Seated behind a desk in the lobby of a Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department substation in Isla Vista, Lt. Ugo “Butch” Arnoldi dutifully monitored incoming phone calls on an evening last spring.
A mundane task, but not on May 23, as a heavily armed shooter drove around the community adjacent to UC Santa Barbara wreaking havoc, ultimately fatally shooting and stabbing six college students before taking his own life.
Seeing the news, a worried father called, telling Arnoldi his 20-year-old son was missing. A member of a UCSB sorority phoned, trying to locate unaccounted-for sorority sisters.
Arnoldi, a 40-year department veteran, wrote down names. He knew the identities of the three shooting victims within hours, before anyone else, but had to wait for official confirmation and for family notifications to be made in person.
Being surrounded by tragedy on a daily basis doesn’t make the next incident any less heart wrenching.
But being in service of others, lightening their load in some small or significant way, keeps Arnoldi going, providing a kind demeanor or quick decision as needed.
The Santa Barbara native said he tries to lead a balanced life, which is why he isn’t quite ready to retire after already seeing his fair share of triumph and heartbreak.
At 64, Arnoldi is the longest-serving lieutenant in department history— 18 years and counting.
Since 2010, he’s served as the sheriff’s chief of police for the City of Goleta, a community he’s lived in since 1988. Arnoldi isn’t one for politics and prides himself on knowing and protecting residents, who often call him directly when something is amiss.
“My personal goal was to do 40 years, which I’ve accomplished,” Arnoldi said on a recent morning, sitting in his sheriff’s headquarters office. “But I’m still having fun. I’ve really been fortunate.”
Plaques of commendations and service honors crowd the white walls of Arnoldi’s office, along with pictures of his wife of 32 years, Marla, who works down the hall in the human resources department, and their two children — Giuseppi, 25, and Francesca, 24.
Arnoldi swears he didn’t put either of them up to it, but his passion for law enforcement shows in every story and date he readily recalls from memory.
Sworn in as deputy in 1974, Arnoldi worked a beat on the South Coast where he spent five years making friends with milk and newspaper delivery drivers — people who often tipped off in-progress burglaries after spotting unfamiliar vehicles in the neighborhood.
He’s spent time as countywide watch commander, chief of police for Carpinteria, sheriff’s assistant and commander of the Isla Vista Foot Patrol — an assignment of which the UCSB graduate is especially proud.
Crime in Isla Vista was worse in 1998 than now, if you believe it, Arnoldi said. Before he was reassigned in 2001, the number of sexual assaults fell by more than 50 percent.
He demanded officers be proactive, and didn’t tolerate less.
“You lead by example,” Arnoldi said. “If you’re going to be in that station, you’re going to work hard.”
“Old School” is how Goleta City Councilman Roger Aceves described Arnoldi, a longtime friend. They both grew up on Santa Barbara’s Eastside, attended Santa Barbara High School and patrolled together when Aceves was with the department years ago.
“That’s something you don’t teach,” Aceves said. “He is really easygoing and really a good listener. Listening is 90 percent of police work. He’s really dedicated to the community.
“I don’t know a single person who doesn’t like Butch.”
Arnoldi’s commitment shows in his attendance record. His last sick day was in 1963, when he was in eighth grade.
He earned a master’s degree in public administration while working full time, and still does guest lectures at local community colleges.
He’s worked under five different sheriffs, been in charge of security for the Michael Jackson trial in Santa Maria and got to know President Ronald Reagan on a first-name basis after leading a motorcade with Queen Elizabeth to the Reagan ranch in the mountains west of Goleta.
The longtime lawman has also witnessed some scenes he’d rather forget. Memories of the 2006 Goleta post office massacre, when he served as incident commander, are still fresh.
“Yeah, it’s a serious business, but you shouldn’t take your work home with you,” Arnoldi said, trying to hold back tears. “There are things that people shouldn’t see. I firmly believe God put us there for a reason. The job isn’t all easy like everyone thinks it is.
“It’s an awesome responsibility. It really is.”
Arnoldi finds comfort hiking and working on his family’s 300-acre ranch up San Marcos Pass, where he hopes to retire in the coming years to enjoy nature full time. He also sits on the parish council of San Roque Church and sings in the choir with his wife.
Those who try thanking Arnoldi for years of service hear him echo the same gratitude.
“Thank you for allowing me to serve, for giving me that trust and confidence to serve you,” he said. “It’s my pleasure.”