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'It ain't me, it's we'
Im very nervous but Im very excited, Jeff Skatrud said of his early departure as head of the Green County Sheriffs Department. Hes been with the department since he was hired on as a deputy at age 22 in 1981. (Times photo: Anthony Wahl)
MONROE - In the fall of 1981, Green County hired a baby-faced deputy named Jeff Skatrud. He was only 22, but he'd already worked a year at the Winnebago County jail in Oshkosh and a year on patrol in Shullsburg, mostly breaking up bar fights.

This week, Skatrud is leaving his term as sheriff a year early to pursue a part-time job opportunity.

Over the past 32 years, he's lived through major changes in law enforcement and worked his way up in the Green County Sheriff's Department, from night patrol to undercover drug agent to chief deputy to sheriff, a position he took over from Randy Roderick after getting elected in November 2010.

He won't disclose what the new part-time job is, only that it will keep him in the area and couldn't wait until the end of his term as sheriff.

"I'm 99.9 percent certain it wouldn't be available at the end of the term," said Skatrud, 54. He also plans to get back into teaching police recruits at Blackhawk Technical College, an activity he enjoyed until he had to quit when he became sheriff.

Chief Deputy Richard Wyttenbach will fill in for Skatrud until Governor Scott Walker's office goes through applicants and names a replacement. Skatrud hopes Walker's hiring committee chooses Wyttenbach.

For Skatrud, the early departure is conflicted and bittersweet, a mix of excitement and guilt. He's a "soft-hearted" fellow, by County Clerk Mike Doyle's description, and has showed signs of deep sadness over leaving. At a county board meeting earlier this month, he ducked out quickly after giving a farewell speech, clearly about to crack into tears.

"I'm very nervous but I'm very excited," he said later. "I still feel bad about leaving. I can't bring myself to say I'm resigning from Green County. It just doesn't taste right. Resigning sounds like I'm quitting."

Skatrud is sure about one thing. The still-unsolved death earlier this year of a 17-year-old inmate in the jail, and the pending lawsuit against the county from the teen's parents alleging wrongful death, have nothing to do with his departure, he said.

"I wish I'd stayed to see it through," he said of the investigation into the death, which the teen's stepfather says was caused by a methadone overdose.

Skatrud said he is willing to assist his predecessors in the case, if it's needed.

"I'll be available as much as they want it," he said.

In general, he said, overseeing the jail has been one of the most challenging aspects of his job as sheriff. Ultimately he was responsible for reviewing the medical care, the appeals of discipline, the food and special diets, the revocation of inmates' Huber work-release privileges, and more.

"The jail is a really time-consuming issue for a sheriff as far as liability issues. The jail consumes a lot more of a sheriff's time than I would have guessed," he said.

Besides the new job that will keep Skatrud in the area, he also has strong ties here. He and his wife, Lynn, live in Brodhead. She works in Madison as a nurse. Their grown sons are nearby - Kevin is a deputy in Rock County, and Josh is a teacher and coach in Elkhorn. Skatrud's brother Daniel is a detective with the Monroe Police Department.

Antsy for patrol

Skatrud's career began in 1979 on the mean streets of Shullsburg - and that's no joke, at least on the weekends. Back then, Wisconsin's drinking age was 18 and people from surrounding states with higher drinking ages would drive up to Shullsburg to party. If things weren't going their way by the end of the night, they'd drunkenly pick fights.

Shullsburg, a town about a tenth of Monroe's size, had two officers out patrolling on the weekends, but "we could've used ten," Skatrud said.

After a year in Shullsburg, he switched to jail duty in Oshkosh. He soon grew tired of the regimented and cooped-up work.

"I was antsy to be on patrol again," he remembers. It was his calling. "Being out on the roads. The freedom. I was meant to be a deputy."

That restlessness brought him to the Green County Sheriff's Department, where he spent his first decade on the night shift. He had to deal with drunk people, but he still loved the variety of the work and the freedom of patrolling county roads.

Patrolling isn't as dangerous as it used to be, and that's the result of increased training and shifts in attitude, Skatrud said. Officers used to go to dangerous lengths to chase fleeing cars, for instance, putting themselves and other drivers at risk.

"That mentality is gone," he said. "People realized it's not worth it."

Another trend that's developed since his start in law enforcement is the focus on training officers in how talk with people.

"Our people are better at their communication skills," he said.

Meth busts and going undercover

"It ain't me, it's we," Skatrud will say when asked for his proudest moment at the sheriff's department. But when pressed, he started talking about his work with drug enforcement.

"In the early '90s, our drug enforcement was spotty to say the least," he said. Around the same time, he was promoted to the newly created position of drug detective and started training. "We really took some huge steps forward."

When meth abuse exploded in the late 1990s, as it did in many rural areas, the department was better equipped to handle it.

"We had this drug that really screwed people up," he said. "I think we made a good dent in it."

Skatrud worked undercover during this time, usually in blue jeans and a flannel shirt - "probably typical '70s wear," he jokes. He enjoyed getting to wear jeans to work, but in retrospect he feels he was a better investigator than undercover agent.

From typewriters to electronic monitoring

As with nearly every profession, improved technology has drastically changed the everyday work-life of deputies since Skatrud started his career.

When he was first hired on, deputies wrote reports on manual typewriters and used Wite-Out "by the gallon."

The light on squads grinded noisily as they rotated, and often had to be oiled.

Forget cellphones or even car phones. Even the dispatch radio wouldn't work in the more remote parts of the county. Deputies had to hunt down a payphone anytime they wanted to go off-radio to discuss a confidential matter with dispatch.

Fast-forward three decades, and technology has advanced so far some inmates can serve their jail sentences at home on electronic monitoring. The sophisticated system allows jail deputies to track an inmate's location exactly. It sets off alerts if the inmate goes where he or she isn't supposed to or if alcohol is detected.

The addition of electronic monitoring, which he oversaw at the Green County Jail in 2011, has saved taxpayers about $200,000 in two years, according to Skatrud.

Earlier this week at an awards ceremony he organized, the first of its kind in years, he honored the jail staff for their work in implementing the electronic monitoring system. He hopes the awards ceremony - which recognizes the work and contributions of sheriff's department staff as well as citizens - will continue long after his departure.