Office of the Sheriff
History of the Office

Lancaster County was organized in the Nebraska Territory in 1855. The first move for the organization of Lancaster County was in the fall of 1859. In 1861, Louis J. Loder was appointed the first sheriff and county clerk of the county. The first elected sheriff of the county was William Pemberton in 1863. By the 1870s, Lancaster County was growing rapidly. Since the establishment of the Office of the Sheriff in Lancaster County, thirty-two sheriffs have held the office. In the early years, a number of prominent businessmen held the Office of the Sheriff. Two of those were Samuel McClay and Granville Ensign, both Civil War veterans and prominent Republicans.

Two former Lancaster County Sheriffs and one deputy sheriff have been honored by being inducted into the Nebraska Law Enforcement Hall of Fame. While the long history of the Lancaster County Sheriff's Office is punctuated by many incidents of great drama and import, there can be little doubt that the three most significant incidents in the history of the office have revolved around these three men: Sheriff Samuel M. Melick, Sheriff Merle C. Karnopp, and Deputy Craig D. Dodge. Those three memorable incidents are the lynching of Luciano Padillo, the murder spree of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, and the murder of Deputy Sheriff Craig D. Dodge.

Samuel M. Melick served as Lancaster County Sheriff from 1883 to 1891. On August 23, 1884, Melick was transporting a rape suspect, Luciano Padillo, from the jail to a homestead in the southwest part of the county. The purpose of the trip was to obtain an eyewitness identification from the victim, who was bedridden and not expected to live. Melick had set out by train but disembarked at Denton and proceeded on horseback in order to avoid a potential mob at the Burke Train Depot near the victim's home. The plan failed, however, when word of the strategy apparently leaked, and the sheriff was confronted by a mob of some fifty masked riders bent on a lynching. After a lengthy horseback pursuit and a considerable period of attempted persuasion, the sheriff was downed by the mob and Padillo lynched in the timber along Cheese Creek.

After serving four terms as sheriff, Sam Melick was twice appointed Lincoln Police Chief under two different mayoral administrations. He also served as the postmaster of Lincoln, as a detective for the Nebraska Banking Association, and as a Deputy United States Marshal. In 1912, a riot at the State Penitentiary resulted in the death of the warden, two deputy wardens, and a prison usher. The National Guard was called in to restore order, and Governor Chester Aldrich appointed Sam Melick to serve as the interim warden. Educated at Marshall College in Iowa, Melick completed an unprecedented law enforcement career before returning to private life and becoming a successful real estate developer.

Merle C. Karnopp, also a member of the Nebraska Law Enforcement Hall of Fame, held the office of Lancaster County Sheriff for 28 years, from 1951 to 1979. He was a Lancaster County Deputy Sheriff for eight years prior to his first election. Karnopp was prominent in a number of civic and professional organizations. In 1978, he was named president of the 50,000-member National Sheriffs' Association, the only Nebraska sheriff to hold that honor.

The Lancaster County Sheriff's Posse was formed under Sheriff Karnopp in October of 1955, with twenty original members. Each man owned his own horse and equipment, consisting of uniform, gun and the necessary riding paraphernalia, at an approximate cost of $1,000. All members were sworn in as special deputies and were subject to call to assist the sheriff whenever necessary. Posse members were assigned to work with regular deputies, and their training consisted of traffic control, firearms, protection of crime scenes, and riot control.

Although his seven terms saw many accomplishments, the most enduring public memory of Merle Karnopp's career as Lancaster County Sheriff was the mass murder spree of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate in 1957-58. For a few days in January, 1958, Lincoln and Lancaster County residents were terrorized by the repeated discovery of Starkweather and Fugate's eleven victims. Four of the eleven murders occurred in rural Lancaster County and were investigated by Sheriff Karnopp and his deputies. Governor Victor Anderson had called out a National Guard unit to assist in the search for the killers; however, before they were fully mobilized, the Sheriff learned that Starkweather and Fugate had been arrested near Douglas, Wyoming, following the roadside murder of a traveling shoe salesman and a harrowing high-speed chase. After Starkweather's capture, Karnopp and his wife Gertrude made the arduous 900-mile round trip to Wyoming to bring Starkweather and Fugate back to Lincoln to stand trial. Charles Starkweather died in the Nebraska electric chair on June 25, 1959. Caril Ann Fugate was sentenced to life imprisonment and paroled in 1976 after serving 18 years of her sentence.

The third member of the Lancaster County Sheriff's Office to be inducted into the Nebraska Law Enforcement Hall of Fame was Deputy Craig Douglas Dodge. Deputy Dodge had served as a United States Marine, a Lincoln Police Officer, and a Reserve Deputy Sheriff for both Lancaster and Adams Counties prior to becoming a Lancaster County Deputy Sheriff in 1985. He was also a co-founder of Eastern Ambulance Company in Lincoln.

At 5:21 a.m., on March 14, 1987, Deputy Dodge was dispatched to a report of a domestic assault at an apartment building in Hickman, Nebraska. Deputy Dodge arrived within minutes and heard the victim pleading with her husband. Knowing that backup was many minutes away, Deputy Dodge made contact at the door to the apartment and was trying to stabilize the situation until assistance arrived when the suspect suddenly shot and killed Deputy Dodge with a .38-caliber revolver, then stole Deputy Dodge's revolver, and ran from the scene.

The killer, Terry Reynolds, was apprehended a short time later by a nearby creek bed. Deputy Dodge's weapon was recovered from the water where Reynolds had thrown it. Terry Reynolds was subsequently convicted of first-degree murder and is currently serving a life sentence.

Deputy Dodge's funeral was attended by Governor Kay Orr, U.S. Senator Robert Kerrey and many other dignitaries. His widow, Barbara Dodge, later became a prominent national advocate for survivors of law enforcement line-of-duty deaths. She was elected president of the national organization "Concerns of Police Survivors" and spoke at the 1991 dedication of the National Law Enforcement Officers' Memorial in Washington, D.C., sharing the dais with President George Bush. Craig Dodge's memory still burns brightly in the hearts of his co-workers, family and friends. The example of his life and sacrifice will continue to inspire generations of Nebraska law enforcement officers.

Although he was not inducted into the Nebraska Law Enforcement Hall of Fame, the death of Sgt. Franklin Furrer on November 16, 1973, is still commemorated by his coworkers. Sgt. Furrer was involved in a narcotics raid at a residence near the town of Walton when he was stricken with a heart attack. Twenty days after suffering the heart attack, Sgt. Furrer died. In 1995, Sgt. Furrer's death was determined to be a line-of-duty death, and his name was added to the National Law Enforcement Memorial in Washington, D.C.


The last few decades have witnessed the evolution of an office stretching to meet the public expectations of training and professionalism, service and response to the rural community, and burgeoning responsibilities to the Courts and public safety. In less than the time line set out below, the Sheriff's Office has moved from posses to radios, from index cards to national data bases, from carbon paper to computers to GPS. Every sheriff in the last 5 decades put something in motion to better position his office for what was waiting ahead.

  • 1967 - The Sheriff's Office increased its fleet from 3 to 11 cars, plus a helicopter, trackster, wrecker, three narcotics cars and six additional cars for warrant service, for a total of 23 vehicles. The fleet had increased to 58 vehicles by 2003.
  • 1970 - The Sheriff's Office started using a "high band" frequency for inter-department communication. "Low band" was used for the state-wide sheriffs' radio network linking LSO with other sheriff's departments and towns.
  • 1971-72 - The school year saw the Sheriff's Office implement its first School Resource Officer Program through funding from the Federal Region II Crime Commission. The program evolved into the current DARE Program.
  • 1974 - The Sheriff's Office leased a building at 300 South Coddington with approval from the County Board and put into operation its own maintenance facility for vehicles.
  • 1979 - Under Sheriff Dale Adams, the Sheriff's Office changed its organizational structure to three divisions: Courts, Operations and Special Services. Each division was supervised by its own Captain.
  • 1980 - Sheriff Adams requested and was granted authorization from the County Board to create a Lancaster County Sheriff's Reserve Force, consisting of a maximum of 30 commissioned reserve deputies. The reserve program was disbanded in 1988.
  • 1985 - The Sheriff's Office moved its garage facility to the West Gate Complex at 444 Cherrycreek Road. Space at the complex was shared with the County Engineer's Office.
  • 1990 - Under Sheriff Ron Tussing, the Sheriff's Office changed its organizational structure to five divisions: Administrative Support, Special Services, Criminal Investigations, Patrol and Civil.
  • 1991 - Sheriff Tussing was appointed by the Governor as Nebraska State Patrol Superintendent. Thomas K. Casady, then Chief Deputy Sheriff, was appointed by the County Board to fill the remainder of Sheriff Tussing's term as Sheriff.
  • 1994 - Sheriff Thomas K. Casady left the Sheriff's Office to become Lincoln's Chief of Police.
  • 1995 - The Sheriff's Office Patrol Division moved from shared space at the West Gate Complex into its own newly-remodeled satellite facility located at 1000 Oak Street. An Open House was held February 23, 1996, which included tours of the office, lineup and training room, lockers and weight room. A portion of the new facility was a fenced-in area for storage of property, parking, and collection of evidence. The Patrol Division remained at 1000 Oak Street until December 1, 1999.

A traumatic period for the Sheriff's Office began January 11, 1994, when Sheriff Thomas K. Casady resigned to become Lincoln's Chief of Police. This left a void to be filled, as Sheriff Casady's term did not expire until January 1, 1995. The County Board, given the arduous task of replacing Sheriff Casady during an election year, advertised for applicants, and several applications were received. Following a diligent search, including interviews and background checks, the Board appointed John Packett, the Chief of Police from LaVista, Nebraska, to fill the remainder of Sheriff Casady's term and then run for sheriff. Sheriff Packett was sworn in on February 1, 1994, introductions were made and tours given. In an unusual and controversial move, the next morning Sheriff Packett called Chief Deputy William E. Jarrett and announced that he was resigning. Sheriff Packett has since become known as "Sheriff For A Day."

Following Sheriff Packett's resignation, the County Board decided it would be in the best interest of the Sheriff's Office to appoint retired District Court Judge Samuel Van Pelt to fill the remaining 11 months of the term. Sheriff Van Pelt took office March 18, 1994, but declared that he had no intention of running for the office of sheriff in the November election. Therefore, it was agreed that Van Pelt would resign in mid-November, obviating the need to attend law enforcement certification training. The County Board agreed to appoint whoever was elected by the voters on November 8, 1994, to take office immediately rather than waiting until January 1, 1995, to do so. LSO Sgt. Terry T. Wagner was elected sheriff and was sworn in November 22, 1994, to fill the unexpired term of Samuel Van Pelt, effective November 24, 1994, thus ending an unsettled time for the Sheriff's Office.


Over the decades, the Lancaster County Sheriff's Office has had several homes. In 1873-74, a substantial masonry jail was built at 9th and K Streets in Lincoln. The sheriff's quarters and administrative offices in the jail were supplemented by office space in the Lancaster County Courthouse, constructed in 1887. In 1967-68, construction was completed on a County-City Building to replace the Courthouse and jail, and the Lancaster County Sheriff's Office relocated to space on the lower level of the new building. Since the late 1970s, the Board of Commissioners, sitting as the Board of Corrections, has administered the jail through an appointed director.

In 1997, a massive renovation of the County-City Building into a new Justice and Law Enforcement Center was begun. The Sheriff's Office moved to the first floor of Gold's Galleria located at 11th and N Streets, with a satellite office in the Old Federal Building. The satellite office was established to house the Special Services Division in charge of movement of prisoners and providing security for the County and District Courts, which had also been moved into that building. Headquarters for the Sheriff's Office in the Gold's building consisted of the Administrative Support, Criminal Investigations and Civil Divisions, along with the main reception and records areas, while the Patrol Division remained at 1000 Oak Street.

November 15, 1999, the Lancaster County Sheriff's Office returned to the newly-renovated Justice & Law Enforcement Center, occupying the southwest corners of the first-floor and ground levels. Finally, the entire Sheriff's Office was under one roof back on the two blocks occupied by the first jail and courthouse. The Justice & Law Enforcement Center, along with a newly constructed adjacent County-City Building, was dedicated in a Grand Opening and Ribbon-Cutting Ceremony on May 5, 2000, with many local dignitaries in attendance.

In recent years, the Lancaster County Sheriff's Office has continued its tradition of emphasizing the importance of training and education. The office has successfully sought and recruited college graduates as the primary applicant pool and conducts an extensive program of in-service training for deputies. The office developed a Statement of Mission, Values and Goals and an excellent Standard Operating Procedures manual. The Sheriff's Office has excelled, in particular, in policy and practice pertaining to the investigation of child sexual assault and domestic violence cases. Service and enforcement of Protection Orders and investigation of child abuse and neglect are paramount in our service to the community.

The Lancaster County Sheriff's Office prides itself on supplying state-of-the-art equipment for its deputies, from mobile data computers in cruisers to computer mapping for crime analysis. The Sheriff's Office has a state-wide reputation for excellence and has provided technical assistance and instructional materials on various topics to sheriffs throughout the State of Nebraska.

The Office of Sheriff of Lancaster County has been held by a number of exemplary citizens of the community since 1861, but its accomplishments have been made possible only through the dedication and hard work of the deputy sheriffs and civilian employees who have served the Sheriff's Office with honor. These men and women have committed themselves to public service, sometimes at considerable peril, and have distinguished themselves by innumerable acts of courage, integrity, intelligence, and determination. Their contribution to the quality of life enjoyed by the citizens of Lancaster County cannot be overstated.

Currently, the Lancaster County Sheriff's Office is comprised of five divisions; Administrative Support, Criminal Investigations, Patrol, Special Services and Civil. The office has 76 commissioned law enforcement personnel, including the sheriff and chief deputy, along with 7 certified Building Security Officers and 18 civilian employees.

The Office of the Sheriff is held by Terry T. Wagner. Sheriff Wagner was first elected sheriff in November, 1994, and was re-elected in 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010 and 2014. The Lancaster County Sheriff's Office is the sixth largest law enforcement agency in Nebraska, with an operating budget of approximately eleven million dollars.

1861-1862 Louis J. Loder 1908-1911 Henry Hoagland
1863-1864 Josiah Chambers 1912-1917 Gus Hyers
1865 William Pemberton 1918-1919 L. A. Simmons
1865 Joel Mason 1920-1921 Ira Miller
1866-1867 R. M. Pursell 1922-1938 Claude P. Hensel
1868-1869 J. H. Hawk 1938-1940 James Davis
1870-1877 Samuel McClay 1940-1941 E. Cecil Ward
1878-1879 J. S. Hoagland 1942-1950 Myles Holloway
1880-1883 Granville Ensign 1951-1979 Merle C. Karnopp
1884-1889 Samuel M Melick 1980-1987 Dale A. Adams
1890-1893 Samuel McClay 1988-1991 Ron H. Tussing
1894-1895 Fred Miller 1991-1994 Thomas K. Casady
1896-1899 John Trompen 1994 John D. Packett
1900-1903 Z. S. Branson 1994 Samuel Van Pelt
1904- 1907 Nicholas Ress 1994-Present Terry T. Wagner
Contributors: William E. Jarrett
  Thomas K. Casady
  Samuel Van Pelt

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