By JOSH NEWTON
Cherokee County sheriff’s deputy Jim Burton has been dealing with drunken squabbles around Lake Tenkiller for the past seven years.
“Most people go to the lake to have a good time, and overall, we’ve got good people who come here,” said Burton, a former western-Oklahoma police chief who has been in law enforcement for 45 years. “You see a little bit of everything; it’s sort of like different communities out here.”
Burton was initially hired by Sheriff Norman Fisher’s office to patrol several U.S. Army Corps of Engineers campgrounds from April through September, Wednesday through Sunday nights.
Burton now has those duties three days a week, while Deputy Jarrick Snyder takes the eight-hour shifts on Saturday and Sunday nights.
The two deputies patrol nine sites, along with Corps rangers, during the peek tourist season, helping to settle disputes that range from minor disturbances to the occasional brawl.
“It’s a law enforcement job, but like Sheriff Fisher says, it’s also public relations – talking to people, welcoming them to the area, making sure everything is OK while they are here at the lake,” said Snyder.
Burton and Snyder both believe patrolling Corps properties helps deter criminal activity.
“You stop to talk to people, you help settle little squabbles,” said Burton. “You talk with the gate attendants, and they can usually tell you which campsites you might have problems with.”
Issues that surface are quite often over petty matters, Burton has learned.
“Alcohol is usually involved. Most of it is just one neighbor against another – an OSU fan camping next to an OU fan,” said Burton.
Undersheriff Jason Chennault said the contract between the sheriff’s office and Corps provides what is essentially an extra officer who stays on the south end of the county.
“Since the deputies are down there so much, they know the happenings and the goings-on of the area, which is beneficial,” said Chennault. “During the summer season, that’s where most of the population is, so our volume of calls is heavier there.”
Lack of options leads to alcohol arrests
Snyder pulls into the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office a little early on a humid Saturday evening before heading out to Corps patrol.
By 5 p.m., Snyder is rolling in to Horseshoe Bend. He stops to talk with a couple fishing from the banks.
Snyder checks a few more Corps sites and decides to head farther south, but dispatchers divert him to Cherokee Landing State Park, where an unusual situation necessitates an officer. Callers witnessed a man groping an unconscious woman along the shoreline of the park, where children are swimming and boaters are launching their crafts onto the lake.
Snyder and park rangers find a woman passed out in a chair and an older man in the water claims to be her boyfriend. Witnesses confirm to authorities they have found the alleged law-breaker. He trudges out of the water to speak with authorities, but denies doing anything inappropriate to his girlfriend.
The ground near the passed-out woman is a sea of empty beer cans.
“We’ve been camping out of our car,” the man says.
Authorities determine the man and woman are both drunk. They can’t be allowed to stay in the park – they haven’t paid to do so – but because of their alcohol consumption, neither can drive away. Deputies decide to arrest them for public intoxication and let them spend the night in the Cherokee County Detention Center, where they can sober up.
Deputies, Corps rangers keep tabs on parks
Burton and Snyder believe cooperation and communication with U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rangers is important, and often allows the two agencies to keep small matters from turning into serious situations.
“If there are any problems, we can relay the complaints back and forth,” said Burton.
One early summer Saturday, Snyder pulls into Standing Rock and stops at a travel trailer that’s been parked in the same spot for a week. He’s never seen occupants at the trailer, and decides to check on them. He knocks on the door, with no answer.
Snyder radios a park ranger familiar with the area and asks about the trailer. The two decide to check back later before determining whether it should be considered vacant.
“We’ve been here about a week, but went home for the weekend because of the storms,” one camper says when the group returns later in the evening.
Severe weather kicked up a series of storms that put Sequoyah and Cherokee counties under several tornado warnings that weekend. At Snake Creek and Chicken Creek, campers and park employees report that high winds from the storms toppled trees; a few campers claim to have footage of a funnel touching down on the lake.
The weather has, at least temporarily, impacted the number of lake visitors.
“Lake traffic can change in a heartbeat when we have severe weather,” said Snyder.
Summer season fades away
As the summer comes to an end, crowds at the lake become smaller and consist mainly of visitors who come to the area as a home-away-from-home. Most others seem to be local folks who drop by the lake for a day of fun in the sun.
It’s a quiet Sunday. Radio traffic is non-existent around the lake, and Corps rangers report a quiet weekend.
Night falls and Snyder decides to drive through Pettit Bay. He turns toward the park, off of Indian Road, and soon is approached by a vehicle heading the opposite direction. That truck suddenly swerves into Snyder’s lane with its bright lights on. The truck’s lights go off, and the driver swerves back into the opposite lane before again flashing his bright lights at Snyder, who swerves to avoid hitting the truck. Snyder pulls into the next driveway, hoping to catch the vehicle, but the driver of the truck has turns off all vehicle lights as soon as he passes Snyder.
Using his spotlight, Snyder tries to spot the truck on both sides of the road, but is unable to find it. After searching the area for several minutes, Snyder decides to head back to Pettit Bay. He pulls in , but dispatchers soon call out for “Cherokee 13,” Snyder’s badge number.
A family who lives near Pettit Bay tells dispatchers a truck has pulled into their field; they believe the occupants were fleeing from law enforcement.
Snyder responds and finds the truck abandoned on private property, a short distance from where it disappeared. The bed of the small truck contains fishing poles and tackle. Deputies find drug items inside the vehicle, but a thorough search of the area turns up no driver or passenger. Deputies believe the owner of the truck will surface sooner rather than later – but until then, the truck gets a trip out of the area on the back of a tow truck.
Though summer crowds have waned, deputies know a quiet evening can quickly turn into something much more.
Corps patrol by deputies will end in late September. Until then, authorities will still be making their rounds, hoping to keep visitors and area residents safe.