The Times honors Vern Warnke, Merced County’s Top Lawman
MAN OF THE YEAR
Vern Warnke — the outspoken, strong-willed, kind-hearted, Wrangler-wearing Sheriff of Merced County — has been selected by the Times as “Man of the Year” for 2023.
Sheriff Warnke enjoys widespread support in the community as the region’s top lawman. He turns 65 at the end of this month, and a few weeks later, he will celebrate 44 years of service to the Sheriff’s Department.
Over that time, Warnke has worked long hours on patrol, trained as a sniper on the SWAT team, investigated ag crimes, handled coroner’s work, started a youth Explorers program, advocated for drug abuse awareness and education, supervised task force teams, and engaged with thousands of concerned residents as a leader who’s been elected to three consecutive terms.
He’s also had a bout with cancer, but says God has seen him through that.
“Sheriff Warnke exemplifies what it means to have a Servant’s Heart,” says Nicole Silveira, the District Attorney of Merced County. “He does the right thing for the right reasons, and expects nothing in return. I am proud to call him my Sheriff and my friend.”
The district attorney stood by the sheriff just this week as he urged — even pleaded with — county supervisors to adequately fund positions in his department that are critical to public safety.
“Our entire agency has to keep on, and keep on, doing more with less,” Sheriff Warnke told leaders on Tuesday. “You know, it’s not just the bad guys. We’ve got code enforcement. We are dealing with stuff on the West Side. … We got stuff going on in Planada and Merced. Each one of you has issues that needs to be addressed for quality of life. I’m running out of bodies. … We got men and women putting in 16 hours a shift, and you’re wanting them to make life and death decisions.”
The sheriff says his current struggle with the powers that be on the third floor of the County Administration building is not personal. He says he would risk taking a bullet for each and every one of them if they were in danger of losing their own lives.
He just feels strongly about one thing: “Public safety should be their first and foremost priority.”
And more often than not, it’s the sheriff and his department that holds the line for the county.
“If Godzilla were to rise up from Lake Yosemite, the only people who are going to go after Godzilla would be the Sheriff’s Office,” Warnke says. “Probation is not going. It’s not even going to be Cal Fire. It’s not going to be the librarian. It’s going to be us.”
The sheriff shakes his head while recalling a recent request from county administration to help support Probation after that department’s chief decided to retire. He also scoffs at the idea of bonuses for many county workers who stayed home “with their bunny slippers on” during the covid pandemic, while his men and women were out on the streets working their butts off.
During last winter’s record rains, it was all hands on deck for deputies (and even civilians in the Sheriff’s Office) responding to flooding in the Planada area. They were credited with some 200 rescues, and thankfully there were no deaths.
His team saved horses and other animals, and then, according to Warnke, got pushback for asking about bottled water supplies for flood victims. He recalls the undersheriff and volunteers ended up going to Costco and buying all the water they could and delivering it to the people of Planada.
Another chronic issue for the Sheriff’s Department is working with the homeless. Warnke remains unwaveringly tough on the issue, saying most homeless do not want to be sheltered and refuse help.
“They don’t like the rules and don’t want to be told they have to be in by 8 p.m. Now the homeless are stealing stuff from homeowners, like clothes from the line, tents and other valuables. They want money for booze and dope. Don’t give them money,” he urges.
On the bright side, Warnke says, the men and women of the Sheriff’s Department “are still here who want to be here. I love these men and women, and am so proud of these folks. I love what I do.”
That’s fortunate because Sheriff Warnke’s current third term is actually for six years instead of the normal four-year period. However, Warnke says that’s because the governor’s administration in Sacramento wanted to align the elections of sheriffs and district attorneys with presidential elections in order to secure more wins for progressive, left-wing candidates.
Interestingly, the state’s Republican Party reportedly reached out to Warnke about six months ago to see if he was interested in running for Governor. Warnke says he told them: “Absolutely not. … I can do more good for this county as sheriff than I could as any other elected leader. … The sheriff is the only one who has the authority to tell the governor ‘No,’ and he didn’t like that once when I did it.”
Sheriff Warnke smiles, laughs a bit, and adds: “I don’t want to run for governor. I want to be the one who is able to arrest the governor.”
In all seriousness, he says: “The folks of this county have put their trust in me, and I don’t take that very lightly. That’s why I fight like I do. It’s not a game for me. I’m not in this as a stepping stone. When Vern is no longer sheriff, Vern is going to be completely retired, and doing as much traveling with his bride as possible. Once I’m done as sheriff, I’m done. But I also don’t have plans to retire. My bride of 42 years (Kathy) wants me to retire. But she also understands. We both understand that God wants me to do this job for some reason. I’m alive for some reason. I should have been dead a few times since growing up. This cancer that I had, the doctor flat out said that if it hadn’t been caught when it was caught, I would have been dead in six months. Kathy said, ‘OK, God’s not done with you yet.’”
He continues: “When I get up every single morning, I get phone calls. People are asking me, ‘We need help.’ And it’s not always about law enforcement. I take the trust that people give me to do this job, and I do everything I can to not be the big goof ball that ends up on the front page of the paper for some goofy thing — and we’ve all seen that happen. I don’t want that.”
With 400-plus employees to oversee, the sheriff says he also faces the perspective of “having no friends” and “tough decisions” to make. “Sometimes the sheriff makes a decision on things like promotions that can break an employees heart. It breaks my heart. But I have to decide on the best fit for what the Sheriff’s Department needs.”
Some onlookers, including the publisher of the Times, have compared Sheriff Warnke’s appearance and demeanor to those of John Wayne, the famous Western film icon. It’s true, Warnke has a distinct swagger and a custom-made, 100-percent beaver felt hat to go along with it. But local readers may be surprised to learn that their sheriff is actually a huge John Wayne fan. He’s got a film collection that dates back to 1934. His favorite one is “The Angel and the Badman” from 1947. It’s about an injured gunfighter (John Wayne) who is nursed back to health by a young Quaker woman, and her family whose way of life influences him and his violent ways.
Warnke says he admires Wayne because “He is the quintessential, do-right, every single time.”
“In every single one of his movies, he is doing something right. Yeah that was on film. But it still sends a message. You got someone doing right. That’s what I want. I want the men and women of this department to get up every morning and do right.”
Warnke has a bust of John Wayne on one of the shelves in his office. The place actually resembles a museum. There are pistols, badges and all sorts of memorabilia on display that tell a history of the Sheriff’s Office through the decades. There’s also a picture of Warnke with Clint Eastwood hanging out, if you can believe it. Warnke has a few great stories of encounters with the actor over the years, including as an extra for one of Eastwood’s films “Unforgiven.” It was during a railroad scene filmed in Jamestown.
The sheriff says he doesn’t lock his office. He trusts his staff. Besides, sometimes they have to grab something for show-and-tell at a local school or community event.
A few years removed from his cancer scare in 2019, Warnke says he feels good and blessed by God. He has to watch his diet. He can’t eat as many BBQ ribs as he used to. He has to take it easy on the ice cream. He went from 255 pounds down to 209 pounds. He’s still about 6 feet tall. And he hasn’t slowed down much.
Just a few months ago, Sheriff Warnke was jumping out of helicopter onto tough terrain to assist the California Highway Patrol in the bust of a suspect. “I fell down a few times, and I kept saying to myself, ‘God don’t let them have to rescue me.’ But I was still out there fighting, wanting to do it, and I would do it again today.”
You can take the Sheriff of Merced County at his word.
“I will probably make six vehicle stops on the way home today,” he says matter-of-factly. “Because that’s who I am. … I’m still working at arresting bad guys.”