Posted 9/15/15 (Tue)
By Cecile Krimm
Heidi Williamson, 32, grew up the daughter of a game warden in Iowa and dreamed one day of following in her father’s footsteps.
She ultimately found a different career path, in Plentywood, Mont., one that’s led her to the top spot in the Sheridan County, Sheriff’s Department.
Williamson is the first female to hold the post, but County Commissioner Bob Nikolaisen says her appointment last month has nothing to do with filling any quota.
“We wanted to have the best person,” said Nikolaisen, and Williamson was it.
She acknowledges a female in such a post is rare -- she knows for sure of only one other female sheriff in the state -- but she doesn’t believe her gender is an issue with co-workers.
“All of the guys think of me as ‘just one of the guys’ so I don’t think I’ve ever played the ‘woman card,’” she said.
The department is the primary law enforcement agency covering the town of Westby, which straddles the border with Divide County and North Dakota.
Applying for the job was a risk, Williamson said, not only because of the rarity of a female sheriff anywhere, but also because she put her name up against two co-workers. She’ll have to run for the office in a year if she wants to keep it.
“If someone else gets elected sheriff and they don’t want me around, I could be out of a job,” she said. “There’s no guarantees so I’ve just got to do the best I can.”
Right away, that means continued work on the cases she took in as a deputy along with learning the administrative end of the department. She will continue to assist five deputies and an undersheriff as needed, coordinate with assisting law enforcement agencies and may take the lead on more in-depth investigations.
The department, as a whole, has seen plenty of upheaval in recent years. Williamson learned early on the job -- her tenth day in -- how potentially deadly it could be when a traffic stop led to an altercation in which she was called to shoot and kill a man in self defense.
The county’s most senior deputy has only six or seven years on the job and the rest have come on staff since Williamson’s own hiring in 2012.
The young department was further tested by the loss to brain cancer in July of elected Sheriff Pat Ulrickson.
Personally, Williamson, too, has seen some life-changing events. She and husband, Ryan, welcomed a son, Tosten, six months ago. Following a 7-week maternity leave, Williamson returned to work last May.
With Ryan working out of a home office as a Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks employee, childcare at odd hours hasn’t been an issue.
“We can usually work it out,” she said, and it helps that a co-worker also has an infant.
On a day when Williamson is called in to conduct a news interview, Tosten comes along for the ride and visits with secretary Cathy VanDyke while mommy is busy.
Williamson’s intention is to make a career out of the position, one she says she loves.
Challenges include “Bakken overflow,” which has attracted to the community a number of new people now with dwindling resources.
“They’re here and they’re not leaving,” she said. “We are seeing more violent offenders, more drug activity up here.”
As in Divide County, there remain remote patches of both radio and cell silence in Sheridan County, making communications difficult.
Plus, “We’re far away from everything,” she said. “There’s some pretty remote areas where you can’t see a house light.”
Also like the neighboring county in North Dakota, Sheridan has both a state line and an International boundary to contend with. As well, Sheridan borders a portion of reservation land, so many different agencies may be involved in any given case.
“We work closely with the Border Patrol,” said Williamson, since they are the closest agency geographically.
Because Sheridan maintains a jail that allows holds up to 72 hours, she sees a fair number of Divide County offenders, especially if the jail in Williston is full.
Standing within the barred holding area inside the Sheridan County Courthouse, Williamson laughs, “I book people in and they say, ‘You’re kidding me right?’”
Currently, the county’s eastern border is without a resident deputy, a situation Williamson would love to remedy. As many as three deputies have been housed there in the past.
“It was always nice having someone over on that side,” she said.
Not only is Williamson busy as a sheriff and mother, she volunteers with the ambulance service, teaches exercise classes and coaches the high school’s distance runners.
Whatever the endeavor, “I just always want to help people and make things better,” said Williamson.