April 22, 2024

Clarke County Sheriff Tony Roper, a 45-year veteran of law enforcement, will retire at the end of December. /Courtesy photo.

BERRYVILLE, VA – After 45 years in law enforcement, 20 of them as Clarke County Sheriff, Tony Roper is poised to ride off into the sunset at year’s end.

Kicking off his career at the Clarke County Sheriff’s Office as a radio communications officer in 1978 at age 18, Roper eventually attended the police academy before serving as a Clarke County Jail correctional officer then a road deputy in the early 1980’s. He relocated to the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office, where he became an investigator.

In 1985, Roper returned to Clarke County as an investigator serving under then-Sheriff Albert “Nick” Nicodemus.

Roper, who sat down recently for an interview with The Shaw Report, reflected on his career of 45 years. “I just thought, as a young man, that it sounded like an exciting field, and I wanted to be part of it.”

In 1986, as crack cocaine began rapidly flowing into the Winchester area, Roper recalled, Virginia State Police (VSP) set up “Operation Crack” which was a concerted effort to stop the widespread influx of the highly addictive narcotic.

VSP Special Agent Carl Voskamp predicted the drug would be popular, as it was easy and inexpensive to produce, and it produced an immediate high. He had the idea of creating a regional task force that could pool resources and better combat what police felt was a serious threat to public safety.

Roper was a founding member of the Northwest Virginia Regional Drug Task Force.

The task force consisted of Clarke County, Frederick County, Shenandoah and Warren County Sheriff’s Offices, along with the Front Royal Police Department and the City of Winchester Police Department. Page County Sheriff’s Office then joined, followed by the police departments of Strasburg and Luray.

Warren County Sheriff Lynn Armentrout, who recently passed away, was tapped to be the first chairman of the Command Board.

Roper said the task force was “very effective” in combatting the criminal part of the crack influx.

“What I came to understand then—and even more as I grew into positions of authority—the vast majority of the crimes are by people who are fixing some kind of drug problem. Whether they were making money selling drugs, whether they were breaking into homes to support their habit, it was just a scourge that I thought needed some attention.”

Roper says he was privileged to work on many cases over the years and credits the tight bond amongst task force members and their ability to pool resources and work together as the reason so many drugs were taken off the street and drug-related crimes were solved.

In addition to disrupting the crack cocaine flow into the area, task force members saw many cases involving marijuana in the late 1980’s. While he cannot remember too many specifics about the cases, a few of them stick in his mind.

One of those was an investigation that led task force members to Texas. “We went down there and did an undercover operation that resulted in “a lot, lot, lot of marijuana seized,” Roper remembered.

Another notable case, in which Roper was lead investigator, was the 1994 murder of Sanford Datcher, which occurred Dec. 23, in Clarke County, near Double Tollgate. Omar DesAnges, according to federal court documents, learned that his acquaintance, Sanford Datcher, had been informing police about his crack dealing in the area.

DesAnges spotted Datcher while driving through Clarke County and fatally shot him. Datcher’s girlfriend, Dawn Ford, a front-seat passenger, was shot once but survived the attack.

Roper said the nature of the murder qualified it as a death-penalty case. It would have been the first such case in the Western District of Virginia since Congress reinstated capital punishment in 1988 for federal crimes.

DesAnges was charged with conspiracy to distribute cocaine; capital murder for the killing of Datcher in connection with a drug conspiracy; and the use of a firearm during the course of a conspiracy.

On March 28, 1996, DesAnges entered a guilty plea to all charges in exchange for the government withdrawing its request for the death penalty. He is serving a life sentence with no chance of parole.

Roper said working with federal grand juries and prosecutors enables the task force to maximize its crime fighting potential and he is grateful the Clarke County Sheriff’s Office has been part of it for 36 years.

The task force might not have been created without the diligence of then-Congressman Frank Wolf. Roper says the 10th-district Republican managed to secure funding that allowed the task force to evolve into the Northern Virginia Regional Drug and Gang Task Force in 2003.

“Congressman Wolf was very concerned about MS-13 moving into the area, very concerned for the citizenry, and he put his money where his mouth was,” Roper recalled.

“I have such an affection for him, not only for what he did logistically, but as a person. He is a wonderful person—I respect him immensely,” he continued.

Sheriff Roper reflected on the days when Sheriff Armentrout spearheaded the agency. “I have enormous respect for him. I watched him in action as the task force leader, and I can’t speak highly enough about his support and how graciously he handled that role.”

As for the role of the Northwest Virginia Regional Drug Task Force, Roper says, “There is simply no finer way to combat drug abuse. When I go to the command board meetings, I look at the chief executive officer of each of the communities. Right then, right there, we can discuss what’s going on in our individual communities, we can rally around what problems need to be taken care of now.

I can’t speak highly enough about what the regional task force does. I believe it’s a wonderful tool. Though we have not won the war on drugs, it is an exemplary tool.”

Advances in technology have given law enforcement some impressive tools to fight crime. “We have more technology now in the front seat of those cruisers than we used to have in the dispatch center, collecting data we couldn’t collect before, “ Roper remarked.

The license plate reader is one tool that has been highly effective in policing. The cruiser-mounted device gathers information on cars in its vicinity and can send back information about a vehicle’s registration, owner, whether a car is stolen, etc. to the cruiser’s computer as well as check against plates on the National Crime Information Center’s database.

The reader, while still in a pilot program, was instrumental in locating a suspect in the 2015 shooting of three people near Smith Mountain Lake. As the driver traveled on Interstate 66 in Frederick County, Virginia State Trooper Pam Neff was able to locate him and begin pursuit.

The suspect, Vester Lee Flanagan II, led police on a 12-minute chase that ended when he drove off an embankment in Fauquier County. Flanagan was suffering from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound when troopers reached his vehicle. He was later pronounced dead at a Northern Virginia hospital.

Roper readily admits that with some of the technology, he was “forced to come around.” Initially he was hesitant to add technology to the Clarke County cruisers, thinking it would distract officers from the life-threatening situations they were handling.

Roper chuckled, “I have been proven wrong. We are so much more effective now with this technology.”

A certified crime scene investigator, the sheriff recalls that when fingerprints were first computerized everyone thought that “we’d be catching everybody, then lo and behold, this magnificent tool called DNA came along. It still fascinates me how DNA works, and how important the proper collection and preservation of evidence at crime scenes is. It must be done properly so that for analysis in the lab.”

“Education and training of today’s police officer is so important. As times have changed and there are so many tools, we’ve had to devote more attention to training. The better trained we are, the more effective we can be,” Roper said.

While there has been a recent focus on community policing in the law enforcement field, Roper opined, “Sheriffs have been the ultimate community policing people for time eternal. We recognize that we must get out to folks in our community to understand where we’re at with issues.”

Mental health issues are a source of concern for Sheriff Roper. “We are not spending near the resouces that we need to correct it.” He cites addiction and alcoholism as mental health issues that often lead to crime.

“We’re just not putting forth the resources we need to. I had hoped that the incident where Va. State Senator Creigh Deeds was attacked and grievously injured by his son would be the spark for the general assembly to fund some honest-to-goodness measures to combat this issue.”

Deeds was stabbed in the head and chest by his own son, Gus, who was struggling with bipolar disorder. Gus, 24, committed suicide following the November 2014 attack. Deeds has since worked to change legislation regarding mental health issues.

As Roper looks forward to retirement—which includes a couple of months of “doing nothing and visiting with my grandchildren” he reflected on his 45-year career.

“It has just been such a humbling experience. I genuinely feel the affection that Clarke County has for the special thing that we have here in the community. It has been humbling to work here, to do what I feel is a noble profession, and get paid to do it. There will be parts of this I will certainly miss.”

Law enforcement runs in the Roper family. Son T.J. Roper is an investigator in Frederick County, Va. Sheriff’s Office while grandson Will Roper is a School Resource Officer (SRO) in Frederick County.

Roper is leaving the Clarke County Sheriff’s Office in “excellent hands” he said. Chief Deputy Travis Sumption, who has held that post for 10 years, announced his candidacy for sheriff in April. He is running unopposed.

Sumption has worked for the Sheriff’s Office for 30 years, beginning as a 911 dispatcher and advanced through the ranks to chief deputy. He also served on the Northwest Virginia Regional Drug Task Force.

Early voting begins in Virginia on Friday, Sept. 22. Election Day is Nov.7.

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