Longtime Walker County sheriff faces primary challenger

Contributed Photo / Don Stultz, a retired Georgia Highway Patrol commander, is running to unseat Walker County Sheriff Steve Wilson.
Contributed Photo / Don Stultz, a retired Georgia Highway Patrol commander, is running to unseat Walker County Sheriff Steve Wilson.

Former Georgia State Patrol Commander Don Stultz is challenging longtime Walker County Sheriff Steve Wilson in an upcoming Republican primary for the post.

The two men both hail from Northwest Georgia, each have more than 40 years of experience in law enforcement and have known each other since they were children.

Wilson, 66, is running for his eighth four-year term as sheriff and has nearly 50 years of law enforcement experience. Stultz, a 65-year-old resident of LaFayette, retired from the Georgia State Patrol in 2020 after 42 years of service. They both plan to be on the May 21 Republican primary ballot.

In a phone call, Stultz said he's wanted to run for sheriff for about 30 years and wants to bring his extensive training experience and willingness to lead from the front to the Walker County Sheriff's Office.

Stultz has declared his intent to be a candidate for sheriff, Danielle Montgomery, director of elections, said in a phone call. No other candidates have declared their intent to run for sheriff, she said.

Candidates will qualify with their party for the primary ballot from March 4-8, she said. The primary is May 21, and the general election is Nov. 5.

Steve Wilson

First elected in 1996, Wilson said in a phone call he's enjoyed serving as sheriff and still has the drive and willingness to work hard for the citizens of Walker County.

"Training is a big part of who we are as law enforcement," Wilson said. "We're continually trying to do better, learn more, to execute more -- because the criminal element is ever-changing and we certainly have to stay ahead of that curve."

The Sheriff's Office has been in talks with Georgia Northwestern Technical College in Rock Spring, he said, to host more trainings for the county's deputies and the college's on-campus officers. Building a new on-campus firing range is being negotiated, he said, as well as finding space on campus to consolidate the Sheriff's Office training facilities.

Wilson said he wants to provide quality law enforcement -- be it proactive or reactive.

Wilson said his office works to prevent crime by promoting a neighborhood watch program and a Georgia Sheriffs' Association safety program that focuses on choosing healthy activities and methods promoting safety. The safety program teaches fifth graders nearly 20 life skills including home alone safety, gun safety and the dangers of drugs and alcohol, he said.

(READ MORE: Steve Wilson seeks seventh term as sheriff of Walker County, Georgia)

For about three years, Wilson said his office has been working closely with the judicial district's drug and mental health courts. And for the past two years, he said, his office has placed an employee at the jail to help identify inmates who could benefit from the specialized courts.

"This is just another alternative to incarceration, hopefully to stop the recidivism rate, and there have been some success stories identifying people who are eligible," Wilson said.

Wilson said he was proud to implement a body and vehicle camera program for his deputies about 14 months ago. More recently, the office received a grant from Gov. Brian Kemp's office to upgrade the jail's radios and to purchase a body scanner to prevent weapons and drugs being smuggled into the jail.

(READ MORE: Three dead in suspected fentanyl overdoses in Walker County)

Working at the FBI in Washington, D.C., as a fingerprint examiner and security officer was Wilson's first law enforcement experience, according to his campaign website. Two years with the Georgia Department of Corrections was followed by six years with the LaFayette Police Department before he was hired by the Walker County Sheriff's Office in 1986.

After 10 years as a deputy, detective and commander of the judicial district's drug task force, he ran and was elected sheriff in 1996 with 73% of the vote, according to his campaign website. In five elections, Wilson has run unopposed or won more than 70% of the vote every time.

When Stultz told Wilson he was running for sheriff, Wilson said the two lawmen had a sit-down meeting where the incumbent said he pledged to run a clean race. No debate is planned, he said.

Don Stultz

Interested in running for sheriff in 1994, Stultz said he went to visit Al Millard, then the Walker County sheriff who had decided not to run for reelection due to an illness.

Millard said he would support Stultz's candidacy but wanted him to think about how his law enforcement career would be affected if he didn't win, he said. Stultz decided not to run that year, he said, and Millard asked him to support Wilson, who was elected two years later.

Stultz said he delayed running for sheriff because of a promise he made before his father died. That pledge led him to retire in 2020 to take care of his mother, he said.

When asked if there was anything specific that needed changing in the Sheriff's Office, Stultz pointed to his different leadership style, extensive law enforcement training and leading up to 120 troopers across 14 counties as a patrol commander in the State Patrol.

"I have a different leadership style than Steve," Stultz said. "I will tell you that I'm a lawman -- I'm not a politician."

Stultz said he plans to be in uniform every day -- except for weekend street clothes occasionally and a suit and tie for church on Sunday.

As troop commander, he said he oversaw seven patrol posts across 14 Georgia counties and two facilities: the troop communications center and specialized collision reconstruction team. He said he's also had anti-terrorist training in Germany and trained with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, FBI and U.S. military.

"I feel like I have a fantastic grasp on what goes on and what could be done," Stultz said. "And I just have a different approach to situations, and I think I can make a profound difference in our county when it comes to crime."

Stultz said he thinks leaders should lead from the front, be it a riot formation, meeting or a search party.

He said he would need to research before commenting on any policies he thought needed to be changed at the Sheriff's Office but said the State Patrol's approach to law enforcement is effective and tested in both courts and the field.

"I think there needs to be more training in pursuits and in pursuit intervention techniques," he said.

The Georgia State Patrol has different responsibilities than a sheriff's department, he said, but they're both about public service and law enforcement. Operating a jail would be a new responsibility, but Stultz said he's worked with people who are familiar with their operation.

Stultz began his career with the LaFayette Police Department in 1978 and joined the State Patrol two years later.

He patrolled throughout Northwest Georgia early in his state patrol career, and in 1996 he began to climb in rank and served as a post commander in both Dalton and LaFayette. In 1997, he was named troop commander overseeing the 14 North Georgia counties of Troop A, and he held that position until his retirement.

Stultz said he's been encouraged by many people to run for the position.

"Folks have known for years that this is my plan," he said. "And I've received very, very gratifying comments and suggestions from people. I've been elated by the positive response and comments I've gotten."

Contact Andrew Wilkins at awilkins@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659.

  photo  Walker County Sheriff's Office / Walker County Sheriff Steve Wilson is running for an eighth term.

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