adjoining room, in what investigators say was a case of mistaken identity. Hutchinson residents Billy Joe Craig and Charles Christopher Logsdon were convicted for the murder.
Craig drove Logsdon and an unidentified second man to Heckel’s home the evening of June 14, 2011, mistaking it for the home of Kayla Rodriguez, with the intent of robbing Rodriguez of drugs or money.
It took police months to break the case, which appeared to be a random crime.
Craig is serving a 15-year sentence and Logsdon, convicted by a jury, received a life sentence.
“The detectives did a fantastic job of piecing together this terrible tragedy,” Heitschmidt said. “Because of their dedication and professional investigative skills they put it together.”
One of the most significant incidents was the Yaggy gas leak and explosions in January 2001.
“We made the people move out of the Grandview trailer park (where a couple died after gas blew up their trailer) and agreed to provide 24-hour security in the neighborhood,” Heitschmidt recalled. “We were there continuously from Jan. 17 until April 30.”
He remembers a midnight meeting with Fire Chief Gary Frazier in the Emergency Operations Centers in the LEC basement as the gas-fed fire that first erupted from below the Party Décor building was still burning, hours after the initial explosion.
“The fire was still shooting 40-foot flames at that point and we discussed a whole bunch of options,” Heitschmidt said. “They’d dug up pipelines in the alley just to the east of where the fire was, thinking something hadn’t been done right and the pipelines still had gas. We’d exhausted everything we could think of that was causing it. I don’t remember how the name came up, but we began discussing Red Adair.”
The Texas oil well firefighter was famous for extinguishing fires by using explosives to blow them out.
“We came up with the name of an Oklahoma company that did the same kind of work,” Heitschmidt said. “We called them and told them what was going on – Chief Frazier did most of the talking – and asked if that was something they could help with.”
They agreed to be there by 6 a.m.
“We asked them the cost and they said $5,000 a piece for the two guys,” he said. “We said OK. By then it was 1 a.m. We talked about whether we should call the city manager and wake him up, or wait until morning.”
They decided to wait.
“When Joe showed up the next morning we told him what we’d done and how much it was going to cost,” the chief said. “He just said ‘Great, thanks for doing it. We’ll worry about paying for it after.’”
The company was instrumental, Heitschmidt said, in determining the gas originated from an underground leak of natural gas as it was pumped into salt storage caverns at the Yaggy field seven miles north of town.
The incident was one of the most challenging in his career, Heitschmidt said, “because we didn’t know when or where the thing would next pop up and we were wracking our brains trying to figure it out.”
Lots of thanks
Heitschmidt said he has no particular plans for retirement, other than “to let the battery on my cell phone go dead and to try just to relax and enjoy life.”
“It’s really been a privilege to be the chief in my hometown,” Heitschmidt said. “Any success I might have had is in large part due to the people around me, who’ve worked with me and for me. They’re incredible people to work for and with.”
Besides the two city managers he’s worked under as chief, Joe Palacioz and John Deardoff, Heitschmidt named as mentors Sheriff Jim Fountain, former KBI and Kansas Law Enforcement Center Director Larry Welch and his old neighbor and Hutchinson City Councilman, the late Jim Fee.
“Jim was terribly intelligent and had a lot of wisdom,” Heitschmidt said. “I talked to him a lot, a lot of weekends and Saturday mornings. I’ve just been lucky to be surrounded by people willing to help.”