With Kerr County early voting beginning Monday, all eyes are on the candidates for sheriff locked in a historically close race.
Only two – Larry Leitha, retired Texas Department of Public Safety special agent, and Eli Garcia, public information officer and training sergeant for the Kerr County Sheriff’s Office — remain in the race following the primary election March 3.
By a narrow margin, Garcia outpolled Leitha in the primaries, with Garcia ending the evening with 2,791 votes and Leitha a mere 44 votes behind.
In late May, Leitha gained a rare and unusual endorsement by two sitting district attorneys, Lucy Wilke of the 216th Judicial District and Scott Monroe of the 198th Judicial District, while Garcia has been endorsed by Ingram Chief of Police Byron Griffin, retired Kerr County Commissioner Buster Baldwin and Todd Burdick, investigator for the 198th Judicial District.
Leitha began his career in law enforcement 31 years ago at the Medina County Sheriff’s Office. From 1992-94, he served as a patrol sergeant for the Devine Police Department, and from 1994-99 as a Texas Department of Public Safety trooper. In 2005, he worked alongside the FBI in the Violent Gang Safe Streets Task Force.
A narcotics sergeant from 1994 to 2015, Leitha became a special agent in 2015 when the Texas Department of Public Safety restructured, and worked with the United States Border Patrol before retiring in 2018.
“I’ve worked … arresting fugitives, I’ve worked several investigations with the ATF, working gun and gang investigations … I’ve worked with the DEA, I’ve worked with the Secret Service on counterfeit money cases, I’ve worked with multiple police and sheriff’s departments, and I spent three and a half years working with Border Patrol on a daily basis to combat human trafficking, drug trafficking and gun smuggling,” Leitha said.
He added that in the current political climate, he would improve police morale by leading by example, noting that respectful treatment of others as a baseline measure de- escalates many law enforcement situations.
“I would also attend as many events as possible and have an open-door policy,” Leitha said. “I would stay open and transparent to the community and try to treat people right.”
Leitha said, if elected, he will continue to build upon Kerr County Sheriff Rusty Hierholzer’s positive legacy and relationship with the community.
Leitha firmly supports the narcotics unit implemented by Hierholzer in the past few years to combat Kerr County’s drug problem.
“I absolutely intend on fighting the war on drugs,” Leitha said.
When it comes to matters of personnel, Leitha noted that while some KCSO personnel are soon to retire and require replacement, he does not see himself making any unnecessary personnel changes.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” he said.
He praised Sylvia Foraker, Kerr County jail administrator, for her efficiency and excellent standards, and said he plans to work closely alongside her and the chief deputy to ensure that the jail continues to run smoothly.
Because COVID-19 has caused a budget shortfall in many governmental agencies – to include Kerr County – Leitha noted it’s also important to address economic concerns.
That’s why he has attended Kerr County Commissioners Court meetings for months, he said, and has taken advantage of Hierholzer’s open-door policy to go over the current KCSO budget at length.
“I intend on working all the time with Commissioners Court and to make cuts wherever possible,” he said. “But you have to be careful what you cut – for example, county jail is expensive, but necessary. We’ve got to be cautious.”
Leitha said his extensive law enforcement experience is what most qualifies him for office.
“I’ve had the ability to file cases at all levels: municipal, county, state and federal,” he said. If elected, he hopes to use his resources and connections to outside agencies for the good of the community.
“I’m a huge team player,” Leitha said. “In today’s law enforcement, you can’t do it by yourself – it’s all working together to get to a common goal.”
Leitha, born and bred locally, has been heavily involved in other local ventures, such as Center Point’s 4-H and FFA. He served as a former Center Point Independent School District Board member, Center Point Little League president, Hill Country District Junior Livestock Show Association Board member, Center Point Athletic Booster president and Elk Lodge member.
“Eighty to 90 percent of a sheriff’s job is not putting handcuffs on people,” Leitha said. “It’s budget and jail management. I’ve got experience both in law enforcement and administratively, in the civilian world, dealing with management and budget.”
Leitha said if elected, he will lead with integrity and maintain the integrity of the KCSO.
“I really appreciate the confidence that the citizens have in me, and I want them to know that I’ll get the job done right,” he said.
For 23 years, Eli Garcia has served in law enforcement – nearly 20 of them with the Kerr County Sheriff’s Office.
After four years with the Kerrville Police Department from 1997 to 2001 as a communications officer, Garcia was hired by Hierholzer in February, 2001 as a corrections officer and deputy.
From 2002 to 2011, Garcia served as a patrol officer and in 2011 acted as warrants deputy. He then served as an extradition officer from 2011 to 2017, before accepting his current position as public information officer and training sergeant.
Garcia has also worked in court security and criminal investigations, and as SWAT negotiator, hostage negotiator with the KPD special operations unit and mental health peace officer, as well as helming the county Citizen’s Academy and Kerr County Crime Stoppers.
He holds a Texas master peace officer license, a jailer’s license, a telecommunications license and a mental health peace officer license, and has over 3,400 Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Training hours. For 40 years, he’s also worked in the private sector and run a private photography business for 19 years.
“It’s the totality of things, all these angles and divisions, that equips me for this position,” Garcia said. “Leadership is taking care of your squad or your crew, whether in the private sector or leading a division in a law enforcement agency.”
Garcia is proud of his local roots, having spent 45 years in Kerrville. “I know the area, I know the people, I know the businesses,” he said.
In the current sociopolitical climate, he said it’s important to strengthen the KCSO’s infrastructure and foundation.
“I plan to implement a volunteer alumni program, as well as a reserve deputy program for ‘all hands on deck’ with COVID-19 going on,” Garcia said. He added that he would also implement an officer wellness program.
Garcia said, if elected, he hopes to enlist community advisory boards to offer input and address sensitive topics with local law enforcement officials, such as an advisory board of local leaders, medical and psychiatric professionals in the addiction recovery community.
“What better way to get best practices – to be proactive and do something different – than to listen?” Garcia said. “This next administration needs to make sure we are taking the advice of, investing in what the community has to say. We need to look at issues from citizen and resident perspectives – not just as police.”
Garcia said he’s learned much from working under Hierholzer for nearly two decades.
“I know what to concentrate on, what to upgrade, what to initiate,” he said. “I know where I want to take this agency on day one.”
Garcia hopes to build a mental health peace officer program specifically dedicated to working with the mentally ill in the community. Officers are at times taken off patrol duty for these calls, while Garcia envisions a dedicated team devoted to handling mental health-related crises and working alongside Kerrville Mental Health and Disabilities Centers professionals.
As for personnel changes, Garcia emphatically said he is not asking anyone to leave.
“A good leader takes care of his people, his team,” he said. “My plan is to move down the road to success as a team.”
He feels his time in the private sector – working for Super S Foods from 1978-82 and H-E-B from 1982 to 2018 – has provided him valuable financial experience. If elected, he said he would work closely with County Commissioners on budget.
“I’m looking forward to using my experience in the private sector when these line items come up, so that we are not only successful with our own budget at the Sheriff’s Office but maintaining and assisting the county with the general fund,” he said.
Like Leitha, Garcia expressed admiration for Jail Administrator Foraker, and plans to continue implementing best practices – including health precautions due to COVID-19 – at the jail, as well as adding manpower and programs.
Garcia said his strong work ethic, familiarity with the agency and interpersonal skills are his strongest assets.
“I never forget where I came from, and I never forget who I work for,” Garcia said. “I think it keeps me humble and grounded.”
If elected, he hopes his KCSO experience would be beneficial to the community.
“After 23 years in law enforcement, and currently working in law enforcement, I still look forward to going to work,” he said. “I have worked in every department at the Kerr County Sheriff’s Office, I know the dynamics of the Kerr County Sheriff’s Office, and most important, I know the people at the Kerr County Sheriff’s Office.”
Early voting for all precincts will be held at Hill Country Youth Event Center in Kerrville and Ingram ISD Business Building from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. June 29 to July 2, and 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. July 6 to July 10.
General elections take place from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. July 14.
Polling locations are as follows:
• Precinct 101, 107, 109, 113, 118, 119: River Hills Mall, 200 Sidney Baker South, Kerrville;
• Precincts 202, 211, 215, 220: Union Church, 101 Travis Street, Kerrville;
• Precincts 303, 308, 312, 314: Cailloux City Center, 910 Main Street, Kerrville;
• Precincts 404, 405, 406, 410, 416, 417: City West Church, 3139 Junction Highway, Ingram.