Long-time sheriff hangs up holster

By Tyler Davis

A bullet hole in his chest, a limp in his walk and a two-foot tall sign bearing his name are just a few of the souvenirs Sheriff Elry Faulkner will keep heading into retirement.

Faulkner, who has been the sheriff of Johnson County since 1974, is the longest-tenured sheriff in Illinois. He plans to retire Nov. 30 after nearly five decades as a law enforcement officer.

Faulkner said people he has arrested have said they would vote for him for sheriff again. His reputation of being fair and honest is something he takes pride in.

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“I can honestly say I have never put an innocent person in jail,” he said. “I have let some guilty ones go. But I wont take you in unless I know in my heart and in my head you did it.”

Faulkner’s 40 years as sheriff is just seven years shorter than the longest-tenured sheriff in U.S. history, Dwight Radcliff of Pickaway County, Ohio. Radcliff retired in 2002.

Faulkner said he is choosing to retire now because he feels the timing is right. He said he was going to retire two terms ago until fate intervened.

“Seven years ago, a guy tried to kill me,” he said. “I got hit running 100 miles an hour, on purpose — it wasn’t no accident. I was planning on retiring at the end of that term, and everyone thought I was hurt so bad that I was going to quit anyway. I’m stubborn so I ran again, but it took a lot out of me.”

The crash resulted in Faulkner being on life support for three days, parts of his intestines being removed and permanent damage to his right leg.

While most people would take this a sign to get out of the dangerous profession, Faulkner said he saw it as God keeping him in his position. It was not the first close call he suffered during his lengthy career.

Faulkner said his success as an officer caused him to become over-confident, but fate again interfered to save and humble him.

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This time it was a human encounter. After countless incidents working without a bulletproof vest, Faulkner said his wife Mary suggested he don the Kevlar before heading to a church to investigate a disturbance.

That night, Faulkner was shot in the chest by an escapee of Marion Federal Penitentiary who was holed up in the church.

“Back in ’79, Marion Federal Prison was the toughest, meanest prison in the United States. They built Marion to replace Alcatraz,” he said. “Both of these guys were serving life sentences for murder and robbing a bank, so they had nothing to lose.”

Faulkner apprehended the shooter and his accomplice. He said those stories are not too common, as Johnson County usually has a lower crime rate than neighboring counties.

Faulkner began his career in 1968 as a Vienna police officer, but differences in policing philosophy from then-sheriff Barry Eastman led to Faulkner’s dismissal from the force.

He challenged Eastman’s position in 1974 and won the Johnson County sheriff election. He said through their differences, he and Eastman have remained friends.

“Me and Barry are still friends, great friends,” Faulkner said. “He just had his way of being an officer and I just had my way. I give a lot of credit for giving me my start as a deputy.”

Allen James, a court security officer who has worked alongside Faulkner for 40 years, congratulated the sheriff on his career, and said the town will miss his presence.

“My experience with him as always been great,” James said. “He’s a good sheriff. He treats the prisoners with respect and everyone appreciates that. It’s going to be hard to replace him.”

Faulkner said his plans for retirement involve fishing and hunting, but he will miss doing “real police work.”

“When I say real police work, I’m talking about catching drug-runners and burglaries,” he said. “We get so many calls like ‘my neighbor’s blowing grass on my lawn,’ but you’ve got to respond to those too. It’s important to the citizens, so even if there’s nothing we can do, we go check on it.”

Faulkner said he would keep an eye on the sheriff’s office, and if he sees a decline in quality he wont hesitate to put himself on the next election ballot.

“If they come in here and screw up a good department, I’ll only be 72 years old when the next election rolls around,” Faulkner said with a laugh. “They better watch out.”

Johnson County will choose between Democrat Norman Suits and Republican Charles Harner for its next sheriff in November. Faulkner’s official last day is Dec. 1, but he said he has notified the county that he will leave the position Nov. 30 to avoid a longer wait for his first retirement check.

Phil Greer, a senior lecturer and photojournalist in residence at SIU, of Tunnel Hill in northwest Johnson County, said Faulkner has the respect of people in Johnson County and Illinois in general.

“I’ve had some interactions with him and heard a lot of funny stories about the past,” Greer said. “We’ve had students do pieces on him before. He is a legend over here as well as in the state of Illinois.”

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