September 3, 2010
Schmaling touts law enforcement, business experience in run for Sheriff
Early in his adult life Chris Schmaling realized he loved two careers: law enforcement and business. His choice? Both.
Schmaling, a candidate for Racine County Sheriff, opened the first of two Subway restaurants at the same time he was hired as a sworn officer with the Sheriff's Department. He was just 23 years old.
"When I went for the loan the bank asked, 'How are you going to do both?'" Schmaling said. "I wanted to prove I could do it."
Many days working 16 or more hours, Schmaling built up a law enforcement career while also building his small business. As he learned to be an undercover officer, jailer, patrolman and investigator, he also learned how to manage a staff, work the accounting books and market his business. Both paths paid off.
Schmaling worked his way up to investigator in the Sheriff's Department and helped solve a number of high-profile cases, including the Teri Jendusa-Nicolai abduction. He also opened a second Subway restaurant and built up his businesses to $500,000 a year in annual sales, and then sold the restaurants for a healthy profit when he and his wife were expecting their first child.
Schmaling is now looking to combine his law enforcement experience with his business background as Racine County's next sheriff. He said his background in both areas make him uniquely qualified for the job.
Schmaling, the youngest of nine siblings, said the drive to pursue two careers at once came from his father, who was a life-long factory worker at AMC, later Chrysler, in Kenosha. "He worked every day and took every hour of overtime he could get," Schmaling said of his father.
Schmaling's law enforcement career began in jail. After graduating from Bradford High School, Schmaling earned an associates degree from Gateway Technical College in criminal science and was hired on at the Lake County Correctional Facility in Illinois. He watched 20 inmates in an open room with little back up. "There was nothing between you and the inmates," Schmaling said of his first duty. "You learned how to talk to people real quick."
Former Sheriff, now County Executive, Bill McReynolds hired him as a sworn officer in 1995. During the interview, McReynolds asked Schmaling where he saw himself in 15 years. Schmaling's response? "Sitting in your chair interviewing someone like me." As Schmaling recalls, McReynolds chuckled and then offered him the job.
His first work with the Sheriff's Department was as an undercover drug buyer. "My first time out I bought marijuana and cocaine," Schmaling said. 'I didn't have any use for drugs, have never used them in my life, but I fit into the role well."
Schmaling then transferred inside the Racine County Jail and then became a patrolman, where he responded to calls, learned how to collect evidence and investigated traffic accidents. "I wanted to be a cop who could do different things," he said.
Schmaling worked his way into an investigator's job, where he took on several difficult cases. He was the lead investigator on cases against at least three law enforcement officers, and built cases to have all of them dismissed for illegal activities. Those cases drew commendations from local police chiefs and prosecutors.
"I told the law enforcement officers I was investigating, 'I can be your best friend or your worst enemy,'" Schmaling said. "'If you're innocent, I'll work long and hard to prove you didn't do it. If you're guilty, I'll work long and hard to prove you did.'"
The Jendusa-Nicolai case earned Schmaling and his fellow investigators and officers national attention for saving the Waterford woman's life. Jendusa-Nicolai was savagely attacked by her ex-husband, stuffed in a garbage can and dumped in a storage locker in Wheeling, Ill. Schmaling and Detective Keith Dobesh worked the case for over a day straight, interrogating suspect David Larsen and following up on leads. Dobesh found a receipt in Larsen's wallet for the storage locker, and police found Jendusa-Nicholai beaten, bound and left for dead in freezing conditions.
Schmaling got to the scene where Jendusa-Nicolai was found just as she was being wheeled into an ambulance. "Her hair was charcoal, wet from blood," he said. "I'd seen a picture of her and she was this beautiful, vibrant woman. When I looked at the woman (on the stretcher), I was asking, 'Could that be her?' She looked nothing like the picture. I couldn't make the ID, so I ran up to her and said, 'What's your name?' 'Teri from Racine,' she replied."
Word of the story spread around the country. The case is remarkable because police located Jendusa-Nicolai alive more than a day after she disappeared. "He'd come to expect we wouldn't find her alive," Schmaling said.
Now, Jendusa-Nicolai is a national figure. She's appeared on several TV shows, including Oprah, and gives talks to young women about early signs of an abusive relationship. She's helped many women avoid serious injury and abuse.
"Teri is a fantastic human being," Schmaling said. "She's someone you want to listen to."
The case also got Schmaling some national TV time. He and Dobesh appeared on Oprah with Jendusa-Nicolai and recapped the investigation that led to her rescue.
Schmaling said his experience on the Jendusa-Nicolai case, and several others, prepared him for the complexities of being sheriff. While there's an administrative side to the job, he said, it's also critical to have a strong officer in the position to ensure public safety. When emergencies arise, Schmaling said, he would be prepared to respond and guide efforts to help people in need.
"You need to have top-level law enforcement," he said. "Racine County's top cop should be held to a high standard."
As sheriff Schmaling said he would use his business experience to find creative ways to save money and improve service. One example: He'd like to allow jail inmates to pay to video conference with visitors. Computers would be set up in the jail and inmates could communicate with their family, friends or lawyer. The county would make money off the service by charging, and save money by reducing visitation hours.
"It'd be a way to streamline and make money at the same time," he said.
Schmaling is also an advocate for installing the Victim Information and Notification Everyday, or VINE, system. The computer system would allow the public to sign up for email, phone or text updates whenever an inmate is released from the jail. For example, the victim of domestic abuse could sign up to be notified when their attacker is released. That would give them time to lock the doors or, if needed, move to a new location.
The state is making the system free to the county, and grants would cover annual maintenance costs, Schmaling said.
He also said he'd support joint-dispatch efforts, and work to build relationships with local, state and federal government agencies to rent out excess beds in the jail.
To get a chance to work on his ideas, Schmaling will need to win the Sept. 14 Republican primary election against Gonzalo Gonzalez, a sergeant with the Sheriff's Department, and County Board Supervisor Ron Molnar. The general election is Nov. 2.
So far it's been competitive race between three candidates who have split support three ways among local conservatives and officials. Schmaling has strong support among local law enforcement, including Sheriff Bob Carlson, and endorsements from all of Racine County's prosecutors. He's up against Gonzalez, who is backed by many local conservatives, including the Ladwig family, and Molnar, who is being supported by McReynolds and several local politicians.
The only specific Schmaling made with his opponents was to note that they're at different points in their careers. While Gonzalez and Molnar are closer to retirement, Schmaling, 38, said he's mid-career and will be held accountable by voters because he'll be looking to get re-elected and continue his career.
"I have to be successful as sheriff," Schmaling said. "I'm only halfway through my career."
Schmaling said he's been a life-long conservative and holds the same beliefs his parents instilled in him. He chose to run as a Republican based on that background. "I'm very conservative," he said.
But Schmaling added he's looking for support across parties. The Sheriff's job is about protecting the public, regardless of their political beliefs. He said one woman asked for a campaign sign for her yard, but then gave it back when she learned Schmaling was a Republican. Wait a minute, he told her, in all of the years of being an officer do you think I ever asked someone what their political beliefs were before helping them? The argument worked and the woman put a sign in her yard, Schmaling said.
Schmaling, who's on a leave of absence from his investigator's job, said he's enjoyed campaigning door-to-door and talking to community groups. This week he met with seniors at St. Monica's, a Lions Club in Union Grove and hit the streets in the Town of Waterford. Even has family has enjoyed the race, Schmaling said. His wife, Jennifer, is his campaign manager. Together they have three children ages 12, 11 and 6. They live in Mount Pleasant.
"Win or lose, I've been flattered by the support," Schmaling said. "I would run again in four years."
But he's hoping to win this year, and feels like police and business careers set him up well to succeed.
"You need more than law enforcement experience to run the Sheriff's Department," Schmaling said. "You need business experience, you have to be good with finances, and you have to be a good cop."
Here's Schmaling's appearance on Oprah:
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