THE MAN … IS A GOOD OL’ BOY
COCKY, CONTROVERSIAL, TOUGH-ON-CRIME SHERIFF SAYS MAKING WAVES IS THE BEST WAY HE KNOWS TO TURN THE TIDE
By Dana Damico
JOURNAL DAVIDSON COUNTY BUREAU
Sheriff Gerald Hege often seems like the political equivalent of Dale Earnhardt in his heyday – smashing fenders, charging aggressively, dominating the field, his engine screaming, his fans cheering and his foes cursing as he flies around the track. Sometimes a tire blows and he hits the wall, but there’s always another day, another race, another headline.
Hege’s policies and take-no-prisoners attitude have made him both adored and despised.
His fans say that he has reduced crime in Davidson County, put criminals to work and transformed the county jail from a veritable Shangri-La to a no-frills lockup. Supporters stop him at crime scenes, local barbecue joints, and even funerals to shake his hand and ask for his autograph.
His detractors lambaste him as a showboat, a publicity hound and even an egomaniac. Some accuse him of abusing his power.
Among his supporters and his critics are people who have known Hege for many years and dealt with him often. They have come away with contradicting images of who he really is.
What’s consistent in the details of Hege’s past, however, is his drive to take and keep control of his life, and his confidence in his ability to wield his authority justly.
The two Gerald Heges
Hege brushes off his critics with cool indifference, attributing their jabs to spite, jealousy or politics, but his friends and family members bristle with indignation.
“They don’t know the real Gerald Hege ,” said Bob Gordon, the superintendent of the Asheboro City Schools, who taught and coached Hege at East Davidson High School.
Friends such as Mike Brophy, who was Hege ‘s sergeant in Vietnam, chose such words as humble, quiet and reserved when asked to describe the man who immodestly bills himself as “America’s Toughest Sheriff.”
Brophy, who lives in Canastota, N.Y., knows all about Hege’s “spider car,” the black Chevrolet Impala emblazoned with black widow spiders. He has seen Hege ‘s face on posters, calendars and postcards staring down the barrel of a gun held fast on a “scumbag” criminal.
But Brophy believes that Hege is just casting himself as larger than life to gain an air of authority that makes him a better sheriff.
“His whole persona is about `This is what I’ve got to do,’ ” he said. “It’s an attention-grabber . . . but needed to do his job effectively.
“I think sometimes he’d rather get back on his land . . . put on a pair of blue jeans and kind of be himself.”
In an unusual moment of introspective candor, Hege put it this way: “You got to be Sheriff Hege, and you got to be Gerald Hege . It’s good when you get to be Gerald Hege.”
In fact, if Hege ‘s life were made into a movie – and he’ll tell you that some film people have been talking about it – there wouldn’t be much in it about the pink jail cells, the spider car and the almost daily posturing for local television crews. Standing in his office near his Sheriff Hege statuettes and posters, he’ll tell you with a curled lip and a bored shrug that all of that is nothing.
Nothing compared to the day a redneck deputy with a foul mouth and tobacco-stained shirt cussed him up one side and down the other. Hege: a skinny 12-year-old. The deputy: big and armed. That day, in front of all of his friends, Hege stood in the road and cried.
That would be in the movie, if he had something to say about it.
So would the sweltering summer day, it felt like 100 degrees, when he was 19 and still skinny and standing in a small chapel in South Carolina, the same chapel where his parents, Gilmer and Vivien Hege , exchanged vows. That day he promised to love and cherish till death do us part his childhood sweetheart, Marjorie Geraldine “Geri” Farabee – at age 19, a dead ringer for Natalie Wood.
When the couple returned home less than 24 hours later, his mother would stand in his driveway brandishing an envelope that held his draft notice. Seventeen days later he would board a bus for Fort Bragg. Five months after that, he would be loading dead soldiers atop a wheelbarrow in Dau Tieng, South Vietnam.
There this country boy from the South who spent many a summer picking tobacco under the stern watch of his grandfather would fight alongside blacks and Hispanics. The racial lines that divided folks back home would blur so that the hand of the man you reached to pull out of a foxhole didn’t seem to have a color anymore.
So, this stuff about dressing his deputies in military fatigues and his inmates in stripes – you know, the stuff that has actually gotten people’s attention? The stuff that has made him what some consider a local hero and others a nuisance? Well, he says it’s not really important.
Go back to the Davidson County Courthouse – where large, framed photographs of him and newspaper stories about him stare back from almost every wall in his waiting room, his assistant’s office, his office and the hallway leading to it – and it’s hard to believe him. But that’s what he says.
Ask Hege about his childhood, and he invariably mentions the day he followed an errant football into the road, into the path of a deputy’s car. The burly man got out and scolded Hege for running into traffic, giving him a tongue-lashing that would make a drill sergeant blush.
“When you’re 12, you don’t like to be put down in front of your guys,” Hege said. “I cried. That really hurt my feelings.”
He said he knew then that he wanted to be in law enforcement. He vowed that he would treat people with more respect. Though he is noted for an “in-your-face” style and for calling criminals “scumbags,” Hege maintains that he has lived up to his vow.
Hege was on Business 85 one day recently, driving in the left lane at a comfortable – and legal – speed when a man zipped past. Hege ‘s lights went on, the siren blared and he floored the gas pedal.
Yapping on his cellular phone, the man didn’t seem to notice the screaming patrol car behind him – not until Hege , visibly frustrated, pulled along the left side of the car and jabbed a finger through the air. “You better pull over, son,” he growled.
The man did. Hege parked and walked to the driver’s window.
“I was doing 55, you passed me,” said Hege , a tenor of shocked disbelief in his voice. “I ought to write you up and lock you up.”
He gave the man a stern, heated – and G-rated – tongue-lashing but let him go. “You got lucky today. . . . Get out of here,” he said.
Some might see more than a passing similarity between his treatment of the man and the way Hege was treated by the deputy as a young boy. Hege says there is a world of difference between cursing a boy who made a boyish mistake and using clean language to berate an adult who should have known better.
Gerald Keith Hege was born Nov. 27, 1948, the third of four children. His father was a carpenter; his mother, a housewife. Hege described his family as “country people.”
They lived for a number of years in a three-bedroom, white-frame house on a small lot. Hege had normal chores such as cutting the grass. But in the summer, he and his brother, Gilmer “Mutt” Hege Jr., who is three years older, picked tobacco on their grandfather’s farm.
Hege hated it. The work was hot, dirty, wet, gummy and miserable. He and his brother had to wake at 4 in the morning and work until 7 at night. They were paid about $5 a day.
What’s worse, Hege said, he couldn’t joke around. He liked to talk. But Grandpa William “Bud” McKinley, who carried a big stick, didn’t tolerate much of that.
By Hege ‘s own account, he and his brother were a mischievous pair. They skinny-dipped in Abbott’s Creek, played with cars and swung from grapevines. They once hid a black snake in a gallon jug, filled it with flowers and gave it to their babysitter.
“My brother and I were a sight,” he recalled. “We could have drove two or three mommas crazy.”
But Vivien Hege was no pushover. She disciplined her boys with hickory switches, weeping-willow branches or belts. She even took a baseball bat to her husband’s car and broke the windows once in the mid-1950s when she got fed up with him for hauling moonshine.
“No man was going to push her around,” Hege said.
From his mother, Hege said, he learned to be tough. He credits his father, whom he describes as a “real quiet guy,” with teaching him patience and compassion.
A World War II veteran, Hege ‘s father never talked much about his years in combat. Still, a young and impressionable Hege looked with fascination on his father’s military uniform, black-and-white war photos, and a sword brought back from overseas. He loved war movies and considered Audie Murphy, the famed WWII soldier, a personal hero. He played Army in a cow pasture, shot BB guns and threw ears of corn skyward like rockets.
He was a normal little boy – sweet, easy and devilish, said Mary Coleman, 56, who lived two doors down from Hege when the two were young. “He was always just into stuff.”
Coleman remembers that Hege found her mother’s biscuits irresistible – he’d walk into the house as if he were one of the family, take a biscuit and run, she said. And in the early 1970s, when Hege first worked as a sheriff’s deputy, he would drive to the Colemans’ house, squawk his siren as he pulled in the driveway and come in looking for biscuits again.
Shortly after Hege returned from Vietnam he stopped by her beauty salon, walked in, picked her up and twirled her around, then left without saying a word.
“This is how he is, just real spur-of-the-moment,” Coleman said.
Now that he is in a position of authority, Hege regrets having aggravated his high school principal with such pranks as removing the urinals from a bathroom wall. And maybe he picked on one or two students a little too much – you know, kids he gave wedgies to or pushed his class ring into their heads – but he insists that he was no bully.
“He was a typical teen-ager,” Gordon said. “Full of life, full of energy, and a little mischievous at times.”
High on a shelf in the sheriff’s office sits a photograph of the Heges’ oldest son, Keith, in an Army uniform, and one of their other son, Travis, after his high-school graduation. There’s also a photograph of Gerald and Geri.
Displayed prominently on the shelf are two bottles of Cheerwine. Hege says they represent his childhood courtship of Geri.
At 12, Hege would watch Geri play jacks. The two walked together, holding hands, and ate Moon Pies and crackers. He remembers that they also drank Cheerwine together. (She remembers it was RC Cola.)
They dated throughout high school. He played football and basketball. She was a cheerleader. He didn’t put much effort into his schoolwork and got average grades. She got A’s.
“They were just really fun kids to be around,” Gordon said.
Married 30 years now, the couple appear almost everywhere together: at parades and Republican rallies, local restaurants and even the roadblocks – driver’s license checkpoints where every car is stopped – that Hege and his deputies regularly set up around the county.
One recent Sunday night, Geri Hege sat in the spider car at a roadblock, just as she has at many others. The sheriff helped his deputies stop cars. Geri counted them, making a mark on a piece of scrap paper for each car: 311 in just 55 minutes.
The two have notably different public personalities. While Gerald blends comfortably into crowds, throws his arm around people and leans in to talk to strangers, Geri often hangs back. He is garrulous. She is reticent. He courts the media and shares stories of their life together. She doesn’t like that – their personal business is their own, she said.
Still, they seem a comfortable and happy couple.
“I’m her life, she’s mine,” Hege said. “Without her, I wouldn’t be nothing. When the fork in the road came to good or evil, I never would have gone down the good road.”
On Aug. 31, 1968, a year after they graduated from high school, Hege borrowed his sister’s 1956 black-and-white Mercury, and he and Geri went to York, S.C., to get married. They got two flat tires and a speeding ticket along the way.
When the newlyweds returned home the next day, Hege ‘s mom met them outside, holding his draft notice. Hege said he felt sick.
Military records show that he reported to Fort Bragg on Sept. 17 and Fort Polk, La., about two months later. When he flew to Vietnam in February 1969, Geri was pregnant.
Hege learned a new way to breathe those first days “in country.” The hot jungle air stunk of decay, he said. It was miserable – infested with bugs, snakes and rats. He would have given anything to be back in Midway picking tobacco.
Instead, he and other soldiers from the 25th Infantry Division lay side by side on the floor of an airplane en route to a small base camp at Dau Tieng. It had been under attack for days, Brophy said. The plane touched down amid gunfire on a makeshift airstrip strewn with burned-out planes and dead bodies.
“I never been that scared in my life,” Hege said. He leaned back in his chair at the sheriff’s office and scratched his chin as he recounted the story.
“I thought, `What in the hell have I done now?’ ”
It got worse.
A few nights later, Hege watched from the top of a bunker as Viet Cong soldiers streamed from a hidden tunnel near the airstrip. Flares lit the sky. Men screamed for help.
“You just shoot at everything that moves,” Hege said. The attack lasted hours. Sickening fear gripped him only after it ended. “You just throw up. You’re so young. You’re just scared to death.”
During “stand down,” short periods when the platoon returned to base camp, he would look at photos of his wife, write letters to her and think: “My God, look at this good-looking wife I got, and I’m going to die in this Godforsaken place.”
But Andrew Knapp, who served with Hege , remembers Hege as a soldier who seemed boosted by fear, not bothered by it. “He was the one that would just step up and do everything,” said Knapp, who lives in Oklahoma. “He was the ramrod, the leader, the motivator.”
Hege spent nearly a year in Vietnam. He was awarded a Bronze Star after carrying a burning soldier to a dirt pit, where the flames were doused. The soldier had caught fire from the waist down when a white phosphorous mortar blew up near him.
When Hege returned home in 1970, he had changed. “I think Vietnam hardened me up more than anything,” he said. War makes you cold; it makes you a wild person, he said.
He went to work as a deputy. He admits he was rough.
“I’d jack your head right up,” he said. Some in the department thought he was nuts. He didn’t think so. “I was just a good warrior.”
Law enforcement was more physical then, more confrontational, said Capt. Mark Stabler of the enforcement division of the N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles, who was a captain in the sheriff’s department. Deputies didn’t have pepper spray for protection or walkie-talkies to call for backup. Sometimes muscle was needed.
Stabler can’t recall specific cases when Hege may have been too aggressive. “If he strayed across that magic line . . . it was through enthusiasm.”
Still, questions of whether Hege used excessive force tainted his tenure as a deputy.
He was one of several law-enforcement officers involved in a shootout on July 26, 1973, that left a Morganton man dead. The man was shot in the head as he and another man drove away from a house near Lexington where they had been seen during a break-in, according to court documents.
A loaded, .22-caliber pistol was found under the car’s front seat. Officers fired several shots at the car, and it was not possible to determine who killed the defendant, court documents show.
The State Bureau of Investigation, which said that the men nearly ran over Hege , found no wrongdoing.
And then in 1974, there was what Hege described as a “small tussle” with a trusty at the county jail.
Hege said he gathered four trusties to the soda machine, where an informant said that drugs were being hidden. He asked who was responsible. Hege said that one of the men swung at him, so he “got heavy” with the man and kicked him.
Talking about the incident recently, Hege held his rough, knotted hands squarely over the center of his chest – that’s where he kicked the man, once. The man’s chest bore Hege ‘s size 11 1/2 -boot imprint a day later.
He was called into Sheriff Fred Sink’s office the next day, and Hege said he told the truth: “I kicked him, and I meant to hurt him.”
What happened next remains disputed 25 years later. Sink said he fired Hege . Hege said he resigned, but months later.
“The man beat a prisoner,” said Sink, now a county commissioner. Hege knew that he made a mistake, Sink said. “That was the end of him as a deputy sheriff.”
A new outlet for his energy
On any given day now, Hege can be found leading schoolchildren through the county courthouse, inching the spider car along parade routes or signing autographs at local festivals. He calls it “politicking,” the art of pressing the flesh and listening to people; not politics, the cold administration of government. It’s all about smiling, shaking hands, talking about septic tanks and outhouses. Down-home and Southern.
Hege spends many Sundays talking to church congregations, and it’s among religious folk that he often talks about how he found himself on the wrong side of the law after once wearing a badge.
One night in 1977, while his wife and son were out of town, he got together for a drink with some old friends who also used to work for the sheriff’s department. They ended up zooming around on motorcycles, acting “like a bunch of idiots,” Hege said. They tried to outrun a state trooper.
Court records show that Hege was charged with going 78 mph in a 55 mph zone. He thinks he was probably going more like 90 mph. He pleaded guilty to reckless driving, eluding arrest and failure to stop for blue lights.
He was 29, a husband, the father of one and was working at his father’s construction company. But he was still drinking and driving fast cars. He lost his license for more than a year and had to walk or be chauffeured by his wife.
He described it as “kind of humiliating” but good for him. It made him realize that life meant more than “a cold beer and a fast motorcycle.” He finally grew up. He says he hasn’t had a drink since.
Hege spent the next several years remodeling houses, then went to work as a signal operator for Southern Railway in 1981. He never liked the job. It paid well, but there was no challenge, he said.
He soon found a new outlet for his energy. Some people golf for fun. Some work on their cars or watch TV.
Hege said politics is his hobby.
Driving through Midway, he can point knowingly at each house. “This guy’s Republican. This guy’s Republican. This guy here, he’s a Democrat,” he said, waving his hand dismissively.
He knows this, he said, because he traveled throughout the county registering voters in the 1980s, when Republicans were the minority party in the county. He found it fascinating that a person could help change the face of politics simply by registering voters.
Hege enjoys the strategy of politics and can talk voting percentages at mind-numbing length. There’s ego involved too: He likes the thought of toppling entrenched politicians, the elite who control the government and keep the ordinary Joes out.
He ran for sheriff in 1986 and 1990 and lost in the primaries to Sink, his former boss. But he was elected chairman of the Davidson County Republican Party in 1991, and there he laid the groundwork for the tensions in the party that now dog him as sheriff.
Hege ordered that elected officials could not serve on the party’s executive committee, forcing out some longtime, influential Republicans. He made the decision, he said, because he had watched for years as some worked tirelessly for the party without recognition while “a covey” of those in power showed up after the rallies and claimed credit.
“I booted them out,” he said. “They were the reason I ran (for chairman), to get them out.”
Larry Potts, the chairman of the county commissioners, believes that Hege has done more than anyone in the past 40 years to build the GOP in Davidson County. But Potts also believes that the combination of Hege ‘s political strength and his drive to be in control threaten to undermine the party.
Hege can’t brook different opinions, Potts said. Not from county officials, his personnel or the public. You either agree with him 100 percent, or you’re his enemy.
“The whole world can’t adjust to the way he operates,” Potts said.
Hege narrowly won the sheriff’s office on his third try, in 1994, when Republicans unexpectedly swept into many national, state and local offices.
From the moment he took office, he has regularly said or done things that created controversy. A sampling:
*He fired 25 people, including several top officers; hired loyal Republican Party workers; and promoted his cousin, David Hege , from lieutenant to major.
*He had the jail cells painted pink with crying blue teddy bears.
*He created a line of merchandise bearing his name and image and uses most of the profits to produce more merchandise.
*He got the spider car and bragged of test-driving it at 143 mph at 3 a.m. on a stretch of U.S. 52.
*He made roadblocks the central feature of his crime-fighting efforts, and he boasted about one at which he stopped the secretary of state outside a Democratic Party fund-raiser in 1995.
*He set up an unauthorized bank account and used it to buy two Harley-Davidson motorcycles for his department without county approval.
And there have been a host of minor controversies, many revolving around his running feud with the county commissioners. He stopped talking to all of the commissioners in January and recently threatened that several commissioners who have looked for ways to reduce his power will “fall like big trees” in the next election.
Roy Holman, a Democrat who ran against Hege in last year’s election, said that Hege has a pattern of bucking authority.
“It’s his way,” Holman said. “He’s not going to follow anyone’s advice.”
Hege also stopped talking to anyone from The Dispatch, Lexington’s afternoon newspaper, last fall after a reporter asked a question that Hege felt implied that he had acted unethically. He limited all public access to records in his office to between 10 a.m. and noon daily, a restriction that has the greatest effect on The Dispatch because the paper’s deadline is 10 a.m.
Hege has rebuffed several attempts by the paper to resolve the matter, said Managing Editor Chad Killebrew.
The Teflon sheriff
Critics often grumble that Hege goes beyond simply turning a cold shoulder or politically campaigning against those who differ with him. Though most won’t say it publicly, they talk privately of what they call intimidation tactics by members of the sheriff’s office.
Holman, one of the few who will talk openly about it, said that during the election deputies kept close watch at his public appearances. “It’s his way of intimidating and putting fear into people,” he said.
Hege said that’s ludicrous. “It’s totally untrue and asinine that he would even mention something like that,” he said.
Holman, who is considering a second run for sheriff in 2002, hopes that the public grows weary of Hege ‘s shtick. “They’ve seen the show, . . . and they’re going to get tired of it,” he said.
Maybe. Maybe not.
For now, Hege ‘s support seems firm.
Rachel Isgett, 75, said she admires Hege ‘s tough style. “He’s doing away with so many drugs,” Isgett said after a recent luncheon where Hege warned senior citizens against falling prey to flim-flam artists. “He’s making the ones that go to jail ashamed to be down there, I hope.”
And on many days, Hege ‘s supporters sit in the waiting room outside his office waiting for a chance to talk to him. They read the newspaper profiles of him that decorate the walls, and they quietly praise him.
One day recently, just after Hege had been talking about his “door-to-door, store-to-store” style of politicking, a sheriff’s employee showed Sallie Clodfelter, her daughter and two grandsons, Sam and Sidney, to his office. Hege got up from behind his desk with his warm, wide-eyed, “aw, shucks” kind of smile. He rubbed his big hand on 9-year-old Sam’s head. Clodfelter told Hege that Sam wants to be a canine officer when he grows up.
Clodfelter said that her grandsons are fascinated with Hege , the spider car and the officer from the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program who visits their school. Clodfelter likes Hege because he spends time with kids. Children should learn to respect police officers, not fear them, she said.
For Hege , it was clear vindication of his tactics. “You heard what he (Sam) wants to be.”
Looking for new path
The question now is what Hege wants to be once he stops being sheriff.
He is 50 and has said that in a few years he may too old to do the job the way he would like. He may not be able to handle the long hours he now puts in.
He’s flirting with making a bid for the governor’s office in 2000, casting himself as the outsider in a field of status-quo politicians. At a GOP forum for candidates in April, Hege sat wearing his uniform fatigues, his thick arms folded across his chest. The others wore starched shirts and taut neckties.
Hege didn’t read from a prepared speech or hand out campaign brochures. He didn’t talk “issues” or use such buzzwords as welfare reform, school choice and charter schools. With his deadpan delivery and such one-liners as “I may be country, but I’m not stupid,” Hege ‘s speech sparked laughter and cheers.
But in the same speech Hege also said why he probably won’t run. He told the crowd that he specializes in three things: fighting crime, reducing crime and campaigning.
“I have no burning desire to be governor,” he said. “I think it would be a boring job.”
He may want to be appointed secretary of crime control and public safety, which he thinks could give him tremendous influence over crime-fighting policies.
For now, Hege says he is living his dream as sheriff: patrolling the county in the spider car, fighting crime and making public appearances.
“You want to cherish the moment,” he said. “It’s going to end someday.”
And again he insists, despite cherishing the past 4 1/2 years’ worth of moments in the spotlight, that his years in law enforcement would take up only 15 minutes of a 90-minute movie about his life, and seven minutes of that would focus on his years as a deputy in the 1970s.
“The sheriff stuff – I enjoy all this stuff,” he said. “But at the same time, it’s probably not what I’ll hang on to.”