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Leadington Police Department (LPD) Chief Jerry Hicks recently shared his thoughts with the Daily Journal, recapping the most important moments of 2023 and plotting his goals for the LPD in 2024.
“Three cases stand out as the biggest investigations requiring the most man-hours,” he said, “The missing person’s case involving Melinda Wilkinson was our biggest case of 2023. We had cooperative support from other [law enforcement] agencies, but the Missouri State Highway Patrol (MSHP) worked side-by-side with our investigation unit.”
Chief Hicks said that the case opened when Justin Mcgonigle reported to the LPD that his girlfriend, Wilkinson, had dropped out of contact since he had last seen her driving away on May 8. The most recent text message he had from her indicated that she was in an unstable emotional state. LPD, the MSHP, and other agencies coordinated their efforts in the search for the missing woman. Nearly a month later, Wilkinson’s vehicle was located in Shannon County in the parking lot of Rocky Falls Shut-Ins, near Eminence. A few days later, a tip led investigators to Wilkinson’s location.
“She was deceased, no foul play indicated,” Hicks said. “Losing a loved one is never easy. I want her family to know that even after the investigation is done, it’s not in the past for us. Our hearts and prayers went out to the family at that time for closure, and our prayers are still going out, and those will continue.”
“Jarrod Parker’s case was the second-largest case we handled. He went missing from Roper’s Apartments along with his dog and was later found alive and well. Officer Jayne Bonney was the officer who worked on that case. She did an amazing job and followed up to the very end. She’s not with our department any longer, but I want her work to be acknowledged.”
The LPD responded to 3,227 calls in 2023. Hicks said the call ratio has increased by about 50% over previous years, including fraudulent use of credit cards and checks in large sums, vehicle accidents, peace disturbances, and domestic violence. A case involving theft from the Sam Scism Ford dealership captured the attention of the Parkland in December. On the night of Dec. 5, there was a report of four stolen vehicles from the auto dealer’s lot on Flat River Road.
Security video revealed that it took five individuals just under eight minutes to enter the property, break into the key box, and leave with four vehicles from the car lot. The individuals abandoned the vehicle they arrived in, and a large collection of stolen firearms was found inside. An LPD officer had been running a standard patrol route that placed them on-premises at the dealership. They moved on to their next patrol location, and 15 minutes later, the individuals arrived.
During the December Leadington Board of Aldermen meeting, Mayor Joe Davis commented that he was grateful that the officer’s path hadn’t crossed with the individuals in question, and it was possible that the potential for a violent encounter may have been avoided due to the matter of 15 minutes.
“The officer who worked that case, Sergeant Andrew Lewis, did an amazing job investigating that, and he worked with several other [law enforcement] agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and several departments in Illinois,” Hicks said. “Our four stolen cars were recovered along with another agency’s missing car, and the individuals were all taken into custody by several different agencies because they were part of a multi-state auto theft ring. It was a really big deal, and if it wasn’t for the hard work and diligence Sergeant Lewis put in, I don’t think things would have turned out as well as they did.”
According to Hicks, something that he’s seen trending upward is fake identification (ID) cards, and he finds it very troubling because the cards are flooding into the Parkland in large numbers and are difficult to differentiate from state-issued ID cards.
“I’d like to encourage other departments to be aware of it if they aren’t already,” he said. “A large number of fake IDs are coming into the [Parkland] area — not by two or 10 at a time, but by the hundreds — purchased online. These look like real Missouri driver’s licenses and IDs. Officer Mike Cole handled a case involving fake IDs, and that’s how we learned about the large number coming into the area.
“It’s primarily underage people using them so they can buy alcohol and use [recreational marijuana]. A lot of these were confiscated from establishments here that serve alcohol. These establishments are aware and checking for fake IDs, but some fall through the cracks. I just want to give kudos to our local businesses that serve alcohol for being diligent and aware. When there’s a question, they call us, and we go down, and we check it.”
The chief maintains that public perception and the reputation of the police department are vital to the community’s sense of well-being and safety. It is also important when cultivating a healthy relationship between the department and the citizens it serves. Hicks said it is important to him that Leadington residents know the LPD is staffed with qualified, well-educated officers to provide a safe community. The cumulative amount of experience across the department exceeds 120 years.
Hicks said, “The LPD is staffed with officers 24/7, so there is never a break in continuity or a gap in service levels to the community, although we appreciate knowing that whenever the need arises, the St. Francois County Sheriff’s Department fills the gap and adds its strength to ours. Many of our officers have specialized training and advanced education levels. Over the last couple of years, we’ve gotten new radios, new spike strips, new tasers — and everyone is certified in their use.
“Continuing education is important, and as new classes on things like the detox machine become available, our officers will acquire those skills and training. I’ve been involved in law enforcement since 1983. My education and certification include a master’s degree in police administration and secondary education, and I’m a specialist and general instructor in firearms, radar, and defensive tactics.”
In terms of establishing and increasing a positive rapport, Hicks believes the Christmas Giveaway program is something that both the community and the police department look forward to.
“We’re going to be doing it every year; the response has been amazing,” he said. “It lets people know that as law enforcement officers, we don’t always pull people over and just give them tickets. We like to spread good cheer. It’s nice to see someone smile when they’ve been pulled over and realize they’ve been tagged for the Christmas initiative and end up with a gift or fun holiday token. We couldn’t do this program without the support of our area businesses and citizens. This past year, we had gift cards, gift certificates, and things we use from Big Lots, Brick House Social, Rob’s Guns, Hardee’s, Pit Stop, Faye Lynne Boutique, and Sam Scism Ford.
“We’re hoping the 2024 giveaway is even bigger and better than ever, and we’d welcome any kind of donation from area businesses, organizations, or private individuals. We are completely transparent and keep logs of what is donated and to whom it’s given. It’s really like a secret weapon for local retailers because people do remember who supported the program that provided them with a nice surprise, and they tend to show their appreciation by becoming customers — and that’s just a win-win for retailers who donate things like ball caps, T-shirts, gift certificates for services they offer, gift cards, those kinds of things.”
Words Of Thanks
Hicks listed a number of law enforcement agencies that have assisted the LPD.
“As long as I’m expressing appreciation, I’d like to say that the department would like to send a ‘thank you’ to the many other law enforcement agencies that have helped us in successful investigations,” he said. “Police departments and sheriff’s departments from neighboring cities and the Missouri State Highway Patrol — they have all been great to work with, and we appreciate them.
“Here in [city hall], I’d like to say every officer is amazing and does a great job. We’re a team, all in it together. I’d like to add a welcome to Officer Beau Reichenbach, a full-timer who will be assisting in several duties and organization of department property. Officer Makayla Luke joined us in the fall and was recently promoted to corporal. Her primary job duties are patrolling the street, providing supervision and oversight to part-time staff, as well as assisting in investigations.
“The police department as a whole owes a debt of gratitude for the support of the mayor and the board of aldermen because about three years ago, there was consideration of having the City of Park Hills assume the responsibilities of police and fire protection for Leadington. With the backing and support of the city leadership, both departments were rebuilt and are on stable ground today because of it. I am thankful for each of them — Mayor Joe Davis, Alderman Andrew Young, Alderman Steve Kinsey, Alderman Dustin McKinney, and Alderwoman Debbie Matthews. City Clerk Deborah McCarver is an incredible help to all of us. We also have a big appreciation for the various department heads in the city; we have a great working relationship.”
Plotting the course ahead for 2024, Hicks said positive changes will be coming that will move the department forward.
“Our primary goal is to bring down crime, and we’re trying to be proactive in every way,” he said. “We’re in the early discussion stages, but we are considering the possibility of adding a canine officer. I can’t elaborate, but there are certain areas of interest that we will be investigating more in-depth, questionable activities — and drug use. I’d mentioned training and certifications earlier, and we’ll continue sending people to specialized classes because training has to be a continual thing.”
Chief Hicks stressed that any time a citizen has a question or concern, they should not hesitate to let him know. Likewise, should a business, group, or individual want to donate toward the Christmas giveaway promotion, it isn’t too early to do so. He can be reached by calling 573-431-5196 or by making a visit to Leadington City Hall, 12 Weir St.
Lisa Brotherton-Barnes is a staff writer with the Daily Journal. She can be reached at email@example.com.