Small-town chief, big-time busts

Chief Jay Varney said he truly enjoys being chief in a relatively little, rural PD, where he's got great officers who keep plenty busy both in crime fighting and community policing

Does your Chief go out and make self-initiated felony arrests or respond to a crime in progress? If your answer is some form of “No” — up to and including those versions of “no” which are interlaced with certain words we don’t use here on Police1 — then you know you don’t work for the Chowchilla (Calif.) Police Department.

Being the police chief of a small department — just 14 sworn — it’s not uncommon for Chief Jay Varney to be a little more hands-on than most police chiefs when it comes to day-to-day crime fighting. Because of that increased level of involvement, every so often he’s in exactly the right place, at exactly the right time, to stop, interview, and arrest a subject he suspects to be in the middle of committing a major crime

Like busting a suspected airplane thief, for example.

Concerned about the safety of a pilot flying a poor approach to the Chowchilla airport, Chief Jay Varney headed out to investigate. Upon arrival, he spotted a man spraying white paint over the airplane’s tail number.
Concerned about the safety of a pilot flying a poor approach to the Chowchilla airport, Chief Jay Varney headed out to investigate. Upon arrival, he spotted a man spraying white paint over the airplane’s tail number. (PoliceOne Image)

Unhappy Landing
At around 1430 hours on March 21st, Chief Varney spotted a Cessna 172 flying erratically about a third of a mile from the Chowchilla Municipal Airport. Varney was returning to the PD from a late lunch when he spotted the plane flying dangerously low on its final approach to the runway.

Something just wasn’t right with that Cessna’s approach. Concerned about the safety of the pilot, Chief Varney got back into his car and headed to the airport. Upon arrival, he spotted a man spraying white paint over the airplane’s tail number.

“That was a clue something was up,” Varney later recalled.

“Hey, what are you doing?” Varney asked the man, later identified as 46-year-old Lonnie Blackburn.

Blackburn’s reply was evasive. “I landed for fuel.”

“So,” Varney replied, “you also just decided to paint over the numbers on your plane?”

Varney kept asking questions. Blackburn kept being evasive.

En route to the scene, Varney had called for backup, and by this time in the questioning. Detective Charles Scott, Officer Tyler Hormel, and Sergeant Jeff Palmer had arrived to back up the boss. In fact, so Varney wouldn’t be the officer of record for the incident, they took over the investigation. After all, he is the chief.

Blackburn had allegedly stolen the private plane, flown it to Hollister (south of San Jose) before eventually landing in Chowchilla. Varney’s officers found a cash register with $50 inside the plane — believed to have been stolen from a business in Hollister.

Leading from the Front
The investigation and the incident, are, of course, still pending. I first saw this on my local TV news, and then a couple of weeks later I was reminded of it by my contact at California Police Chiefs Association.

Through her, I was able to interview Chief Varney via email, asking him first what he thought of the way in which cops follow their gut.

“I personally believe that being a law enforcement officer is a calling ...Over my career I’ve heard a number of people complain about someone else ‘getting lucky’ on an arrest. Most of the time the officers who ‘get lucky’ and make a good arrest are the ones who make the most of their opportunities and don’t drive around talking themselves out of investigating what they see in front of them because they are waiting for the ‘big one’ — which for most of us, never happens.”

Really good cops, Varney said, are driven to put the pieces together to solve the crime.  Varney just knew that just wasn’t right with that Cessna’s approach. A LEO can make an observation like that and simply dismiss it — or dig in your heels a little bit and see where that “hunch” leads.  Sometimes, it’s a direct path to a really great arrest. 

“It was pretty crazy,” Varney said. “When all of this is done and I’m sitting on a beach enjoying a soda, this is one of those things that I’m going to look back on and laugh about.”

Varney, who has been in law enforcement for nearly three decades, has plenty of such memories.  Varney began his career with the Dallas (Texas) Police Department in 1983 and “will always be grateful” for his 10 years there. Varney left Dallas as a sergeant in 1993 and moved back to his native Lansing (Mich.) to work for the Lansing PD, another department with outstanding people and great history.  Varney left Lansing in 2004 to take the Chief’s position at Chowchilla PD.

All three places, he told me, are full of great memories. 

In Dallas Varney located a suspect after he committed an armed robbery. “He had ‘Say Ho’ cut into the hair on the back of his head, which was seen by a witness during the crime. That was a clue,” he laughed. 

“From Lansing it may have been the package interdiction with my K9 partner where he cleared a room full of packages in record time, alerted on a package full of marijuana and instead of ‘active alert’ decided to strike a Rin Tin Tin pose on top of the package. The task force officer looks over at me and said, “Man, is your dog [bleeping] with you?”

Maybe nutty things happen around Chowchilla because it’s in the richest almond-growing area in the world?

“There was the time that we had shots fired at us from an apartment. We were able to get a kindergarten age member of the family away from the residence during a lull in the shooting from inside. Although we had an idea what the suspect was firing I asked the young girl what the man inside was firing and if it resembled the handgun I was holding. Despite the fact that we were taking additional fire, she very matter of factly stated, “Oh no, it’s much bigger than that, you have to hold it with two hands”. Talk about calm under fire. Suspect was later arrested and no officers were injured. Not funny at the time, but it is now.”

I Live in a Small Town
Varney said he truly enjoys being chief in a relatively little, rural PD, where he’s got great officers who — even in a rural town of about 17,000 souls — still keep plenty busy both in crime fighting and community policing. 

“I enjoy meeting and getting to know people,” Varney told me. “I enjoy being able to count on my neighbors to help and living five minutes from the office. Sometimes you can see the long term positive affect that your agency has on someone’s life. You can’t get complacent though. Working in a smaller town often puts you in much closer contact with the criminal players on a daily basis,” Varney cautioned. 

“We have a good group of troops here that look out for each other. The group has stayed cohesive through tough economic times and several of them are involved in the community in some fashion — whether it’s through PAL, Little League, K9 fundraising, Law Enforcement Torch Run, or other activities.”

So, what would Chief Varney tell a “big city” LEO out there who is considering going through the application process for a “small town” Chief of Police?

“Do a good job of vetting the agency you are going to and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Policing in a smaller market is a very different ballgame. It can be very rewarding and challenging and at other times frustrating. Those layers of command you have at a big agency? That would be you at a small agency. You have to be interested, prepared and excited about dealing with it all, from dog at large to high risk search or arrest warrant service in a small town.”

Varney advises that you should know well why you are going to a certain location. “In my case I was interested in the challenge of being Chief of Police and wanted to be near Hume CA which at the time was the administrative home of Pointman Leadership Institute.

Chief Varney, when you’re sitting on that beach and enjoying that soda, we’ll all be saluting you and your excellent career in law enforcement.  

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