By Tim Eberly
For Greg Szudera, the training wheels come off Monday.
Szudera, the newly appointed Hill County sheriff and coroner, has learned the ropes of his job with the help of experienced Undersheriff Don Brostrom, who temporarily headed the sheriff's office after the previous sheriff, Tim Solomon, retired in November.
This Saturday, Brostrom, Szudera's right-hand man, is flying to Quantico, Va., to participate in a three-month law enforcement training course taught by the FBI.
"He's going to be greatly missed," said Szudera, who will have only eight working days under his belt when Brostrom gets on a plane. "I know the job is challenging and when (Brostrom) leaves, it's going to be more challenging. But I'm going to dig in and go about getting the duties accomplished."
Fortunately, Szudera's previous occupation he split time as a patrol officer and sergeant with the Montana Highway Patrol for 28 years has striking similarities to his current career path. As of Jan. 2, his first day on the job, Szudera's managerial responsibilities swelled: He is responsible for supervising Brostrom, 10 deputies and the Hill County Detention Center. But with the highway patrol, Szudera managed six patrol officers and performed most of the administrative and budgetary tasks in the Havre MHP office. Not to mention the fact that he comes highly recommended.
"He's a great guy to work for," said highway patrol Sgt. Mark Bosch, Szudera's successor after working under him for 10 years. "He's got a real good knack of balancing the mission of law enforcement and the people that work under him. If he had stayed, I would have worked for him as long as he was here."
But Bosch's former boss had a different mission. And the 56-year-old grandfather of five took a pay cut during the job switch to fulfill it. Of course, Szudera is collecting retirement checks from the highway patrol. Nevertheless, Szudera said, "I'm not in it for the money. I want to make it safe out there for people to live in the community."
Szudera first caught the sheriff bug in 1998, when he unsuccessfully ran against Solomon in the election. When Solomon abruptly retired on Nov. 30 after 15 years at the post, Szudera was one of four men vying for it.
"I felt that I had plenty of skills that I could use in another capacity of law enforcement," Szudera said. "I felt I had a lot to offer the citizens of Hill County."
Serving the remaining year of Solomon's four-year term, Szudera's job will be up for election this November.
Change inevitably follows in the wake of a new employer, and Szudera has brought a fresh perspective with him. In the near future, he will conduct a complete evaluation of all the equipment in the sheriff's office, such as the vehicles, computers, cameras, weapons and Breathalyzers. He also plans to take a hard look at the budget to ensure that money is "being spent effectively and that the taxpayers are getting their money's worth of service."
Making comparisons to the Sept. 11 attacks but not downplaying the terrorist acts Szudera fingered the drug trade in Hill County as the closest enemy.
"The terrorists are the people that are using, selling and making drugs," Szudera said. "That kind of behavior is wrecking our families, our societies and causing more crime."
No specific courses of action were offered by Szudera, other than continued support of the Tri-Agency Task Force and the promise of "more communication between all other departments" in Hill County and neighboring counties.
He says underage drinking is a problem in Hill County and said it's one that's affected him personally. His two youngest sons Szudera has five children, including three sons and two daughters have had alcohol-related run-ins with law enforcement in Hill County within the last two years.
"When those problems were presented in the family, it hurt quite a bit," Szudera said. "It definitely took its toll on the family."
During his Christmas break from Carroll College in 2000, John Szudera had alcohol in his system when he crashed his vehicle into a fire hydrant in south Havre. It happened the day after Christmas. He pleaded guilty to a charge operation of a vehicle by a person under 21 with an alcohol concentration of 0.02 or more and paid a $180 fine. His license was also suspended for 90 days and he completed a mandatory eight-week alcohol information course.
Adding to the court's punishment, Szudera gave John's vehicle to his younger brother, Jacob.
"He's matured quite a bit since that incident, and he's still paying the natural consequences," Szudera said of John, a 20-year-old sophomore psychology major. "I am hoping he learned from his experience. It's a tough way to learn but sometimes that negative experience has a positive effect."
Jacob, 18, a senior football player and wrestler at Havre High School, received two minor in possession of alcohol citations within a five-month span in 2001, in May and September.
One of Szudera's former co-workers, highway patrol officer Roger Hinkley, issued the second citation to Jacob. In the midst of his final football season, Szudera was caught with alcohol in a truck filled with several of his friends and teammates from Havre High.
"I immediately went to (Hinkley) and commended him for a job well done," Szudera said, "because I have seen too many tragedies involving underage drinking with the highway patrol."
The first MIP saddled Jacob with a one-month grounding.
For the second one, Szudera grounded his son for 2 weeks and restricted him to driving only two miles a day basically to and from school. He also endured a two-game suspension from the football team a punishment that prevented Jacob from lettering in the sport.
"If my sons weren't arrested especially Jacob they might have been involved in a (fatal) crash," Szudera said. "I was appreciative and very proud of both officers that had any dealings with my young sons."
Despite his experience with the matter, Szudera has no quick fix for underage drinking. Closer family relationships, though, are a must.
"One thing I would say is for parents to take a little more time and effort with their sons and daughters and get more involved in their lives," Szudera said.
Szudera's two daughters, 26-year-old Amy Lane and Kimberly Statelen, 24, have made their father one generation older: Lane has three children and Statelen has two. James Szudera, the oldest of the Szudera siblings at 27, is graduating from the Des Moines University-Osteopathic Medical Center with plans of becoming an emergency room doctor.
Raised in Billings with four brothers and two sisters, Szudera graduated from Billings Central High in 1964 and served in Vietnam two years later with the U.S. Navy. Until 1968, he fueled aircraft on the USS Oriskany.
When he returned from the war, Szudera spent several years working at a Valley Motor Supply before becoming a highway patrol officer in 1973. Entering the highway patrol was a simple decision for the 27-year-old rookie because "law enforcement was my love at that time and that's what I wanted to get into," he said.
In 1986, when Szudera was promoted to the rank of sergeant, he and his wife, Sheila, moved with their five young children from Great Falls to Havre. As it turns out, the transition was a perfect fit.
"The size of the community is just right for me," Szudera said. "I like Havre. To me, I think we live in paradise compared to the other metropolitan communities."