An investigator who tackles the toughest welfare fraud cases and a deputy whose persistence solved smash-and-grab vehicle burglaries were among eight Santa Maria Valley law enforcement members saluted Wednesday.
The Santa Maria Elks held its 45th Annual Law Enforcement Appreciation Night with approximately 250 people in attendance.
“Today is a very important day for our Elks Lodge and the city of Santa Maria for this is the one day a year that we get to pay tribute to the men and women who risk their lives every day to ensure that we all are safe in our homes, at our jobs and even walking down the street,” Exalted Ruler Karen Feldpouch said.
“The bravery and heroism that law enforcement officers display every day is unfathomable,” she added.
From the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office, longtime investigator Gerald Motter was named the top employee after 40 years working for peace and justice in the North County, Chief Investigator Dave Saunders said.
Motter is known as the agency’s top investigator for complex cases involving public assistance fraud, and has tracked down thousands of people cheating the system, Saunders said.
“Sometimes success in life isn’t measured by one gigantic extraordinary event,” Saunders said. “It’s measured more with accomplishing every ordinary event in an extraordinary way and that’s what Jerry’s career has been.”
Motter, who said he plans to retire in November, is married to Denise Motter, a Santa Barbara County Superior Court commissioner.
The Sheriff’s Department spotlighted Deputy Dave Wicklund for his role leading to the arrests in connections with smash-and-grab robberies from vehicles in the Santa Maria Valley.
Wicklund has consistently taken a proactive approach to fighting crime within the Santa Maria Valley, Bonner said.
“He’s a problem solver and a tenacious crimefighter and a loyal public servant who strives to do his best for our communities,” said Cmdr. Craig Bonner, who oversees North County operations for the Sheriff’s Department.
In addition to burglaries and credit card fraud, the case involved arson and vehicle thefts. Search warrants Wicklund authored led to recovery of a stolen handgun.
“Due to the significant number of crimes involved, multiple neighborhoods and jurisdictions, this investigation required tremendous organizational skills to fit the pieces together, link the suspects to the various crimes and bring them to justice,” Bonner said.
“Deputy Wicklund’s tenacity and use of community partnerships demonstrates his commitment to serving and protecting our Santa Maria Valley community,” Bonner added.
Wicklund, an Army veteran and Santa Maria native, joined the Sheriff’s Department in 2006 and has worked a number of of assignments with the agency.
Guadalupe Police Department’s honoree was surprised to hear his name called. Public Safety Director Gary Hoving typically hands out his agency’s award, but this year was the recipient upon a unanimous vote by his staff.
Retired Sgt. Mollie Hanson presented the honor to Hoving, who had wrapped up his long law enforcement career with the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Department when he was lured out of retirement.
“In just a short second, he will begin to realize that he is the subject of a really slick sting operation,” Hansen said. “And has just been had by his own department.”
She noted the chief’s professionalism and leadership in addition to bringing stability to the small department. He also led efforts to get voters to pass measures deemed critical to the small city’s future.
“What we have here is a chief who works the street when someone needs a day off,” Hansen said.
“Simply put Chief Gary Hoving, you were selected, we love you,” she added.
Hoving began his law enforcement career in 1975 and said of the career, “Nothing beats it. … It fulfills me.”
Other honorees were:
» Officer Ronald Murillo from the Santa Maria Police Department, noted for his role investigating a fatal street racing crash involving teens, and then creating an educational video shown across the nation. Murillo joined the department 12 years ago.
» Officer Matthew Kenny from the California Highway Patrol’s Santa Maria Office. The CHP officer who grew up on the Central Coast concentrated his enforcement efforts at arresting drivers impaired by drugs and alcohol. He served as public information officer and as coordinator for the program to help parents ensure car seats are properly installed.
» Kathleen “Kay” Ernst from the Santa Maria FBI Office. A 41-year employee of the agency with a time off while she raised her children, Ernst is an investigative operations analyst who first started when J. Edgar Hoover was FBI director. The Santa Maria field office employee was praised for her patience and professionalism in fulfilling her many duties on a day to day basis.
» Renee Leach, senior deputy probation officer of the Santa Barbara County Probation Department. A single mother of three, she has worked in the agency since 2003 and has worked in all three divisions. Chief Probation Officer Lupe Rabago called her a “true team player who has a great sense of humor and innate ability to put others at ease during very stressful situations.”
» Araceli Castillo , dispatcher/records technician for the Allan Hancock College Police Department. She started in 2010 as a community safety officer before moving into her current job. Interim Chief Chris Nartatez called her “truly the backbone of our department.”
Those honored Wednesday night also were presented with certificates from local lawmakers including Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian, Fifth District Supervisor Steve Lavagnino, Santa Maria Mayor Alice Patino and Guadalupe Mayor John Lizalde.
Santa Maria police Cmdr. Kendall Greene was among many who expressed appreciation for the Elks’ and community’s support of law enforcement.
“It’s getting tougher for us to do our jobs on a daily basis,” Greene said. “It’s nice to see the support that’s out here tonight so thank you.”