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HILLSVILLE — Sheriff Warren Manning harkened back to a simpler time in law enforcement at his surprise retirement party on Nov. 18, celebrating his 31-year career as a law enforcement officer.
He didn’t dwell on the administrative accomplishments in the department during his 16 years as sheriff, nor the serious responsibilities that investigators have in assisting the families of victims of violent crimes, but looked back to the old days.
“I don’t know what to say,” the retiring sheriff reacted, taking in the decked-out board of supervisors room, including a wooden rocking chair set aside for him, memorabilia from his political campaigns, a slideshow, a pencil drawing of Manning in front of the old county jail, a huge spread of food and more. “Pretty well shocked.”
Manning recalled a couple of heart-racing moments as a deputy.
Back in 1980, when he first joined Sheriff Hassell Vass’s team, patrolling the Buckwoods section of the county sometimes felt like a real life version of “The Dukes of Hazzard.”
“I’d think, ‘Am I getting paid to do this, because this is good stuff,’” Manning told a board of supervisors roomful of friends, family, community members and the many representatives of law enforcement attending his party. “It’s just been a ride you wouldn’t believe.”
Both the community and the world of law enforcement have changed radically since Manning first started serving civil papers and patrolling Carroll County’s roads.
When Manning approached Vass for a job, he was looking for economic security for his growing family, he told The Gazette. The construction business that he worked in with his father wasn’t doing much at the time.
When Vass, fresh off his selection as sheriff, hired Manning, they were both new to law enforcement.
“I was young and looking for a career,” the sheriff remembered. “He [Vass] just got elected, and he was a welder. He didn’t have no law enforcement background — we all learned together, I guess.”
While officers today have to get in half a year or so of training early on, Manning went through about eight weeks of classes after about a year of working.
Back in those days, the county didn’t equip the deputies — the officers had to do that themselves.
“I had to go out and buy all my uniforms, buy a gun and buy a car,” Manning remembered. “I thought I was bettering myself, but after buying that stuff I went in the hole.”
Deputies have it a lot better today.
One month Manning had a gas bill of $350, but only got reimbursed for $300 from the county.
“I remember if I could ever get to make $20,000 a year I thought I’d be rich, and my guys start out more than that now, a lot more,” he said at the retirement party.
Carroll officials changed their policy after about a year and bought cast-off and worn-out vehicles from the North Carolina Highway Patrol.
Riding around in their 1973 Chevrolet cruiser with a young Deputy Glenn Nester stood out as a memory that Manning shared at his retirement party. They had driven out to Laurel Fork when a call came in about a prowler at Carroll County High School.
Nester pointed the old car back towards Hillsville, at speeds that Manning indicated might have been excessive.
He wasn’t sure the vehicle with more than 100,000 miles reached 110 mph, but the old shock absorbers allowed the side of the car to drag in the curves.
“And I’m thinking, ‘Is this normal? Do you go this fast for a prowler call?’” Manning remembered, evoking peels of laughter. “Well, you would if you’re with a boy that just got a badge...
“He was 19 and I was probably 25-26, and I was thinking, ‘Well, I kind of like this. It’s kind of exciting, but I don’t know if I’ll live through it or not!’”
Looking back, Carroll County seemed like a very different place in 1980 in terms of crime, Manning told The Gazette. When he started his career, Manning could patrol one community and end up with a car full of people under arrest due to being drunk in public.
At that time, having to crack down on illegal drugs remained a rare thing.
“If we got a [marijuana] seed out of a house, we thought it was a big haul, because it was not all that plentiful,” Manning said.
Deputies didn’t have a set schedule, but would go on duty at 8 a.m., work until the deputies handled all the requests for help and then went home. When reports of crime came in later that evening or in the early morning hours, deputies would resume their work.
Law enforcement officers saw fights, domestics and “mischievousness,” Manning said. Halloween seemed to be observed through creating mayhem.
“It would be nothing for people to try to burn bridges down, [burn] tires, cut trees down....” he recalled.
But when drugs started showing up on the scene, crime changed, Manning said. People got addicted to it and then stole to feed their habit.
At one time, when there was a theft in the community, deputies could track the culprit down because it was somebody who lived in the county.
These days, people don’t live in the same place all their lives and move around more. Also, there’s a class of criminal that travels around on interstates and highways, stops in the area, hits a home or business and then drives out of the county and the state.
Then there are the crimes that nobody wants to face, but law enforcement officers have to solve.
Manning will never forget the call in the middle of the night when a woman in Ivanhoe got killed.
“I remember feeling the weight of the world on my shoulders then,” he told The Gazette. “It was a long drive to Ivanhoe knowing it was on me to find who did the shooting.”
He felt the same in the ambush that led to the death of well-known farmer and musician Donald Brady and two teenagers killed in an attack in a mobile home on Frog Spur Road in Fancy Gap.
But the whole sheriff’s office, including dispatchers and secretaries would pull together to charge suspects with those crimes. Manning said it took a combination of hard work and luck.
But the most momentous case to arise from Manning’s term was more of a curiosity than anything else.
Deputies charged a Ku Klux Klan leader for burning a cross under Virginia law, and the legal wrangling continued on that case until it went before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Manning never understood exactly why a Klansman from Pennsylvania decided to burn a cross here, but it made Carroll the epicenter of a national discussion.
“It changed the whole outlook on cross burning in the whole state of Virginia,” Manning noted. The Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional a part of the state law that said the act of burning a cross was, in and of itself, an attempt to intimidate others.
First elected in 1995, Manning took over the responsibility of running the whole sheriff’s department.
Manning didn’t talk about his accomplishments as administrator during the retirement celebration, such as adding canines to search for drugs, suspects or missing people; the sheriff’s office becoming certified under the Virginia Compensation Board; presiding over the closing of the county jail and the transfer of prisoners to the New River Regional Jail in Dublin; having off-duty deputies to make traffic on Interstate 77 slow down or founding the school resource officer program.
Keeping the people of Carroll County and the deputies safe was a serious job.
In his three decades, he grew close to his co-workers and think of them as a family.
In January, Investigator J.B. Gardner will take over as sheriff, after winning election on Nov. 8.
For the last year, since it’s been widely known that Manning would step down after his current term runs out in December, he’s found himself peppered with question about what happens now.
He told the crowd at his celebration that he might ride the roads to Hillsville and wave, just out of habit.
“I’m not going to sit at home, I’m not going to sit on the porch, I’m not going to go fishing every day.” Manning told The Gazette.
He can see himself riding his motorcycle more, but he’ll also continue to be a part of the community.
“If I can help the county I will do anything that I can,” Manning said. “The county’s been good to me for 30 years. I hope I’ve been as good to them as they have to me.”