Battered for so long, Hardin has high hopes

2009-10-01T00:15:00Z Battered for so long, Hardin has high hopesED KEMMICK Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
October 01, 2009 12:15 am  • 

HARDIN - In the absence of many known facts about American Police Force, the California company looking to lease Hardin's vacant jail, a lot of people here are suspending judgment and hoping for the best.

"I'm trusting in Two Rivers Authority," Hardin Chevrolet owner Jamey Eisenbarth said Wednesday. "Al Peterson is obviously a bright guy. I'm putting my trust in him."

Peterson is the Hardin school superintendent and vice president of Two Rivers Authority, the tax-supported economic development arm of the city that built the jail two years ago and has been trying to fill it ever since.

Councilwoman Carla Colstad is also putting her faith in Peterson and other members of the Two Rivers board.

"As a City Council person, I trust the Two Rivers Port Authority and their board to do what's best for the community," she said. "Everyone I talked to said, 'This is exactly what we've been waiting for all along.' "

Becky Shay, who quit her job as a Billings Gazette reporter to become APF's spokeswoman in Hardin, used similar language in describing her decision to sign on with the company.

"I have assurances and I have faith that there are connections with that parent group. I can't say more than that," she said.

Shay, Peterson and others say they have reason to believe that APF, which was formed last March, is a spinoff of a much larger security company that has contracts around the world.

Peterson said the clincher for him was learning who APF has hired to be director of operations at the Two Rivers Detention Facility, as it is formally known. Peterson said Wednesday that "people will be shocked" when they find out that "a person of this caliber and this quality" will be running the jail, which APF hopes to start filling with prisoners early next year.

Peterson said Two Rivers will probably be able to release the identity of the new director of operations next week. He said the man has a 20-year background in law enforcement as well as high-level military training. Although Peterson hasn't met the new director, he said he did look at his bona fides and at those of American Police Force.

"I did my background checks and my homework, and they're legit," he said.

Peterson also said his background check involved the operations director, not Michael Hilton, who has represented the company. Peterson said Hilton was only the spokesman for APF, and then said he didn't know what his actual position was with the corporation. Hilton's only title with the company is "captain."

Because so little has been revealed publicly about APF, rumors have been sprouting abundantly, in Hardin and around the country.

The latest rumor making the rounds was that President Barack Obama is using Hardin as a test case for plans to establish government-funded private police forces throughout the country by the end of October.

The elaborate rumor - distributed via e-mail, YouTube and at least one talk radio show - also said that Hardin residents would be ordered to submit to an untested swine flu vaccination, and people who refused would be quarantined in the new prison.

The big joke in Hardin on Wednesday had to do with the additional report that APF had been setting up roadblocks at the entrance to town. As outlandish and silly as it might have seemed, it did cause some alarm.

Carrie McLeary, who lives outside Hardin but works in town as a store clerk, said she drove over to Forsyth to have a hog butchered Tuesday and found out later that her mother, in Spokane, had been trying to reach her all day. She said her mother and her friends "wanted to know how many casualties there were."

"It was crazy," McLeary said. "The chamber (of commerce) said they were getting nonstop calls all day long."

In Hardin itself, said Colstad, the councilwoman, a conjunction of circumstances left a lot of people confused.

First there was APF wanting to take over the jail - and rolling into town last week in three Mercedes SUVs festooned with magnetic decals that said "City of Hardin Police Department." Officials later said the idea was only to demonstrate APF's commitment to helping Hardin form its own police department.

Then there was the suspension of Greg Smith, director of Two Rivers Authority, two days after the APF deal was announced. Smith has been mum, and Peterson will say only that Smith was placed on paid administrative leave.

Third was the discussion about deconsolidating law enforcement in Hardin and Big Horn County. The sheriff's department has provided all law enforcement in the city and county for years, but the two governments are moving closer to a plan to deconsolidate and have Hardin create its own police department.

When all those elements got mingled together, Colstad said, "a crazy assumption turned into a wildfire rumor."

Peterson said there is some connection between the jail and deconsolidation, however. The main reason the city council approved the sale of bonds to finance construction of the jail, he said, was that it was promised a share of the revenues, which it would then use to help fund the new police department.

Hilton spoke to those expectations when he told the Big Horn County News in mid-September that "Hardin will be the safest place in the United States to live, and in six months the best place to live."

Peterson said people in Hardin were eager to have their own department.

"The sheriff's the biggest drunk in the county," he said. "I mean, who you gonna call?"

Sheriff Lawrence "Pete" Big Hair could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

McLeary, who is part Little Shell Indian, said people in Hardin have been complaining about the sheriff's department ever since the long tenure of Larson Medicine Horse, Big Hair's predecessor and the first Indian sheriff in Big Horn County.

"This is their main complaint - that there are drunks on the street and the deputies aren't doing their job," McLeary said.

McLeary also said that despite the welcome that American Police Force has received, "Most people I've talked to think there's something wrong with it (the company). Indians are always suspicious of people who have a lot of dough."

Dione Smith, Greg Smith's mother, operated the movie theater in Hardin for 22 years and now lives in Billings. She said people in Hardin have little reason to be anything but optimistic about APF.

"They say nobody else is standing in line to take that over," she said. "And they're not asking for a dime. They say Hardin's got nothing to lose."

That's Peterson's familiar refrain, too.

Even if APF were to declare bankruptcy, he said, "what are we out? We're too poor. We don't have anything to rip off."

Keith Clayton, owner and cook at the Purple Cow restaurant for 22 years, said he hasn't followed the story too closely, but he also saw no reason to be pessimistic.

"I really hope it all goes through because it would be a real boon to the community and it would be good for business," he said.

Trina Maurer, chairwoman of the Hardin Chamber of Commerce, said APF made a false step when it showed up with the SUVs bearing police logos - "They would have been smart to buy a pickup" - but she said "it looks good and sounds good, and people are excited."

"We needed this shot in the arm and we waited a long time for it," Councilwoman Colstad said. "We've had too many years of hard times."

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