BY ANGIE HAFLICH
There is no question that departing Finney County Attorney John Wheeler has made a big impact on the community in the five terms and 20 years that he has been the chief law enforcement official of the county. And in that time, he has experienced ups and downs.
The mixed bag he has experienced in the position is not too different from the mixed emotions he now feels as his last day as county attorney, Jan. 11, approaches.
"Everybody says, 'Be excited,' and I'm not exactly excited. I've been working at a very fast pace my entire professional career, not counting just the last 20 years, but there's some bittersweetness about leaving this," he said. "I've always enjoyed this work. I've enjoyed the work for the people of Finney County, but it's kind of an off ramp and entry to another one, and I'm not quite sure what's that's going to be."
In March, Wheeler announced he would not seek re-election, and his decision was for a couple of reasons. But one of the main ones was because he wasn't sure he wanted to commit to four more years, yet didn't feel right leaving mid-term.
"I wouldn't have felt good about that, yet the prospect of me at 65 working until I'm almost 70, racing at this pace, I just decided, you know, in the words of Jimmy Buffet, 'I want to die while I'm living and live while I'm dead,' and I'd like to take a little bit of time and travel a little bit, not worrying whether or not I've got to come back to Garden City to sign a piece of paper because I haven't had that for 20 years," Wheeler said, adding that he also wants to see more of his five grandchildren, who range in age from 2 to 15.
He also wanted the voters to have the opportunity to choose his successor, because had he left mid-term, a replacement would have been appointed to serve the remainder of his term.
Wheeler is known for having a dry sense of humor, which his staff said, upon meeting him, was something each of them had to get accustomed to. That is now something they will miss most about him.
"I was here before John, and I thought for sure I was fired the minute he walked in the door because I didn't understand. He has a very dry sense of humor, and I didn't understand that at that time," Tamara Hicks, deputy Finney County attorney said.
Hicks has been in the office since 1991 and made a bid for the vacant position, which will be filled by Susan Richmeier, who was elected in November.
Hicks said that it is Wheeler's sense of humor that she will miss most.
"His humor, his sense of humor. Dealing with all the ugliness of this office, he can always give you a good base to handle it from ... It's very important because if you don't have that, this job can drive you insane, as much negativity as we see," she said.
Wheeler said that he sees his staff as being one of his greatest accomplishments.
"As far as working with the staff and the magnificent people that have been here, I would just say, those that are already come and gone and moved onto bigger things, and those who remain here and are doing so well for the community, they are my family. I care for them deeply. I know how hard they work for us, and I say that's one shining thing," he said.
The nature of the position has required Wheeler to make difficult decisions over the years.
"I can give you examples. I hate to use names, but Braxston Medina was torturous. It was a very difficult (decision) — it was just such a terrible tragedy all the way around, but you're called upon to make those very hard choices," he said, referring to the case in which a 17-year-old boy shot and killed 18-year-old Braxston Medina, after Medina allegedly broke into the teen's locked entrance on Sept. 6. 2011.
After review of the case, Wheeler announced in January that no charges would be filed against the teen, citing 'The Stand and Defend,' or 'The Castle Doctrine,' Kansas statute 21-3211, which states that "a person is justified in the use of force against another when and to the extent it appears to such person and such person reasonably believes that such use of force is necessary to defend such person or a third person against such other's imminent use of unlawful force."
Wheeler said that when he first took office, he vowed to never do anything that violated his conscience.
"And I can say to this day, when I walk out the door — I've still got 11, 12 days to go — I have not violated my conscience," he said.
He has, however, made mistakes, and he said that there is one in particular that still haunts him.
"I still feel responsibility for the death of a woman in this county, where we had her husband charged with domestic battery but because we didn't set up a line of communication between municipal court and the district court and our office and the municipal prosecutor, we didn't know that they had like five cases pending against him, and it was getting more and more violent all the time, and he killed her. I still feel terrible about that one," he said.
He took what he learned from that experience, however, and implemented better lines of communication between law enforcement and the courts. Wheeler said that now, all of those departments exchange information readily and that's what helps keep the community safe.
Marsha Nelson, receptionist and file clerk who has worked in the office for 18 years, said she will miss the support Wheeler gave his employees.
"He stands behind his employees," Nelson said, adding that Wheeler has created a family-like culture in the office.
Finney County Sheriff Kevin Bascue said that over the years, Wheeler has been a mentor and a friend.
"He has developed that office to what it is today to better address the needs of citizens of Finney County when it comes to prosecuting crimes, so I think he's done a really good job. We're going to miss him, but we still have the office that he has developed up over the past 20 years, so his legacy will still be here," Bascue said.