Several weeks after being appointed Clay County Sheriff, Mike Heaton is dividing his time between two families - the one who greets him when he comes home and the one who greets him when he reports to work.
Sitting behind his desk at the Sheriff's Department, Heaton moves neatly organized piles of paperwork, his mobile phone occasionally ringing while local activity on the police scanner crackles in the background. Almost imperceptibly, he pauses to listen as he talks about moving up from his role as detective to follow predecessor Rob Carter, who recently moved up himself to a state-level law enforcement position with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.
A Clay County native, Heaton, 33, has been with the Clay County Sheriff's Department since 1995, most recently as a detective. He studied criminology at Indiana State University, where he later became a campus police officer. He was enrolled in the law enforcement program at Vincennes University and finished at the Law Enforcement Academy in 1994. At one point he worked in corrections as an intern. His resume also includes his stint as a reserve deputy for Warrick County in southern Indiana, near Evansville, where his family relocated from Clay City when he was a child.
Heaton says it was in high school that a career in law enforcement first seriously appealed to him. As part of the coursework for a senior government and economics class, his teacher invited several guests to speak to the class about a variety of careers. The combination of helping and protecting members of the community without being confined to a desk enhanced the allure of a job in law enforcement.
"When they talked about law enforcement, it was exciting to me. That's when it just caught my interest," he said. "When I graduated from high school, I realized law enforcement was what I wanted to do."
Along with his wife Monica and their three young children, members of Heaton's extended family live in the area. The knowledge his family would be close by is part of what prompted him to return to Clay County in 1995 after living in the Evansville area. While his family is pleased with his recent promotion, the Sheriff says it is relatively routine for law enforcement officials to gradually move up the chain of command, regularly advancing in their careers. His local positions have included deputy, training instructor, sergeant and working in investigations, where he was a detective for 14 months. He has also acted as lead investigator for the department in the Toni Dickison homicide.
"They know this was eventually where I wanted to be," he said. "But to me, this is my job. My family is important to me."
While Heaton's face lights up as he talks about his family at home, he could be pegged as a family man in more than one sense as he praises the dedicated work and efforts of his fellow county law enforcement officers.
"This is my extended family. We help each other out at work and away from work. If somebody knows how to do something, they help each other out," he said. "You take a little bit of what you know and what you can do and help each other out. It's exciting. Everyone here is excited. That's the main thing in any job."
The Clay County Sheriff's Department is made up of 10 employees and 12 reserve deputies, who volunteer their time and purchase their own equipment if no previously used uniforms or equipment are available.
"We rely a lot on the reserves. Most small sheriff's departments would have a hard time operating without the reserves," he said. "Just to see what they do is amazing for the de partment and the community."
Busy since his first day as Sheriff, Heaton says his schedule has been packed with visits to schools and other places in the area, attending meetings and assessing various aspects of the job and the status of projects, particularly construction of the new county jail.
"I don't want anything to fall behind. Everyone's been supportive," he said.
Unsolved cases are a priority within the department, and Heaton has passed his investigation duties in the Dickison case on to Sgt. Rob Gambill, who is being brought up to speed on the case.
"It's still very important to me," he said. "Our department's still going to continue to be active. The last thing people want to see is an unsolved murder continue to be unsolved."
With the increasing popularity of criminal investigation infiltrating popular television programming, the public's perception of how cases progress is influenced by what they see during a one-hour T.V. show.
"They're interested and some expect more. We have to wait our turn. Would I like to have the results back as quickly as on 'CSI'"? Absolutely," he said. "We want every case to be as solid as possible. We have to make decisions quickly out there."
Meanwhile, the manufacture and use of methamphetamine continues to be a threat to Clay County. With neighboring Vigo County topping the list of meth lab discoveries, eradicating the existing local problem and preventing the invasion of outside meth manufacturers pose additional obstacles.
"That affects our community. It's everywhere," he said.
Opening the new jail at the end of the year is a significant project for the county and the department. Preparing employees to operate a facility with a prisoner headcount that will triple is a challenge, and there will be no room for mistakes or trial-by-error situations that often characterize any kind of transition.
"That is kind of a main focus. Everyone wants to see that it's done right. It's a challenge for the whole department," he said. "Let's have the game plan, let's have the thing going. So when we get over there, we have practice."
While Heaton has defined some significant challenges and detailed the work ahead of him, his eager ambition remains as he opts to throw rather than ease himself into his newest role. Between fielding phone calls and planning the department's next steps, the Sheriff relishes his duties as a protector of his family, his co-workers and the residents of Clay County. He continues to project the same enthusiasm he felt in high school at the prospect of a career in law enforcement as he reflects on the fulfillment of that adolescent dream.
"It's exciting," he said. "And I wouldn't want to do anything else."