BANGOR, Maine — Glenn Ross gave up a career trucking lumber along the Eastern Seaboard to join the Penobscot County Sheriff’s Office in 1977.
When he started his 36-year law enforcement career, he worked six days a week, was on call 24 hours a day, and his weekly paycheck was $154, he recalled. The average tenure of a Penobscot County sheriff’s deputy in those days was just two years.
“A lot of people wouldn’t stick around for that, but I did stay,” Ross said during a recent interview in his Bangor office. “Things got better, things did change.”
Ross, 64, and his wife, Christine, both will retire on the last day of 2014. Christine Ross works in probation and parole services for the state.
They plan to keep busy — tending their 75-acre property in Exeter, gardening, landscaping, building and perhaps harvesting lumber.
“I never have felt better,” said Ross, whose 12-year tenure as sheriff has been marked by efforts to work with other police and public health agencies to stem the tide of drug abuse and mental health problems in Penobscot County.
Ross also has been at the center of controversy stemming from his decision in 2011 to tell former jail chaplain Bob Carlson about a state police investigation into allegations of child sex abuse against the clergyman, who later took his own life. As his career comes to a close, Ross says he’s comfortable with his actions and encourages critics to revisit the facts of the case before judging him.
Two community events have been held recently to recognize Ross’ contributions as sheriff, one at Jeff’s Catering in Brewer and the other hosted by the county commissioners, both of which drew hundreds of friends and colleagues, as well as community leaders.
During those celebrations, Ross shared amusing anecdotes from his lengthy law enforcement career.
One story stemmed from his days as a detective, Ross isn’t sure of the year. The sheriff’s office had been investigating a forgery case in which a suspect was cashing fake checks at banks across the county, so the department put a notice out to banks that they should call if they saw the suspect’s vehicle.
One morning, Ross and another detective were sitting in their downtown Bangor office when a downtown bank called to report that the suspect was in their lobby trying to cash a bad check.
The detectives realized running to a patrol vehicle and driving to the bank would take longer than just running down the street, so they went to the bank on foot.
As they were preparing to go in, Ross, who was wearing a suit, realized his badge was in his pocket. He grabbed it and tried to clip it on his belt as he went in the door, but he missed. The badge fell and rolled across the floor, coming to a rest at the suspect’s feet.
“I’m hollering, ‘Sheriff’s office! Sheriff’s office!’ And he looks down at his feet, and then up at me and says, ‘No s—-.’”
Much of what Ross dealt with during the course of his career wasn’t amusing — homicides, accidents, thefts, break-ins, abuse and tragedies.
“You can become jaded and you can forget to laugh,” Ross said, adding that he has tried to separate his home life and police life as much as possible. “Being a sheriff is not an easy job. It’s not just about having a police car and running up and down the road with blue lights and sirens.”
Ross has spent much of his tenure building relationships among area departments, collaborating to solve burglary sprees, stem the spread of drugs and drug-related crimes, and deal with the fallout of reduced mental health services statewide and severe financial strains facing the county jail system.
“You wouldn’t think my role would be advocating for more mental health services, but that is what has changed,” Ross said. “Sheriffs have become the CEOs of the largest mental health institutions in the state” — county jails.
That’s what distinguished Ross, according to Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty, president of the Maine Sheriffs’ Association.
“I most admire Sheriff Ross for his compassion and dedication to the most vulnerable citizens of Maine, the mentally ill,” Liberty wrote in a recent email. “He has been a very vocal supporter of the rights of the mentally ill, fighting for their proper treatment.”
After his departure, Ross said that improving mental health services and care and detox services for those suffering from alcoholism and drug addiction will be vital steps toward improving the rough fiscal standing of county jails. Without those services, jails end up shouldering the costs of treatment and care for people who come through their doors.
When mental health services are reduced or insurance gets cut, “those symptoms show up somewhere else,” Ross said.
Ross is a graduate of the National FBI Academy, former board member of the Penobscot County National Alliance of Mentally Ill Coalition, and past president of the Maine Sheriffs’ Association, among many other posts. The only board role he’ll continue is with the Cole Land Transportation Museum.
Unusual career path
Ross’ path to the sheriff’s office was neither clear nor easy. He quit his trucking career because he was tired of being on the road and felt drawn to public service. He started as a patrol deputy in the Millinocket area, hired by then-Sheriff Otis Labree. The next year he went to the police academy. He was assigned to southern Penobscot County after graduation.
In 1983, when he was president of a sheriff’s office union, Ross was fired by then-Sheriff Timothy Richardson because of “lack of respect for supervisors” and “not getting along with people,” Richardson said at the time, according to BDN archives.
“We had different styles,” Ross said during a recent interview.
Petitions circulated around Penobscot County pushed to have Ross reinstated, arguing that he was fired because of his efforts through the union to improve working conditions for deputies.
Later that year, county commissioners voted to reinstate Ross. Then the Maine Labor Relations Board found Richardson had violated multiple rules and found him guilty of “union-busting” and “illegal intimidation of employees,” among other violations, according to past Bangor Daily News stories.
Despite the reinstatement, Ross resigned to run for sheriff, and later defeated his former boss in the 1984 primary election. But Ross lost to Ed Reynolds in the fall race. Reynolds went on to serve 18 years as sheriff.
“I was out of the department after that election,” Ross said. “It was not the loss of the election that was so devastating for me, it was the fact that I no longer was part of the department that I really cared about and loved.”
While Ross was coping with the defeat and absence from the department, several county employees and leaders pushed Reynolds to bring Ross back, which Reynolds did the next year.
Ross went on to serve as patrol supervisor, detective and eventually Reynold’s chief deputy.
A dozen years later, Ross gave notice in January that he wouldn’t be seeking another term, giving contenders for his job time to organize their campaigns.
Ross’ chief deputy, Troy Morton, defeated Allen Stehle in a two-way sheriff’s race in November, a result Ross was pleased with.
“We’ve tried to map out a path for the agency, and [Morton] has lived within that for the past 25 years,” Ross said. “[Morton] knows what the job is.”
“Sheriff Ross was an incredibly hard working and hands-on sheriff,” Morton said in a recent email. “While serving the citizens of Penobscot County, he always kept the mission and vision of the Sheriff’s Office in mind. Over the years, Sheriff Ross taught me how important it is to maintain strong collaborative partnerships with those we serve.”
Morton lauded his boss for his work on behalf of the mentally ill, especially his role in creating the Penobscot Jail Diversion Coalition, a group of area law enforcement, corrections and mental health professionals focused on finding ways to keep individuals suffering from mental health problems out of jails and getting them into institutions and programs better suited to treating their illnesses.
In 2005, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill recognized Ross with the organization’s criminal justice award for his leadership in the diversion program.
Ross also has played an integral role in Penobscot County Triad, linking law enforcement agencies with area senior citizens and senior citizens’ services to prevent victimization of the elderly. Morton said he “absolutely will carry on” the sheriff’s office role in both groups.
Morton will be faced with funding shortages for an overcrowded jail system while trying to continue his predecessor’s work in advocacy for mental health and addiction services.
“Our jail is licensed for 174 inmates, and we’re boarding out 60-70 [to other county jails] all over the state,” Ross said. “We’re still running 20-30 inmates over population that we can’t find beds for [in Penobscot County Jail].”
Many of those inmates are brought in for minor offenses committed while under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
“There should be better options [than jail] for those types of people,” Ross said.
Ross faced the most widespread criticism of his career over the Carlson incident.
In November 2011, the sheriff informed Carlson about the Maine State Police investigation into allegations of child sex abuse against the well-known minister. Carlson jumped from the Penobscot Narrows Bridge to his death early the next morning. Ross said at the time that he told Carlson about the investigation because the minister was on the Penobscot County Jail’s board of visitors and Ross wanted to limit his access to the jail.
Ross defended his action, noting that a Maine State Police detective asked Ross to contact Carlson, a former jail chaplain, to bar him from accessing the jail. At first, Ross didn’t believe he had to because Carlson didn’t work for the jail, he said. But the next day Ross realized Carlson was still a member of the board of visitors and could enter the jail, so he called and banned Carlson.
“Some people don’t have all the facts, they make up their minds. I can’t change that,” Ross said. “But I go to bed at night knowing that I did right. What Bob did, that’s on him.”
Friends and county officials say they’ll remember Ross’ tireless efforts to improve his department and the county as a whole.
“I’ve always had a lot of respect for Glenn,” County Commissioner Tom Davis said during a recent interview. “He’s really tried and tried and tried to help people with substance abuse issues. It’s a terrible problem for the county, and you can’t address it in the jails.”
Davis said the commissioners will miss Ross, and that he leaves the sheriff’s office in far better condition than he found it when he first joined in the 1970s.
“Sheriff Ross should leave his position with great satisfaction,” Liberty said, “knowing that he served the citizens of Penobscot County with passion and determination.”
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter @nmccrea213.