Crime-Fighting Family

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Three generations of the Burnett family have served the Galax Police Department, and sons, brothers and in-laws are all in law enforcement.

By April Wright, Reporter

 In the Burnett household, Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners are filled with war stories, about catching the bad guy and saving lives. 

With five Burnetts — three generations — serving in law enforcement, it seems to be something in the Burnett gene pool that has the family craving law enforcement. 

The bug started with Claude Burnett, who began on the Galax Police Department in 1976 and retired as a lieutenant in 2001. He always had an interest in law enforcement and decided to take the plunge at age 37, after working in retail for 10 years, he said. 

"It was working with people, the fellowship of the force and knowing that something different was going to happen each day," said Claude, of changing his career path. "It just kept you hopping."

Claude's three sons — Mark, Brad and Steve — followed in their dad's footsteps. Brad has worked as a special agent for Virginia State Police for several years, Steve works in corrections at the New River Valley Regional Jail and Mark has served on the Galax Police Department in 2005, after several years as a Grayson County deputy. 

Mark's son Drew is now the third generation police officer. He began on the Galax Police Department just one day after his 21st birthday in September. 

Mark's sons-in-law, Cody Edwards and Brad Brown, also became crime fighters. 

Steve, the oldest of Claude's three sons, has served in law enforcement for 26 years. He joined the Carroll County Sheriff's Office after coming out of the U.S. Army and now serves as a correctional officer at the regional jail, supervising a shift of 80 people and 720 prisoners.

"I was stationed in Louisiana, about to get out of the army," recalled Steve. "I came home and took a ride with dad. I saw that you never know what you're going to get [on the job]."

At the time, in 1982, when Steve tried to get a job with the state, there was a hiring freeze. So, he took a job as a dispatcher and then became an officer in Carroll County before working in the jail.

"I definitely didn't do it for the money," said Steve, noting that his starting pay was only $7,500 a year. "I just knew that if you wanted to get into adventures, you could find them doing this work."

Mark was hired to work in the Grayson County jail in 1990 and then went on the road as a patrol officer. 

The downside of working with the Grayson County Sheriff's Office was that there was no early retirement in place at the time, he said. 

So, he took a position with the Galax Police Department in 2005. 

(He also serves as a volunteer firefighter.)

"When daddy came home from work, you could tell he loved his job," said Mark. "So I rode with daddy a lot." 

Mark recalls how his dad responded to a call on Meadow Street and tackled a suspect to the ground and cuffed him. 

When Claude got back into his police car he said, "'I think I broke his arm,'" Mark said. "I thought, 'This is great.' I saw my dad as the nurturing father, but it was just thrilling and exciting to see him get the bad guy."

Mark said it's not always about the thrill, though. Being an officer is also about making a difference in lives, helping others and providing justice to victims who don't have a voice. 

Brad has served police departments in Greene County and Carroll County. He has worked for the state police as a special agent bomb technician and now serves as a special agent working as a polygraph examiner.

When his dad would come home for dinner, he would sit in Claude's police car watching the radar as cars passed, he said.

Since then, Brad has covered numerous high-profile cases. He interviewed the survivors of the Virginia Tech massacre, worked the Jennifer Short murder in Henry County and terrorist cases after the 2001 bombings.

"When you work a murder, you do the job for the victims," said Brad, who has worked in law enforcement for 19 years. "When everyone is told to run away from danger, we do the opposite and run towards it. When there is bad weather and everyone is told to stay off the road, we have to be on it."

Edwards, 25, is married to Mark's daughter, Noelle. He started out at the Hillsville Police Department in 2007 and has been a deputy sheriff for Carroll County since 2008.

And Brad Brown, 23, who is married to Mark's daughter Emily, has been with the Grayson County Sheriff's Office since 2008.

"At dinner, you would hear the family's stories," said Brown. "I think it's cool to be the man who fixes it and to be the good guy. One of those days I'm going to have some of those stories."

Drew Burnett said being an officer is something he has wanted to do since he was just a small boy dressing up as a cop for Halloween.

"I could respect what dad did," said Drew. "He loved his job, and you could see all the good he's done over the years. And you never know one day from the next what's going to happen." 

Drew said the second day he was on the job he served a search warrant for drugs. 

When Steve and Brad became officers, family members could not work at the same police department. That's why they had to take jobs outside of Galax. 

Drew serves with his dad at the Galax Police Department, but on different shifts. 

"If I have a question about something, I know I can call dad and he'll help me straighten it out," said Drew. 

When each talks about how they got involved in the profession, Claude's sons point fingers at him.

"They all say it's my fault," Claude joked. "I never told them this is what you have to do. We just supported them in what they wanted." 

Claude said he is just happy to have made it safely over the years and hopes that his family returns home safely each night. 

"When you're in this line of work, you have to have your family behind you, because you don't always win a popularity contest when you put on the badge," said Claude. 

It never fails that when his family sits down for dinner, at least one of them are called to work, said Claude. 

"There's a lot of missed holidays and birthdays," said Claude. Working with car accidents, fatalities, suicides, drugs, disputes and murders, "you rest your life in your partner's hands and there's a lot of unknown." 

The job can change with one call — taking the smooth night to a suspenseful one.

Claude, now 71, said much has changed since he was last in the business. 

When he first started, his equipment included a gun and handcuffs, and training wasn't that extensive. There were no portable radios, cell phones or computer equipment in patrol cars.

The police force was smaller, and the Galax Police Department was not equipped with detectives as it is now. 

When pepper spray first came out, Claude had to attend training in Roanoke and then train officers in Galax and the Twin Counties. 

Back then, the crime rate was lower and drugs were rare, he said. 

"When inmates find out who I am and ask how dad is doing, that is a testament to the respect that he gave people and the respect that they gave him," said Steve. 

"When people find out that I'm Claude's son, they have respect for me. He's saved me from a butt-whooping or two," Brad joked.