Two more candidates join Merced County sheriff race

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comJanuary 7, 2014 

The race for Merced County sheriff is heating up as two more candidates have announced bids to run for the office – one who strives to be the county’s first Latino sheriff and another who has served more than three decades in the department.

Livingston City Councilman Jim Soria confirmed his plan to run for sheriff to Sun-Star last week, saying he’s the only Latino candidate in the race. The 45-year-old pulled papers Dec. 30 and said he’ll soon begin knocking on doors to muster support for his campaign.

“I’m pretty excited, and I’d love to be the first Latino sheriff in Merced County,” Soria said in a telephone interview. “I feel that I have a calling to provide a better quality of life here in Merced County.”

Vern Warnke, a retired senior sergeant and part-time deputy for the Sheriff’s Department, pulled papers at the end of December. Warnke said he decided to make a run for the position after fellow deputies urged him to go for it.

“There were a lot of people that actually called me and asked that I consider running for sheriff because they’d like to see the department continue to grow,” said Warnke, 55. “I asked my wife and her words were, ‘I wonder what took you so long because the Sheriff’s Department needs you.’”

Soria, a father of three girls, said he has more than 25 years of experience in public safety and law enforcement. He began his career as an officer for the Newman Police Department before making stops at the Ceres and Dos Palos police departments. Soria also worked for the city of Mendota as both a police and code enforcement officer.

The elected councilman has served on the Livingston City Council for more than a year and works as a security supervisor with Guardsmark, assigned to the Livingston Gallo Winery.

Soria faced controversy in 2006 while working as an officer for the Dos Palos Police Department. He and another police officer were charged with refusing to arrest someone, failing to fulfill their official duty and false imprisonment – all misdemeanors.

The charges stem from a call the Merced County Sheriff’s Department received the night of March 1, 2006.

A caller, who prosecutors said was one of the officers disguising his voice, told dispatch that a drunken man at Chic’s Market in South Dos Palos asked to be arrested on an outstanding warrant.

The investigation revealed that the 54-year-old man had gone to the Dos Palos police station earlier that night to turn himself in, but was not arrested. Instead, the officers took the man to the market, about five miles away from the police station and out of the department’s jurisdiction. Sheriff’s deputies later found the man at the market, after he’d been dropped off by Soria and the other Dos Palos police officer.

Soria pleaded no contest to one misdemeanor charge of failing to take someone into custody. He was sentenced to 36 months’ probation, 90 days in jail, a $275 fine and 80 hours of community service. He resigned from the Dos Palos Police Department.

The jail time was converted to community service, Soria said, and the charge was expunged from his record in 2011.

Soria on Monday claimed the incident was retaliation by the Dos Palos Police Department because he’d blown the whistle on wrongdoings, such as mismanaging evidence and failing to complete felony police reports.

But Soria admitted taking the man to Chic’s Market, because Dos Palos police were too short-handed to drive him to jail. “In a small city, sometimes there’s just one officer on duty. We’re not going to leave the city unprotected to take him to jail on a warrant,” Soria said, adding the market was a well-lit location. “At the same time, I don’t believe he was a danger to himself or the public.”

Looking back at the incident eight years later, Soria said he would “do things differently” by calling another agency to pick up the man rather than drive him to the market.

“I made a mistake. People make mistakes all the time. You learn from it, you pick yourself up and you move on,” he said. “I knew putting my name in the hat (for sheriff) things like this would come up. I’m a God-fearing man, and I stand for what I believe in, even if I’m the only one standing.”

If elected, Soria said his goals include establishing a felony task force to reduce crime and finding ways to increase diversity at the Sheriff’s Department. “I’d like to see more Latino and female deputies,” he said. “I have a lot of great ideas and I’d like to implement those and move the Sheriff’s Department forward in a positive direction.”

Vern Warnke retired from the Sheriff’s Department in 2008 after 29 years and now works as a part-time deputy. The Atwater resident said his philosophy is having “boots on the ground” to reduce crime and involving deputies in the communities they serve.

“Bottom line is it takes boots on the ground to go arrest the bad guys,” said Warnke, a father of two daughters. “When I first became a deputy, we owned our beats and got involved with people’s lives. When you’re in that area, you know who the good guys are and you know who the bad guys are.”

As a deputy, Warnke said he often paid visits to area schools and ate lunch with the students. He said he’d like to see deputies once again get excited about their jobs – and to remind them why they chose careers in law enforcement.

“If I can get the spark back into the deputies – and I know I can – then a lot of things will right themselves,” he said. “Once we get that fire lit again, it will bring the passion back, and it won’t be just a job. They’ll want to change the world one person at a time.”

Warnke said he considers himself a good leader who knows how to put people in positions where they can utilize their talents to do the most good. He said he would want his leadership staff to be smarter than himself.

In addition to Soria and Warnke, three other candidates have announced plans to run for sheriff this year.

Sgt. Frank Swiggart, 47, is head of the Merced Community College Police Department, which is operated by the Sheriff’s Department.

Senior Sgt. Rich Howard, 43, is the supervisor of the Merced County Multi-Agency Narcotics Task Force.

Pat Lunney, 66, has been chief of investigations for the Merced County District Attorney’s Office since 2008. He also served as chief of the Merced Police Department for 15 years.

Merced County Sheriff Tom Cavallero said he will not be a candidate in the sheriff’s race. Cavallero, formerly undersheriff, was sworn in as sheriff on Dec. 30, taking the reins of the office after Mark Pazin’s resignation last month to take a job with the Gov. Jerry Brown’s office.

The salary range for sheriff is $133,952 to $163,092 per year, according to Merced County’s website.

Sun-Star staff writer Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

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