by Kevin Taylor & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & former rural sheriff turned Spokane historian is bringing up some old history to criticize the man who appears poised to be the next leader of Spokane County law enforcement.

"Cal Walker is not the candidate people think he is," says Tony Bamonte, author and former three-term sheriff of Pend Oreille County.

Bamonte is critical of Walker -- the investigator who led the task force when Spokane serial killer Robert Yates was arrested -- as relying more on political connections than policing skills to advance his career. The former sheriff's criticisms go back to the early 1980s, when Walker was a rookie deputy, hired by Bamonte as a political appointee in Pend Oreille County.

Bamonte accuses Walker of dropping an investigation into allegations of beatings and sexual abuse at two boys' ranches for troubled youth to take another job. Walker says he worked the case diligently and handed his work over to another deputy after he and Bamonte got into a flare-up over Walker's desire to leave.

"I didn't walk into his office and say 'I quit,' but that's where it got to," Walker says.

Bamonte is reviving his concerns in letters to various Spokane County officials, he says, because Walker appears to be the front-runner in the partisan process of naming a successor to Sheriff Mark Sterk, who is retiring on March 31 -- nine months before the end of his second term.

Sterk's replacement will be announced once he steps down. The candidate appointed as interim sheriff could have an advantage over rivals in the run-up to the Republican primary on Sept. 19. Some say by retiring early and pushing the county commissioners to put Walker in his job on an interim basis, Sterk is getting to name his own replacement instead of letting the voters decide.

PICKING A SUCCESSOR? & r & Three current sheriff's officers have been nominated by the county's Republican precinct committee officers to replace Sterk: Walker, the captain in charge of the Valley precinct and, as such, chief of the City of Spokane Valley police; Lt. Jim Finke, a 31-year veteran and patrol shift supervisor in Spokane Valley; and Sgt. Ozzie Knezovich, the department's training supervisor.

"I like Sterk. Sterk's a nice person, but I am old enough to recognize b.s. I recognize someone is being pushed because he's a friend," says Bamonte, whose investigation and resolution of a 1930s-era Pend Oreille County murder case was documented in the book Breaking Blue.

Critics like Bamonte say Walker was assigned to the serial killer task force two years after it was formed and has received the bulk of media attention after the Yates arrest; that Walker was later bumped from sergeant to captain by Sterk and assigned to the Valley precinct just as Spokane Valley was incorporating and in need of a police chief. Critics also point to Sterk's early retirement as a way to grease the skids for Walker.

Sterk is retiring early to administer, along with his wife Nancy, a faith-based summer camp at Deer Lake run by the Church of the Nazarene. For years, he says he has felt a strong tug to be more involved in ministry than mayhem.

With a tidy graying mustache and wire-rimmed glasses, Sterk appears calm and ministerial as he begins to load cardboard boxes with the assortment of weird gag gifts presented to top cops by constituents. Last week there was a vividly painted metal sculpture of a "Jail Bird," and a carved wooden elephant among the plaques and awards.

"When people in the community give you things, I feel they should go on the wall. When they come to visit, they look for them," Sterk says, taking a seat at a table holding a growing pyramid of boxes.

"I am not quite sure what Tony Bamonte's motivation is," Sterk says. "I have been here seven years and three months, and Cal Walker has been an exemplary employee. Cal ran the homicide task force and did a great job. He's been requested by the FBI to go all over the country and teach. Early on in Cal, I recognized he has the skills to do the job."

Bamonte takes issue. "What was the criteria for the sheriff putting him in charge of the task force? How many murders had he solved? Was he the ace murder investigator? He was being set up for that," Bamonte says.

Sterk rejects the skid-greasing argument. His early retirement is more about benefits to himself than to Walker, Sterk says.

"It has everything to do with the retirement system. If you leave by March 31, you get a cost-of-living raise next year. If you leave after March 31, you don't get a cost-of-living raise for two years," Sterk says.

THE RACE HEATS UP & r & Walker is popular with more than just Sterk, however. He came out of the GOP precinct committee nominations on Dec. 7 as the clear favorite with 48 votes. Knezovich had 24, and Finke 14. The tally was forwarded to the county commissioners.

Walker and Knezovich have announced they will run for election as GOP candidates for sheriff. Finke ran as a Democrat against Sterk in 1998, getting 46 percent of the vote.

Knezovich has his own questions about the partisan replacement process. At the December meeting of the precinct committee officers, he says, "They gave us each three minutes to make our statement. There were no questions." He wonders how the committee officers could make a judgment.

In contrast, he points to the endorsement process employed by the union, the Spokane County Deputy Sheriff's Association. Knezovich is the union president and won its endorsement but says, "This was no popularity contest. About 100 members showed up and they asked what we would do for the community, not what we would do for them."

The deputies, he says, listened to extensive statements from all three candidates and then grilled them with tough questions on a variety of issues. The union endorsed Knezovich 55 percent to 33 percent for Walker.

"Tony and Cal apparently have their own issues," Knezovich says. "I try in my campaign to keep it positive and no mudslinging. I think the vote of the deputies' association is fairly indicative -- these are folks who've had the chance to watch all three of us for the last 10 years."

He does take issue with Sterk's statement that Walker has more leadership experience. Knezovich points to degrees in management and his roles as detective, SWAT team leader, field trainer and contract negotiator.

"If you want to know how to do something, you learn it well enough to be able to teach others. The best leaders took their time, paid their dues and worked their way up," Knezovich says.

ON THE WAY UP & r & Walker, who drinks his coffee black, winces over the rim of his mug when the Bamonte criticisms come up during an interview at a diner near the county courthouse. He has a distant tie through marriage to Bamonte's extended family and sees the complaints as driven more by personality than profession.

"There is wisdom to the adage: Don't mix family and business," Walker says.

He was a young construction worker when he first met Bamonte, who is also a builder, Walker says.

"Tony does log homes and he is gifted," Walker says. "Part of our relationship was based on sharing those gifts and an interest in construction. I can tell you I'm thankful to Tony for introducing me to law enforcement."

Walker was hired in 1983 as one of three political appointees available to the Pend Oreille County Sheriff. Every sheriff is allowed a certain number of political hires, Bamonte says, depending on the size of the county. These hires don't count as classified employees and need not have training.

Walker was sent to the regional police academy in Spokane after being hired as inspector, Bamonte says.

Walker left the Pend Oreille County Sheriff's Department after a year and returned to construction. He and his wife were city folk, Walker says, and wanted to live here instead of the isolated town of Metaline. He returned to law enforcement in 1988 with Spokane County.

When it comes to Bamonte's complaints, Walker says, "I had to go through oral boards when I was hired here, and all these questions about my history in Pend Oreille County came up because Tony had made them known. I was hired."

He cites his own stints as patrol deputy working nights, detective and patrol sergeant. Walker also says his appointment to the Valley precinct "Has been a wealth of experience. I have been blessed to go through that.

"Personally, my goal was to work major crimes as a detective -- to work with all those fine people. I never looked much beyond that," Walker says. He cites Sterk as a mentor who challenged him to take on bigger things but adds, "It's not about me, it's about how can I serve."

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About The Author

Kevin Taylor

Kevin Taylor is a staff writer for The Inlander. He has covered politics, the environment, police and the tribes, among many other things.