The newly-formed Kerr County Sheriff’s Foundation hosted a kickoff event last week to introduce their organization to the community and highlight their goals to raise funds for special operations projects and equipment for the Kerr County Sheriff’s Office.
Foundation President Hunter Schmidt welcomed the more than 200 guests at the Arcadia Live Theater, saying the group of local residents decided to form the non-profit foundation in an effort to provide needed training and equipment identified by Kerr County Sheriff Larry Leitha.
“There’s a lot of things that they (KCSO) need right now that current funding isn’t necessarily meeting,” Schmidt said. “We created this foundation so that we could help augment them and help support them.”
Schmidt said that initial fundraising efforts would provide for protective equipment and training for the sheriff’s newly-formed Special Response Team.
To provide details about the goals of the KCSO SRT, Schmidt introduced Leitha, who took office on Jan. 1 and was elected last year to replace retired, 40-year veteran Sheriff Rusty Hierholzer.
“I really want to thank the foundation and all of you for coming out to support us,” Leitha said. “We appreciate that you believe in our vision moving forward.”
Leitha said that the SRT was part of his four-year plan, but current events such as ongoing human smuggling pursuits and increasing illegal narcotics activities prompted him to create the specialized unit sooner.
“We are averaging about one human smuggling case every week right now,” Leitha said. “When members of the foundation asked me what we needed, I told them about the special response team, which I describe as one notch down from a S.W.A.T (Special Weapons And Tactics) team.”
However, Leitha said, with the largest budget in the county at $12 million and 116 employees, funding was not available for equipment and protective gear for SRT members.
“I have a vision of where I want us to be over the next four years and we have to take small steps to get there,” Leitha said. “I feel the community elected me as sheriff to keep them safe and protect their rights. That’s what we’ve done and I think we’ve gotten off to a really good start.”
Leitha said that his first 10 months in office have been challenging.
“I took office during COVID and that is still ongoing. The winter storm earlier this year was amazing. I think we handled that really well. No call went unanswered and we earned a national award for how we handled that storm,” Leitha said. “Since we’ve been in office, we’ve handled some pretty high-profile cases as well. Just so you know, I am more of pro-active than reactive as a law enforcement officer.”
Leitha then received roaring applause when he said “We don’t wait for the bad guys to come to us, we go to them.”
Leitha said his goal of being tough of crime and criminals requires specialized units such as the SRT.
As an example, Leitha described a recent situation where a man allegedly kidnapped his girlfriend, after shooting at her vehicle. Leitha said the suspect assaulted the victim and then was remorseful and dropped her off at her home and left the area.
“I told the guys we we don’t go home until this guy is in jail,” Leitha said. “We located the guy in Bexar County and he barricaded himself in the residence. We had to back off and wait for the DPS (Department of Public Safety) SRT to come.”
Leitha said ultimately KCSO CID Investigator Jonathan Edwards was able to talk the suspect out of the residence and arrest him.
The human smuggling cases and this incident occurred in the last few weeks, Leitha said, and are only a few examples of why the SRT is needed.
Capt. Jason Waldrip, the KCSO special operations commander and retired DPS veteran, said his division was created to achieve the mission of the sheriff to be proactive in law enforcement for the county.
“Proactive investigations are dynamic in nature,” Waldrip said. “They are the ones that are the ‘buy-bust’ operations, the search warrant operations and the arrest warrant operations. They are the ones where we are actually physically in the field putting ourselves in danger and making those high-profile arrests.”
Waldrip said that his division also includes covert operations.
“These are guys that you are not going to see,” Waldrip said. “Hopefully, you don’t know who they are. They are intermingling in the crowd and with the criminals.”
Waldrip said that by conducting these types of covert investigations, officers are often on scene when the alleged crimes are committed.
“We’re not waiting for the criminal to commit the crime and then come on the back side to clean it up,” Waldrip said. “We’re there in real-time, ready to take them down the moment they commit the crime. So, that’s our proactive and aggressive nature that we are taking in this division.”
Waldrip said the special operations division of the KCSO is identifying suspects with a propensity toward violence, to include gang members, drug traffickers and human smuggling suspects.
“And, today, as you’ve seen on the news, the level of violence against law enforcement officers has increased,” Waldrip said. “And being proactive against crime puts our deputies and investigators in greater danger.”
Hence, Waldrip said, the need for the specialized, highly-trained and equipped SRT.
Waldrip highlighted several recent cases that proved his point, such as the May 28 arrest of a Kerrville man reportedly planning a mass casualty event at a Walmart, which was thwarted due to the proactive efforts of the KCSO covert special operations division. He detailed the recent arrest of the suspected violent kidnapper and the multiple human smuggling arrests over recent weeks, as well as the KCSO’s ongoing illegal-drug investigations.
“Your donations would not necessarily be for buying the gear that you see on the screen, but rather to make an investment into the sheriff’s mission and to invest into each one of these men and women on the team,” Waldrip said. “They are making the individual sacrifice to offer another level of safety and security for Kerr County.”
Waldrip also noted that SRT members are employed by the KCSO, but serve on the specialized SRT as volunteers.
KCSO Lt. Scott Gaige described how initial donations to the Kerr County Sheriff’s Foundation would be used, saying the bulk of it would outfit SRT members with protective gear.
“Our number one need is for upgraded body armor,” Gaige said. “We also need to upgrade our weapons systems. For SRT, we need more specialized weapons systems.”
Gaige said equipment is also needed for night-vision capability.
“We do a lot of operations at night,” Gaige said. “For example a lot of times on human smuggling cases, they will bail out and hide in the brush. Without that night-vision capability, we are going in blind.”
Gaige also mentioned the need for gas masks used when dealing with a barricaded subject, as well as ballistic helmets and shields for SRT members.
“These things give us a little extra buffer while we are out there,” Gaige said.
Foundation Secretary Kari Bock closed out the information forum by saying the initial fundraising goal is to raise funds to purchase the protective gear and equipment by Dec. 31.
It is estimated that those needs would cost $160,000 for the first phase of the foundation efforts.
While not planned as a fundraising event, last week’s efforts yielded an estimated $74,000 for the foundation, Bock said.
To support the Kerr County Sheriff’s Foundation, Bock said residents can donate by visiting www.kerrcountysf.com or by mailing a check to P.O. Box 294659, Kerrville, Texas 78029.