Faces of the election: The sheriff

Faces of the election: The sheriff

TUSCOLA -- He battled the Viet Cong in the jungles of Vietnam, supervised the baddest of the bad at a Joliet prison and worked undercover to capture drug dealers and murderers.

Now, Charlie McGrew's long, colorful ride in law enforcement is months from ending. The longest consecutively serving sheriff in Douglas County history will turn in his badge in November.

"I don't think it will be a sad day," he said. "Serving as sheriff and leaving office is like sticking your hand in a bucket of water and removing it. Nobody is irreplaceable; the void is filled."

But few sheriffs can match the Arcola resident's danger-filled, action-packed career.

Growing up in the tiny Clay County town of Flora, McGrew didn't plan on any of this happening.

After graduating from Flora High, McGrew joined the Army. He was sent to the central region of Vietnam to be part of the 105th Artillery Group, where he found himself engaged in combat.

During his tour of duty in Southeast Asia, one of McGrew's buddies, John Thompson, frequently discussed his own desire to become an Illinois state trooper. Inspired by his friend, McGrew got a job as a corrections officer at the Stateville Penitentiary after returning home.

"At that time, Stateville was the maximum-security prison for the worst criminal offenders," he said.

McGrew later joined the state police and was assigned to District 10, which has its headquarters in Pesotum.

In 1975, he was promoted to criminal investigator for the state police, working out of an office in Champaign. He said unsolved crimes were like a puzzle, and his job was to put the pieces of the puzzle together to reach a satisfying conclusion.

From 1977 to 1979, McGrew worked as an undercover narcotics agent. He said he never worried that the top drug distributors would figure out who he was.

Police work even helped McGrew meet his future wife, Debra. While investigating a burglary at an Arcola pharmacy, he interviewed a young woman who was a possible witness to the crime.

The couple married in 1979.

In 1984, McGrew assisted the Decatur police looking for a boy who'd reportedly been kidnapped from a parking lot.

On another occasion, two rival criminal organizations were operating prostitution rings at a rest area outside Pesotum.

"One of the madams hired a couple guys from Chicago to murder two people," he said.

McGrew used his detective skills to put together a description of one of the murderers, who was later arrested in Mahomet.

He ran for Douglas County sheriff in 2004, and has held the title ever since.

"I think the job of Douglas County sheriff has been one of the most enjoyable parts of my law enforcement career," he said. "It is satisfying working for the citizens of the county."

McGrew said the toughest day on the job came in June 2007 when his good friend, Chief Deputy Tommy Martin, was shot in the line of duty as he tried to get to a home invasion in rural Villa Grove. He died several weeks later.

"It was just tragic for the whole community," McGrew said. "Tommy started with me as chief deputy when I started as sheriff. And the experience was traumatic for the whole department."

During his decade as sheriff, McGrew said he increased rural patrols, developed a rural community watch program and boosted the Douglas County Crimestoppers program.

His biggest challenge remains leading the county's war against drugs.

"It is always a continual fight," he said, "but we keep working on it."

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