‘It’s no Sleepy Hollow here’: Former Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder finds a new home and happiness in Moab

(Courtney Tanner | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jim Winder, the chief of police for Moab, stands on the side of the road near the Colorado River on April 7, 2018. He stepped down from his position as Salt Lake County sheriff in July 2017.

Moab • With a mouthful of blueberry scone, Jim Winder looks around the cafe at the rainbow watercolors of dogs hanging on the walls, out the windows at the red sandstone spires on the horizon and then back across the table at me.

“So do you like it here?” I had asked him.

Winder responds after a pause and with a few crumbs at the corners of his mouth. “I’m very happy.” He ponders his answer again as if the scenery gave him some confirmation. “Very, very happy.”

It’s a sun-blessed Saturday in early April, and this southeastern Utah town is swelling with tourists. Winder had joked that I would recognize him in the crowd as “the elderly gentleman in the bike shorts.” But the coffee shop in the middle of recreation haven Moab has more than a few of those hanging around. Besides, Winder is only 53.

It wouldn’t have been hard to spot him anyway. He’s a tall man — over 6 feet — with a hearty laugh and a holster on his hip. And, as he walks in, a couple of residents give him away with shouts of “Hey there, chief.”

That’s a relatively new title for Winder.

He came to this desert community a year ago after stepping down as the popular sheriff of Salt Lake County, one of the largest law-enforcement agencies in the state, and signing on as the little-known police chief of Moab. He traded 2,000 employees for a force of 17 officers. He went from a major metropolis to a tiny town 200 miles away.

He left bickering and warped relationships and frustration and blame. He found renewal in a job that felt both familiar and different. Which is the point.

“When the opportunity came up, this was soul-enriching,” Winder says. “I hope no one begrudges me for saying I needed to repower.”

How he got here

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Then-Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder is projected on a live stream as county and state leaders discuss steps to address the public safety crisis currently in the Rio Grande area of Salt Lake City during a press event at the Salt Lake County Government Center in Salt Lake on Monday, May 1, 2017.

Winder is generally pretty animated when he talks, waving his hands and pounding his fist into the table for emphasis. But when we start discussing homelessness in Salt Lake City’s blighted Rio Grande District, he throws out his arms in wide circles and throws in a few curses.

He had visited the grim neighborhood often as sheriff. He knew about the police officers assaulted and the drug dealers hiding out and the hundreds of homeless people unable to access welfare services. Trying to solve the problem, though, just created 10 more.

It was supposed to be a united effort with the city, county and state joining forces. It quickly devolved, Winder said, to pointing fingers and clamoring for credit.

He was blamed for an overcrowded jail, which led to tension with officers who said it hampered their ability to get criminals off the streets. (Winder says that became “the easy target.”) He offered 21 suggestions to address the lawlessness around the shelter, which included opening a regulated homeless campground. (Winder says his ideas were shot down without any conversation.) He stopped talking to Salt Lake City’s mayor and police chief — a freeze-out that was mutual. (Winder says now it was “pretty juvenile.” Even still, Mayor Jackie Biskupski declined to comment for this story, and Chief Mike Brown wished him well through a representative.)

“It just hit this crescendo and rather than everybody holding hands and moving forward, it splintered.”

Leaning forward with an intensity learned from decades in law enforcement, Winder emphasizes this, too: “The biggest mistake would have been to cling on.” And so, the three-term sheriff stepped down in July.

He had stumbled on the job opening in Moab months earlier and largely by chance. Winder was in town for an annual fallen officers memorial to pay tribute to Doug Barney, who was shot and killed in 2016 by a fugitive parolee fleeing the scene of a traffic accident. Three other officers died, all of natural causes, within the next year. It left Winder feeling like a rubber band stretched wide and about to snap. He chokes up trying to tell me about it.

“Those just … I can’t even … Man … So you know … That was.”

He saw the memorial as a chance to reflect, grieve and try to move on. Winder placed a plaque for Barney on a 17-mile dusty desert trail alongside others who died in service. And as he left, he bumped into the then-mayor of Moab, David Sakrison, who mentioned he was looking for a new chief of police.

“Well, is the job open?” Winder asked.

“Sure is,” the mayor responded. “Would you be interested?”

The sheriff laughed. But when he got back to his car, he thought about it again. Was that a sign? Should he apply? Could he do it? “Yes, yes, yes,” responded his wife, Shawn.

‘No Sleepy Hollow’

Winder doesn’t think I’ll believe him. I give him my best unskeptical I-could-believe-in-Bigfoot look, but it’s not very convincing coming from a reporter.

“I swear to God you’re going to think I’m making this up,” he continues. And, at first, I do.

Winder starts his story by playing up how he was just two weeks into his new position with Moab Police when it happened. It was July or August, maybe midafternoon, and it started to rain. Not just any rain, he says, but monsoonlike rain that came down in thick white sheets. The north end of town was flooding. There was 4 feet of water on the roads. And he didn’t know any of the street names to direct his officers.

Then — “and I’m not exaggerating,” he adds — lightning struck to the south, igniting a grassy field on fire below the La Sal Mountains. “So we’ve got a fire in one area and a flood in the other.”

As he quickly tried to cobble together a plan with the few officers on duty, those who were off the clock starting showing up at the station to help where they could. It’s the moment Winder calls on now when I ask how he knew this place was the right fit for him. “I was sold.”

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Visitors take pictures and hike around Delicate Arch in Arches National Park on Saturday, March 5, 2016.

The redrock town here, bisected by Highway 191, has about 5,000 full-time residents. But it sees at least 200 times that many visitors — about 1 million total — each year with Arches National Park at its doorstep. That’s the same as the entire population of Salt Lake County. And throughout the morning, Winder keeps coming back to how his old job there compares with his new job in Moab.

“What I see here,” he says, “I’ve seen for 30 years.”

We cruise in his patrol car down a quiet lane behind the cafe. On the right side of the road, there’s a community of newly built houses. A man stands outside his open garage, which is filled with ATVs and bikes with even more parked on the driveway that don’t fit inside. We turn a corner, and construction workers are laying the foundation for a hotel that will have $300-a-night suites and a spa.

Another two blocks down the road, there’s a compound of trailers, many without electricity, a few with broken windows taped back together. Most residents here work in the low-paying service industry that underpins this tourist town. Less than a mile away, homeless camps are tucked into the tall grass growing beside the Colorado River.

The proximity and disparity of it all are dizzying.

Grand County has the second-highest intergenerational poverty rate in the state, behind neighboring San Juan County. Homelessness in this remote corner of Utah, Winder says, is a lot like what he saw in Salt Lake City. But when he left there, officials had agreed on a plan he estimates has cost $30 million, so far, to build three new shelters. There’s much less public funding for something like that in Moab.

It’s a town in transition, too. Wealthy recreationists and retirees are moving in. Families who have lived here for generations are being priced out. “There is nothing in the middle,” Winder says. “The people here who don’t have, really don’t have.”

He drives past another run-down neighborhood in this 4.1-square-mile town that’s hemmed in by buttes in all directions. His officers went into a home on a call there, he says, and the floor looked as if it was moving because of all the bedbugs.

Before Winder showed up, Moab had been searching for a new police chief for seven months. The previous one, Mike Navarre, left after “some turmoil” in the department with a few rogue officers, says Sakrison. There were allegations that some members of the force had crashed teenagers’ parties, confiscated their marijuana and played beer pong with them. All those accused of misconduct have since stepped down or been fired.

“Our previous chief had worked through that,” Sakrison says. “But then he decided he’d had enough. He was past retirement age anyway.”

The city needed a replacement who could come in and restructure the department, reintroduce accountability and reinforce the rules. A handful of applicants submitted their résumés. The council narrowed it down to three. And then Winder applied.

His experience working to resolve homelessness in the state’s capital launched him to the top of the list. He was offered the job with a unanimous vote. “Chief Winder came in and settled the department down,” Sakrison says.

“Salt Lake’s loss is our gain.”

Winder has expanded the force’s bike patrols. He’s created a new reporting structure for officers. He’s changed how evidence is handled. And he’s streamlined the review of domestic-violence cases.

As we drive through town, he also points to the places where he’s gotten out into the community and responded to calls himself. There’s the spot on a river where a boat full of British tourists crashed on the shore. There are the methamphetamine hangouts and the alcohol hot spots. And then there’s the RV where a man stood outside smoking a marijuana cigarette, casually talking to Winder and not thinking to put it out until the chief pointed to his police uniform (which includes a sewn-on patch of Delicate Arch).

“It’s no Sleepy Hollow here,” Winder says with a laugh.

A welcoming new home

(Courtney Tanner | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jim Winder, the chief of police for Moab, stands on the side of the road near the Colorado River on April 7, 2018. He stepped down from his position as Salt Lake County sheriff in July 2017.

The chief jumps out of his patrol car at a spot overlooking the Colorado River, where red sandstone walls rise up hundreds of feet on both sides, slicing the sun into a thin sliver at the top of the canyon.

It takes me a minute to get out, and when I do, Winder is squinting into the light and grinning. “Isn’t this unreal?” he asks. “Isn’t this wild?”

He’s so enthusiastic it makes me laugh a little. A couple of bikers roll past where we’re parked, and the chief shouts, “Right on!”

It’s not hard to see why he calls this spot the most beautiful in the world. He points to where he and his wife floated down the river for their anniversary. He shows me where he and his son go rock climbing. And he pulls out his iPhone to play me a video of his daughter riding a horse while firing a gun during a competition that landed her on the front page of the local newspaper.

“It’s called cowboy-mounted shooting,” Winder says.

“That’s insane,” I respond.

“Isn’t it?” he answers with pride.

His family members have settled into this town over the past year. They’ve found new hobbies here and new friends. And they’ve nicknamed Winder’s unmarked police car “The Black Marauder,” joking that it looks like something someone in the Mafia would drive. (It sort of does.)

The people here have welcomed them, too. Every shop and store on Main Street that I popped into or called for comment had folks lining up with only nice things to say about the new chief (that sounds like a Mafia joke, too, but it’s not).

“We got a top-notch guy for a small town,” said Aaron Lindberg, an assistant at Poison Spider Bicycles.

“Since he’s been here, it seems like there’s been a real positive push in terms of outreach,” said Andy Nettell, owner of Back of Beyond Books. “It’s been fun to see the chief wearing the uniform and interacting with his constituents.”

The cashier, too, at Sweet Cravings, the coffee shop where Winder and I met, was happy to see him walk in the door and anticipated his order of one blueberry scone and a dark roast coffee.

“Are you behaving?” she jokingly asks him.

“No, I’m not supposed to,” Winder winks back.

The chief reflects often on his time as sheriff. He spent 30 years with the department — 10 at its helm. It’s where he got his start in law enforcement, but it’s here where he’s been able to return to the roots of it. And he certainly seems happy. Very, very happy.