HOULTON, Maine — When planning for the immediate future before retiring after 42 years working for the same employer, many people would contemplate traveling on a long vacation.
Lt. Keith Wheeler of the Aroostook County Sheriff’s Department, who has put countless miles on vehicles as both a deputy and a civil process server since his official start date on May 6, 1972, is not one of them.
“I hate traveling,” he said Aug. 20, during an interview at the Aroostook County Sheriff’s Department in Houlton. “I did it while I served in the Marine Corps, and I did it while I worked here, so I don’t think I need to do any more.”
Chief Deputy Darrell Crandall, a longtime colleague and friend who joined the interview, said that he had worked with Wheeler for nearly 30 years. Crandall’s father, Darrell Crandall Sr., was sheriff of the department from January 1965 until he retired in 1983, and he hired Wheeler to his first post as a deputy and correctional officer at the Aroostook County Jail.
“He was the last one here hired by my dad, and in a way, that marks the end of an era,” Darrell Crandall said. “Keith has a big heart, and his kind of consistent, deep dedication to a cause larger than himself is rare. His humility is even harder to come by.”
Wheeler is retiring from a career he said he was inspired to pursue by his brother, Edgar Wheeler, a former Aroostook County sheriff who served four consecutive terms in the Legislature as a state representative before passing away in 2007.
The husband and father of three grown children said that a lot was different back then, including the crime rate and the lack of technology.
“Everything was done by hand back then,” Keith Wheeler said. “You hand wrote all of your police reports. The crime rate was a lot lower, too, because people weren’t into drugs like they are now.”
The lieutenant said that deputies did tend to see a spike in crime during harvest time, however, when an influx of laborers into Aroostook County would mean more people and more tendencies for them to get involved with alcohol.
Although Wheeler was quick to brush off any accomplishments and shrug off any recollections of dangerous situations, he did eventually acknowledge that he was most proud of the success of the marijuana eradication program that he was in charge of for the department for close to 20 years.
Wheeler was responsible for gathering tips in the summer and fall regarding where marijuana was being planted and then locating it. It included setting up cameras, coordinating data and working with the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency. He recalled one story when he was crouched in the woods in his bright yellow raincoat, watching from just a short distance away as the suspects tended their plants, having no idea he was there. They were arrested and prosecuted.
The largest marijuana grow case he was involved with, located in Haynesville in 2002, yielded more than 150 pounds of marijuana and more than 500 marijuana plants, worth a combined value of $1 million. Four people were arrested and sentenced over a three year period.
Aroostook County Sheriff James Madore said that the department will have “big shoes to fill.” He said that when he first became sheriff in 2001, it was Wheeler who really showed him the ropes of how the jail was run.
“He is a consummate professional, and even when he has disagreed with me, he has stood behind my decision 100 percent,” he said. “It’s a big loss for us.”
Madawaska Police Chief Carroll Theriault said Thursday that he worked as a deputy with Wheeler at the sheriff’s department from 1979-84 and described him as “reserved, hardworking and dedicated to his profession.”
“He is the greatest guy in the world,” he said. “If there was an officer I was going to call in an emergency to go out and be by my side, it would be Keith Wheeler.”
Hancock County Chief Deputy Richard Bishop, who also worked with Wheeler at the department from 1979-84, had similar praise. He said that Wheeler, who was his patrol sergeant, was a “real professional, someone who was just an outstanding person to introduce me to law enforcement.”
“He always looked out for you and cared about the people that he worked with,” he said. “Back then, you worked six days on and one day off, and we did everything together. Our families became very close. He was a great person to work with. The citizens of Aroostook County were very lucky to have someone like that on their side.”