by Van Gordon Suter
photos by Kirsten Shultz
Bill Gillespie. Will Kane. Walt Fleming. Memorable lawmen from film and fiction, these characters mold our sense of the sheriff: the small town avatar, portrayed as either primitive lout or courageous paladin, bestowed with the power and authority of the badge.
Down South, there was Rod Steiger’s redneck Bill Gillespie, porky and menacing, his beady eyes scornfully viewing the well turned-out black man from up North. In In the Heat of the Night, Gillespie swaggers down the Sparta rail station platform for a facedown with Sidney Poitier’s cool and poised Philadelphia police detective ("They call me Mr. Tibbs"). The sheriff rises above his pride and bigotry to prevail over a murderer and a mob of drooling rustic racists.
In the Southwest, on his wedding day and last day on the job as sheriff of Hadleyville, New Mexico Territory, Gary Cooper’s Will Kane sits alone in his office. Abandoned by the craven town folk, alienated from his bride, he awaits the noon train and an inevitable battle with vengeful gunmen. He is resolute: "I am tired of being shoved." And at High Noon, Kane shoves back.
In literary fiction, there’s Sheriff Walt Fleming, a resourceful and irrepressible lawman who protects a wealthy community in the mountains beset by sudden calamity. The second-home owners of glitter gulch discover that their favorite veterinarian, Mark Aker, has been gunned down, the bottled water at Trilogy Springs may be laced with poison and their pampered pets are dying inexplicably. Could it be a biohazard attack in a snowy resort town just like, well, could it actually be, Sun Valley?
Not only could be, but is! For Sheriff Fleming is a thinly veiled fictional rendering—and minor typographical alteration—of real-life Blaine County Sheriff J. Walt Femling by highly successful writer Ridley Pearson. Pearson’s two Sun Valley mysteries—Killer Weekend and Killer View—have put a suspenseful spin on the foibles and uniqueness of this legendary ski resort and its remarkable if at times chaotic cast of characters, the local sheriff included.
Sitting in his tidy Hailey office, in the spiffy new lockup near Friedman Memorial Airport, Sheriff Femling initially seems a polite but starchy law enforcement official. Meeting him, it is as though you have just been pulled over on state Highway 75 and rolled down the window to address "the officer." He is formal and unrelentingly polite, but given the full regalia, larger-than-life and thoroughly intimidating. Femling quickly shucks the high sheriff persona to reveal a gracious man of considerable street cred and adroit political savvy. He has been sheriff since 1987 and when interviewed for this story was deep into a presumed walk-away reelection campaign for another four-year term, which he says will be his last.
The parallel universe of his fictional counterpart is not far out of Sheriff Femling’s orbit. At the edge of his desk one morning in September sat an imposing stack of computer paper, Pearson’s manuscript for his next Sun Valley mystery.
When Femling gathers with lawmen from other Western towns, they are curious about what it’s like to sheriff Sun Valley. People identify him with the famed resort, but don’t realize his mandate extends from Alturas Lake on the north to Craters of the Moon on the south, 2,600 square miles home to 22,000 people. With just 24 deputies, he provides law enforcement and protection for everyone from migrant field hands baffled by their new society to individuals whose faces and names are known from Picabo to Kabul. "This is not a rural county in Wyoming," Femling said.
Femling’s job carries remarkable authority. In Blaine County, he is the law. And Femling’s writ of empowerment is substantial. When the Secret Service demanded that he shut down Highway 75 for a full hour to transport Dick Cheney between the airport and Sun Valley Lodge, he told the Washington suits, "Forget it."
"I gave them seven minutes," he said.
Femling initially came here, like so many before him, to ski. After the slopes one day in 1980, he spotted an ad in theIdaho Mountain Express for a police officer. He landed the job and, given his personality and authority, was elected sheriff seven years later.
Inevitably, he ran into Pearson who was advancing his fiction career and had recently been rebuffed by the FBI for assistance on a writing project. Pearson asked Femling if he knew of a retired FBI agent in Seattle, a security expert working for Boeing.
"That’s my father," Femling told him. So began a long term personal and professional relationship.
Femling doesn’t drift from the escalating burdens of his day job. Crime has been increasing in Blaine County, reflecting both challenging economic times and a sudden influx of immigrants unfamiliar with the local culture. He has hired more Spanish-speaking officers and is working to educate newcomers about even the most basic requirements, like the imperative of having a driver’s license. He administers the county jail, is called upon by the municipalities to assist in major crimes and deals with a range of administrative legal processes.
On court orders, Femling has seized a Lear jet, a herd of cattle ("It was hard finding water") and high-end homes. He is the local police coordinator for the annual Allen & Co. conference, a remarkable assemblage of wealthy and influential media executives and their families. Insuring their security and privacy is a significant challenge, compounded by the protection of their toys. "Some days we have what seems like a billion dollars of equipment on the tarmac down at Friedman."
But the honor of being sheriff bears a price. As an elected official he knows many people, and as sheriff has had to deal with some of them in the most ghastly circumstances. "I’m frequently the one who goes to the homes, sometimes of friends and acquaintances, to inform people of a death or a serious accident. It is horrible, gut-wrenching.
"Sometimes even my children know the people involved. A few years ago a young woman shot and killed her parents in their bedroom. She had a romance with a young man. Her parents didn’t approve. The rumors began right away that the daughter had shot her parents."
With the Sarah Johnson murder case, Femling’s work followed him home. "My kids knew her. One of them said, ‘Dad, it’s not true that she shot her parents, is it?’ I knew it was true. And I couldn’t tell them."
Pictures of his two children, Brady and Kacie, are on an office shelf. "They have seen the pressures of this job over the years—and have no interest in this line of work. None."
Like most law enforcement officers, Femling possesses a strong sense of brotherhood with his counterparts and his predecessors. Behind his desk are an English Bobby’s helmet, a gift from the London police, and a nifty hat from the Canadian Mounted Patrol. There is also a ceremonial rifle awarded to the sheriff’s office as part of Hailey’s centennial.
"There is a lot of history to this office," he said, reflecting on historical documents that detail a rather expeditious frontier justice. A century ago, the sheriff hauled miscreants out to the aptly named Hangman’s Gulch for the ultimate expression of community outrage.
While the laws have changed, the core nature of the job has not. Every day has the potential to be memorable. Like most men who answer 911 calls, Femling lives with the constant allure and fear of the unpredictable, the sudden challenge, the rush of adrenalin.
Last year, Femling was summoned to a dumpster in south Hailey. A tipster reported something troubling lying on the ground next to a dumpster outside a small brown house. It was a 16-year-old girl, beaten to death with a hammer. She had been set on fire. Her body was badly charred. Her family lived across the street.
It was a horror for Femling and his officers, many with young daughters of their own. In a lush valley of remarkable affluence and options, a young woman had been taken down by a boy with alcohol, rage and a hammer and left dead across the street from her home.
As they secured the crime scene, the sheriff and his colleagues looked northwest at smoke rising above the mountains. Dry lightning had started a fire in what seemed like the far country. But the smoke, switching between deep black and a dirty gray, was moving in. Looking away from the horror before them and to the looming natural disaster, Femling said, "That’s looking bad."
Almost immediately, law enforcement began shifting from an individual tragedy to a cataclysmic, rolling inferno that threatened life in the valley. For Femling, the Castle Rock Fire was a marathon, endless days of endless hours—meetings, foreboding predictions, evacuations, terrified citizens. In the face of Armageddon, government worked to overcome the greatest challenge in the county’s history.
While the fire raged, a team fought for justice for the murder victim, arresting a 17-year-old boy who will be in prison until at least 2032.
A sheriff from a sagebrush county may look at Sun Valley’s sheriff with curious amazement, but ultimately, they are in the same business, the same club. Just as Gillespie and Kane and Fleming belong to a fraternity of fictional heroes, so do their real life counterparts. The sheriff brings order to a world of human frailty and need, set against the noble background of an irascible and taunting Mother Nature.
As Femling enters his final years in office, he thinks of retirement. He talks of free time, away from the anguish and unpredictability. Not standing on a porch at 3 a.m. telling a family their child is dead in a rollover. He will, as police officers say of retired colleagues, be out of the club. But one senses that in the future, when he hears a siren in the distance, watches a G5 glide into the valley or sees the search and rescue units heading for the high country, he will profoundly miss the drama, the challenge, the thrill of being the man with the badge.