QUITMAN, Texas (KETK) – The many badges and patches Kelly Cole has worn during a 36-year career in law enforcement are proudly displayed in a case behind his desk.
The case holds the badge his wore as a police office in Alba – his first job right out of the East Texas Police Academy. It contains badges he wore in positions in Wood County Sheriff’s Office that ranged from patrol deputy to captain. It holds the badge he wore as Alba police chief and the badge he wore 11 years as Quitman police chief.
To Cole, these emblems are more than mementos of days gone by. They represent his love of law enforcement, devotion to Wood County and decades of experience enforcing the law.
What the case is missing is the badge Cole wears today as sheriff of Wood County. Last year, Cole became the county’s top law officer.
The race for sheriff in Wood County drew four people in the Republican primary and no Democrats.
Cole ran against one-term incumbent Tom Castloo, a former U.S. Border Patrol agent; James Schaffner, a deputy in Van Zandt County Sheriff’s Office; and Callie Lawrence, who had worked as an investigator for the Department of Family and Protective Services.
In announcing his candidacy, Cole said he had the “knowledge and the drive to work with everyone to make our county a safe and good place to live and raise our kids and grow our families. … I feel that I was called to do this job and have tried to always be there for those that have needed help. I do not take this lightly and I will do the best that I can to make this county and everyone in it feel as though they have a good, safe place to live.”
“I believe there is no one more qualified to serve as your next sheriff,” he said on the campaign trail During one debate, Cole put it more succinctly: “I’ve been there, done that.”
After taking office, Cole told KETK he decided to run because people were complaining that when capped the sheriff’s office asking for help sometimes they never got to talk to a deputy or investigator and were not kept informed about their case.
In the primary, Cole received 48.7% of the vote and Castloo, 40.1%. Schaffner and Carrell-Lawrence trailed far behind. That put Cole and Castloo in the runoff.
Cole presented himself as the candidate among the two who had the best interest of residents.
“I care about Wood County and the citizens of Wood County,” he told voters at a candidate forum. “I’ve always devoted my life to that and that is what I am doing now in seeking this office.”
He questioned the “direction” the sheriff’s office was going.
“I believe in this county, and I care Are there things happening that a lot of folks not approving of? Yes. I’m not here to try and bash anybody … sling any mud on anybody or anything like that. I don’t think we need to do that. I think we need to take a solid look at what is there and you need to go in the direction that you think will serve the best interest for this county.”
Drugs are a big problem in the county, he said. “We know it (solving crimes) starts by working on narcotics – it’s just fact.”
He promised to get more deputies on patrol in rural areas and to work with other law agencies and the public.
In the runoff, Cole pulled off a huge victory receiving 69% of the vote and winning every ballot box.
Cole is one of several sheriffs in East Texas beginning first terms. After promising voters they were the right man for the job, they now have to prove it.
KETK spoke with several new sheriffs about running for office, their priorities as sheriff and long-term goals.
Our series also features profiles of:
- Cherokee Sheriff Brent Dickson
- Anderson County Sheriff Rudy Flores
- Rusk County Sheriff Johnwayne Valdez
- Van Zandt County Sheriff Steve Hendrix
Cole enforces law in a county 700 square miles. The vast majority of its 45,000 residents live outside cities without a police department and depends on the sheriff’s office to arrest criminals and offer protection.
Holly Lake Ranch, a large private gated community popular with retirees, is in the county as is almost all of Lake Fork, which is famous for its great fishing and has sections of shores lined with homes, rental properties and marinas.
Deputies also patrol sections of heavily traveled of highways 80 and 69.
Several boxes packed with objects are piled along a wall in Cole’s office in Wood County Justice Center, near downtown Quitman.
“I haven’t had time to unpack,” he says unapologetically on a January afternoon.
Cole’s first priority was putting in a new leadership team.
“You can’t do the things you want (as sheriff) if you don’t have the right personnel,” he said.
Cole brought in people he knew and trusted.
He named Nikki Wright, a lifelong county resident and Longview Police Department patrol sergeant as his chief deputy; Tim Koonce, Alba police chief, as patrol captain; and Mike Chilson, who worked with Cole at Quitman PD, to oversee the criminal investigations division.
“We (sheriff’s office staff) plan on working for y’all and the community,” Cole told county commissioners court during their meeting in January, according to news coverage “That’s what we promised and that’s what we’re going to do. We’re moving forward as fast as we can.”
Since taking office, Cole has begun fulfilling two major campaign promises: cracking down on drug users and working with others to put criminals behind bars.
He released photos of people arrested on drug crimes and promised residents that warrants are “actively being obtained and served” to arrest others. He shared information about a traffic stop that led to a “habitual offenders (being put) in jail tonight for possession of methamphetamine.”
The sheriff’s office posted that it is “working diligently with other agencies and “greatly appreciates working with other agencies to ensure our communities are safe.”
Cole told KETK he is looking at ways to put more deputies on patrol and to position them where they can respond quicker to calls. He is also looking at how best to best spend the department’s money and applying for grants to help pay for better equipment.
“I understand the money issues,” he said. “It’s like what you do. In your checkbook, you have only X number of dollars and you have to spend it on what you need most.”
Last month, Cole began using inmates to build a garden outside the justice center to grow food that can be used in the jail kitchen and is open to starting programs that will slow the cycle of inmates being repeat offenders.
‘You don’t own the office’
Near the end of the interview, Cole walks outside with reporters. In the sunshine and crisp winter air, he becomes more introspective.
He draws attention to a teal plastic wristrband he wears.
“It represents ovarian cancer,” said Cole. “My wife (Toni Cole) is an ovarian cancer survival. A lot of women (with this cancer) don’t make it, but she did.”
Cole said his wife’s unwavering coverage and strength battling cancer inspires him every day.
Asked how he wants to be remembered when the day comes to put his Wood County sheriff’s badge in the display case with his other badges, Cole takes a long pause.
“I want people to say I took care of the office,” Cole said. “You don’t own the office. You only have custodianship of it for a while. I want people to say that while I had, I did a good job.”