Officer wraps 3 decades of service

Despite busting major crimes, leading a SWAT team and arresting serial killers, Neil McClanahan once was taunted for being a "hippie-kisser" and "bleeding-heart liberal" because he worried about homeless children and poverty-stricken families.

Now, as the veteran Thurston County undersheriff retires after 34 years, McClanahan wears those taunts as badges of honor.

"If you look at the big picture, the system is failing," said McClanahan, 55, a Tumwater city councilman and the leader of the county Housing Task Force. "We keep arresting people, locking them up - but bad things keep happening because we're not addressing the causation of crime."

McClanahan said he will devote his retirement to fixing "the root causes of crime" by backing programs to help children in dysfunctional, abusive or absent families.

"It's like a bathtub overflowing, and we in law enforcement are on our hands and knees with sponges trying to mop it up," McClanahan said. "Instead, we need to reach over and turn off the faucets."

McClanahan and a fellow retiree, Thurston County Chief Deputy Kathy Chamberlain, were honored Friday at a party at the county courthouse in Olympia.

Chamberlain, sheriff's office budget manager for 25 years and the wife of Chief Criminal Deputy Jim Chamberlain, retired after 30 years as the ­highest-ranking civilian in the department. During her tenure, the sheriff's office budget has grown from about $1 million annually to $27 million.

"She has been an indispensable part of the sheriff's office for three decades," a sheriff's office announcement says.

McClanahan, who is running for re-election to the Tumwater council in November, is one of the only undersheriffs statewide to serve for three consecutive sheriffs, former Sheriff Gary Edwards said.

The undersheriff is the No. 2 person; he or she manages day-to-day operations of the county's 230-employee department and the sheriff handles community outreach, Edwards said.

"(McClanahan) has a sincere caring for the well-being of the underdog," said Edwards, 60, of Yelm. "Not necessarily the criminal - but for those who are less fortunate in the community."

Edwards, a leader in the Washington State Sheriffs Association, was McClanahan's boss for 20 years before retiring in January. Previously, McClanahan worked for ex-Sheriff Dan Montgomery, then for three months this year for Sheriff Dan Kimball.

Capt. Brad Watkins has been promoted to undersheriff in McClanahan's place.

"The thing that jumps out the most to me about Neil is his commitment to the community," said Kimball, who worked under McClanahan for two years as chief criminal deputy. "He's really about looking at a problem from a holistic point of view."

Kimball said McClanahan led the way for police officers to be concerned with social issues such as poverty, homelessness and lack of education long before that was fashionable.

"Neil recognized those things were connected to the crime rate," Kimball said. "He is a very caring person, and he's not afraid to show it."

McClanahan said he is grateful for his years of experience in law enforcement.

The middle son of former 25-year Mason County Prosecuting Attorney Barney McClanahan of Shelton, he said he had a "pretty blessed career" as a patrol officer, detective, narcotics division officer, SWAT team leader, chief of detectives, chief criminal deputy and undersheriff. He is mentioned in Puget Sound true-crime author Ann Rule's book about the Green River serial killer for his work on that case.

In 1994, McClanahan attended a three-month certification program at the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Va. - an honor granted to fewer than one-tenth of 1 percent of the law enforcement officers nationwide. According to the sheriff's office announcement, he is the most-decorated member of that agency. Between 1980 and 1991, he received five of the sheriff's office's annual lifesaving awards - the highest number ever given to one person. He also received distinguished-service awards in 1981 and 1987.

But for County Commissioner Diane Oberquell, a medal on a bracelet is the most poignant token of her 19-year association with McClanahan. She said he gave her the medal of Saint Michael, the patron saint of law enforcement, years ago when she needed a lift.

"I was really upset that day, and he had come in to see me," she recalled. "He took the medal off his neck chain and just gave it to me."

She has worn it ever since.

"He has a heart of gold," Oberquell added.

Keri Brenner covers Thurston County and Tumwater for The Olympian. She can be reached at 360-754-5435 or kbrenner@theolympian.com.