Before the governor suspended him from office Tuesday, James R. Metts, 68, was the senior sheriff in South Carolina, holding the post for 42 years.
His goal has been to set the record for holding the post, by serving through 2016.
When he became sheriff in December 1972 at 26, he was the country’s youngest person in the office.
And in 1997-98, he briefly mounted a run for governor as an independent candidate.
He took over an agency whose deputies wore jeans and kept notes on envelopes and turned it into a well-regarded modern law enforcement operation.
His staff of 500 relies on training manuals, computers and crime analysis as well as old-fashioned shoe-leather investigation and attention to neighborhood problems. He has been wanting to add a DNA-testing laboratory, saying it will help solve crimes quicker.
Among the firsts he claims is assigning deputies to police schools as well as being in the forefront of hiring women as officers, adding advocates for crime victims and creation of a court devoted to domestic violence and a shelter for abused children. His deputies also raise money and provide other help annually for several charities.
Metts has been a local political powerhouse for decades.
His headquarters is named for him, although some County Council members warn that title may be removed if he is convicted. There’s also a boat landing on the lower Saluda River near his home that was christened for him.
Metts has brawled with state and local political leaders, stared down offenders pointing guns and had a knife pressed to his throat.
In his younger days, he was a self-described workaholic who obtained a doctorate in education while working as a full-time sheriff. He also had part-time jobs as an insurance and law enforcement consultant as well as investments in restaurants and lounges. He has taught part-time at the University of South Carolina and other schools.
His career in law enforcement began as a dispatcher in West Columbia in 1967 before he became a deputy in 1969.
Metts – known for bluster, bear hugs, handshakes and smiles – decided politics was the ticket for his ambitions.
In 1972, he became the Republican candidate for county sheriff in the days when Democrats dominated offices. But a national GOP tide that year swept him into office. He has had no serious challenger since then.
Shortly after his victory, the outgoing sheriff was found drunk in a wrecked county car and stepped aside. Metts was appointed to fill the office a month early.
Metts rebuilt the department, badgering County Council members for money and bringing in federal aid to add deputies and equipment.
His drive eventually led to a role as leader of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Officers Association. In that role, he was instrumental in improving police pensions and increased training and recognition for officers.
Despite the plaudits and his drive, Metts never rose above county politics.
His interest in become director of the State Law Enforcement Division 20 years ago was sidelined by concern about a partisan fight with lawmakers.
His cultivated and well-dressed style helped him groom his image when appearing as a crime-buster on television.
But Metts retreated from contact with reporters during the past year as word of a federal and state investigation spread, ignoring requests for interviews.
He has avoided public meetings where he might be questioned about the probe, relying on a steady stream of press releases about crimes his deputies were handling.
One crime his deputies haven’t been able to solve is the break-in at his home in 2011 in which entertainment equipment was stolen.
In August 2010, Metts signed an agreement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that would allow specialized officers at the Lexington County Detention Center, which he oversaw, to enforce immigration laws.
At the time, Metts blamed the jail’s overcrowding, in part, on illegal immigrants. At any give time, 10 percent of the jail’s roughly 800 inmates were immigrants, he said.
Under the agreement, two detention center officers were trained to investigate whether immigrants were legally in the United States. Those who were found to be undocumented were reported to ICE for deportation. Inmates were required to complete their criminal proceedings, including serving sentences, before they went through deportation proceedings.
Early in the program, advocates for immigrants in the Midlands said they had heard complaints about the new program but had not been able to verify any of the allegations that deputies were targeting immigrants for minor arrests.
The Lexington County Detention Center is one of three jails in South Carolina to have an agreement with ICE. The others are in York and Charleston counties.
Former staff writer Noelle Phillips contributed.