The hat fit.
It wasn't the sheriff's idea. No, the proposal to allow deputies to wear cowboy hats as part of their uniform came from his command's staff, an easy way to boost the department's morale. Still, for Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich — the man known as "Ozzie" to many — there's some full-circle Western poetry to it.
The boy who would be sheriff wore a straw Stetson back in Wyoming coal country, when he was a "lone wolf" kid from a broken home.
And now, he's donning the cowboy hat again as he rides off into the sunset, retiring after 16 years as Spokane County's chief lawman.
There's "sheriff" as a profession, and there's "sheriff" as that very American Western mythic character, and Knezovich is every bit of both. And wants to be. Bald, badged and built like a barrel, he's a mustache away from every gunslinging sheriff stereotype to grace the TV screen. But his impulse is deeper, something he's had in his bones before he had a star on his chest.
You could go back to a snowy December night, as a young buck just out of college, when Knezovich faced down a pack of roughnecks outside a Wyoming nightclub. The club's bouncer punched one of the troublemakers, a behemoth with oil rig brawn. The guy didn't flinch, and the bouncer tucked tail and ran.
But Knezovich stood his ground.
"Suddenly, there I am — five guys, and just me," Knezovich says. The cavalry — the local police — arrive just in time.
"A friend of mine walked up: 'We were right behind you Ozzie.' They were way behind me," Knezovich scoffs. "Standing up's not easy. Sometimes it gets you hurt."
The man's always had a kind of go-with-his-gut stick-to-his-guns stubbornness, the sort that makes people either stick a halo over his head or paint a target on his back.
He's served four terms of one high-noon showdown after another. Showdowns with White supremacists or Black activists. With a mayor or governor or preacher's son. With crooked deputies, conspiracy theorists and reporters with too many questions.
Yet these days, when Knezovich stares down his rivals, there's weariness behind the squint. He's worried that the old ways are dying, that virtues like "honesty" and "honor" have gotten unfashionable, that our whole country's gone to hell.
His critics say his head's gotten a bit too big, his skin a bit too thin. No matter. He has his fans. He got a letter once praising him as "the last John Wayne."
He doesn't mind the comparison. "Work hard. Tell the truth. Stand up for people. Protect the weak. That's a true cowboy," Knezovich says. "I am a cowboy."
OZZIE VS. THE DEPUTIES
Knezovich was a union man.
His father, grandfather and great-grandfather all mined Wyoming coal as union men. He remembers standing with his dad in a picket line when he was 11 and feeling shame when a relative crossed it.
The unions were why parts of Wyoming stayed blue for so long. They're why in 1994, Knezovich ran for Wyoming's Sweetwater County Commission as — no lie — a Democrat.
Before becoming sheriff, Knezovich spent five years at the negotiating table fighting for his fellow deputies as president of the Spokane County Deputy Sheriff's Association.
But then, in 2006, Knezovich became the boss. Within two months as sheriff, Knezovich had fired a deputy who'd exposed his penis to a drive-thru barista, only to face a citizen commission that wanted to give the exhibitionist a cushier exit.
Former deputy Mike Zollars, who ran to replace the outgoing Knezovich this year but lost in the August primary, thinks Knezovich was harsher than his predecessors. Too quick to fire.
"The longer I stayed there, the more he seemed to pride himself on terminating deputies for transgressions," Zollars says.
Knezovich saw it differently. He was cleaning house, and the institution he once swore by — the union — was standing in the way.
"It used to be, it was about safety and livable wages. Unions never protected the slug," Knezovich says. "Now they protect the lowest common denominator."
In 2010, a deputy jammed a knife into the seat of a citizen's impounded car. Knezovich fired him. Later that year, a corrections deputy made a mentally ill inmate strip naked and do jumping jacks. Knezovich fired him. Both were defended by the union, and both were reinstated by an arbitrator.
Knezovich reached out to lawmakers to propose a bill that would clamp down on the arbitration process, making it easier for dishonest and law-breaking cops to stay fired.
Of all the battles that Knezovich has waged, this one, the one against unions, is what he dedicated a 104-page self-published book to recounting. The Price of Honor: Are We Who We Say We Are? features a lion surrounded by lightning bolts on the cover, and tells of his toe-to-toe battle with both union bullies and compromised politicians. All to preserve the integrity of his profession.
"Sheriff, you've really pissed us off," one union lobbyist tells the sheriff, according to the book. "If you don't back down now, we're coming after you."
By his own account, Knezovich responded with a Charlton Heston-style quip: "If you want a piece of me, come and get it."
Despite Knezovich's swagger, and the support of sheriffs across the state, the bill failed to make it out of committee. The sheriff points to the all-powerful unions — and the money they gave to politicians — for killing the bill.
But critics in both parties argue that Knezovich failed to successfully put together a coalition to see his bill through.
"He wasn't interested in getting in sort of bipartisan support of the legislation," says Paul Dillon, a progressive activist who now works with the local Planned Parenthood chapter. Dillon was state Sen. Andy Billig's legislative aide at the time. "He never once emailed us, called or reached out or discussed the bill."
In 2014, the Spokane County Deputy Sheriff's Association struck back, voting to endorse his opponent. They attacked him when he tried to fire a deputy for having sex on duty. They even formally accused the sheriff of being blinded by his Mormon faith.
That feud faded with time, something Knezovich attributes to a change in union leadership. Kevin Richey, who took over as union president in 2015, agrees, but credits Knezovich too.
"He agreed to make some changes and come to the table and negotiate more," Richey says.
Knezovich doesn't think he's gone soft. By now, he says, he's probably fired close to 90 deputies.
"Sometimes leaders have to take a stand, even if it means 'pissing someone off' who can make your life hell, or even end your career," Knezovich wrote in his book. In bold.
OZZIE VS. THE SMOKING GUNS
Throughout his 45 years as a Baptist pastor, Wayne Scott Creach backed the blue.
"My dad would stand in the pulpit on Sunday morning and tell people, 'You have nothing to fear from law enforcement,'" Alan Creach recalls. "'Because they are appointed by God to be there.'"
His dad can't say that anymore.
One night in 2010, the pastor grabbed his gun and a flashlight to investigate a car parked in the parking lot at the family's Greenacres plant nursery. It turned out to be an unmarked sheriff's deputy vehicle. Within minutes, the 74-year-old pastor was dead. Deputy Brian Hirzel had fired once and hit Creach in the chest.
For Knezovich, news of a deputy killing someone is followed by a cascade of contradictory emotions. Grief over the loss of life. Relief that his deputy is alive. Dread over the stampede of news coverage. Flashbacks of all the deputies he's seen who've been shattered, never the same after pulling that trigger. Pain over the toll it takes on the deputy's families. And then — oh my God — thinking of what the family of the slain is going through.
All that settles into "the deepest sense of emptiness you could ever feel," he says.
As the hail of investigations, lawsuits and dueling experts rain down after so-called "officer involveds," Knezovich has often been out front, defending his deputies. But that sometimes pits the sheriff directly against grieving family members. Like Alan Creach, the pastor's son.
"I called him the liar that he is," Alan Creach says. "Face to face."
Since Knezovich was first sworn in as sheriff, media accounts show that at least 20 men have died after being shot or tased by his deputies — three just since August.
And that's not including 2014, when the victim wasn't an elderly pastor or a threat to deputies — it was just a kid.
Deputy Joe Bodman was careening down Sprague Avenue in Spokane Valley going 74 mph — no emergency lights, no sirens — when 15-year-old Ryan Holyk rode his bike into the crosswalk. Holyk ended up dead. The only question was whether Bodman was the one who killed him.
At first, investigators from the Washington State Patrol and Spokane Police Department concluded that Bodman didn't hit Holyk. At the time, Knezovich dismissed Holyk's DNA on the front bumper of Bodman's vehicle as having been accidentally transferred by sloppy emergency responders.
But then — two years after Holyk's death — an independent expert hired by Knezovich took another look at the evidence and saw it: the subtle markings of Ryan's snapback hat band on Bodman's bumper. A smoking gun.
Knezovich called a press conference and revealed the new finding.
"Apparently, we got it wrong," Knezovich says to this day, but he's torn. In his heart, he says, he still doesn't think Bodman hit the kid.
The Holyk lawsuit was settled for $1 million, but Holyk's mom, Carrie Thomson, says she probably wouldn't have even sued had the sheriff's office reached out and showed some decency.
"Even just like, you know, 'We're sorry this happened,'" says Thomson.
Alan Creach says the $2 million settlement of the Creach family's wrongful death lawsuit was, in effect, an admission that the deputy was in the wrong. Knezovich disagreed, and slammed the county's insurer for not standing firm and going to trial.
"The man never acknowledged he was wrong," Alan Creach says. "He's going to go into the sunset thinking of himself as a hero. But I don't see him as a hero. He's a flawed man."
OZZIE VS. THE EXTREMISTS
"Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican." So goes a GOP truism delivered by the original modern Republican cowboy, Ronald Reagan.
Standing on the Central Valley High School stage in 2015, armed with his PowerPoint slideshow remote control, Knezovich broke that commandment repeatedly and vigorously.
It was the first of his "The Threats We Face: The Myth of Police Militarization" series. It's a sprawling two-hour lecture where, along with excoriating ISIS, cop killers and White supremacists, he took aim at the far right and libertarian flank of the Republican Party, particularly those who were spreading conspiracy theories about his office that he said led to death threats online.
"He's going to go into the sunset thinking of himself as a hero. But I don't see him as a hero. He's a flawed man."tweet this
"If anything happens to my deputies, I hope you all hold them accountable," Knezovich said.
His presentations pushed back against liberals and libertarians who opposed law enforcement's use of heavy, military-grade weaponry and armored vehicles.
But he went even further. He zeroed in on the far-right state Rep. Matt Shea, a Spokane Valley politician who had brandished an unlicensed gun during a road rage altercation and seemed to endorse killing males who didn't yield to theocratic rule in his never fully explained "Biblical Basis for War" document. The sheriff cast the conflict as good vs. evil, warning that Shea was fanning the flames of violence.
"How dare you?" Knezovich says his fellow Republicans would ask. "Because the guy's evil."
"Fear was ruling at that time," says Beva Miles, a former local Republican leader who supports Knezovich. "He had to be a voice of reason."
The fight became a three-way schism that fractured the local Republican party for years — Team Shea, Team Ozzie and the can't-we-just-get-along caucus stuck in the middle.
"I lost friends," Knezovich says. Sure, he had a few allies who were behind him. Way behind him.
Knezovich's brash personality had a tendency to draw antagonists who were even more over the top than the sheriff. A local motorcycle club leader, Scott Maclay, was so obsessed with Knezovich that when he tried to run against Knezovich in 2018, he legally changed his name to "DumpOzzie Dot Com" to do it. Knezovich says people told him that Maclay, who died in a motorcycle accident before the election, planned to kill him if he lost.
But Knezovich didn't stop calling extremists out.
In 2018, the local Spokane County GOP chair hosted White supremacist and Washington State University student James Allsup at an event. At a press conference, a fuming Knezovich declared that he was "Jiminy Cricket" — the conscience of the local Republican Party — and vowed that Allsup would "never have a foothold in the party as long as I'm part of it."
Knezovich's stand worked. Allsup was effectively cast out of Republican Party politics. Shea was booted from the Republican caucus in 2019 after an independent investigation concluded that his involvement with Ammon Bundy's occupation of a national wildlife refuge in Oregon made him complicit in "domestic terrorism."
There's a risk to calling out your own party, but Knezovich feels vindicated.
He says he's moving back to Wyoming. It's the most Republican state in the nation, the state where Rep. Liz Cheney lost her primary by 37 points after she went all Ozzie on Trump.
But there's also a kind of stardom that can come from speaking your mind. Even about something like Jan. 6 and the mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol.
"Darkest day we ever had," Knezovich says he told a crowd of state Republicans before dropping a particularly brutal comparison for the receptive audience. "That day, we became Democrats. ... That day, we became like those who burned our cities down."
A murmur rippled through the crowd, he says. At the end, an audience member asked a question.
"'Sheriff, when will you run for governor?'" Knezovich recounts. "This room explodes. Standing ovation."
OZZIE VS. THE ACTIVISTS
This February, Knezovich stood before a PowerPoint slide, once again calling out the people he believed were failing Spokane County.
But this time, his targets weren't just extremists or local politicians. They were leaders in Spokane's African-American community: Pastor Walter Kendricks, NAACP vice-chair Kurtis Robinson and Black Lens publisher Sandy Williams. Activists, in Knezovich's description, and he doesn't mean it as a compliment.
He accused them of putting out falsehoods about crime stats. He said he should've listened to the people who warned him against talking to Williams and Kendricks.
Black men, he said during his presentation, were "responsible for shooting 40 percent of your law enforcement officers" who'd been shot. (Three deputies have been shot during Knezovich's tenure.) He added that most murderers and most murder victims were Black men.
"You better put your baseball bat back. Because if you don't, I'm taking mine out. And we'll just see how many times you can thump me while I thump you."tweet this
Knezovich claimed some were afraid of being called "a White supremacist" for talking about such "hard data," but not him. "If me trying to stop the death of young Black men makes me [a racist], I'll be a racist for you all day long."
But others say his words and approach are offensive, dangerous and ignore the racist policies that have perpetuated violence in Black communities.
"What that did is that put a target on us," Robinson says, and put them at risk from the same kind of far-right groups that the sheriff had condemned.
Knezovich says he didn't always have contempt for local activists, and had sought to work "shoulder to shoulder with them."
He spoke out against taking away drivers' licenses for unpaid court fees. He pushed for body cameras on law enforcement. He not only supported "ban the box" — giving felons a better shot at jobs and housing after prison — he launched a program to help give them construction training.
The sheriff had fought for reform, for better training and more accountability. If his reforms had passed, Knezovich muses, maybe they could have spread across the country. Perhaps, he says in all seriousness, the ripple effect from his reforms would have been so profound that George Floyd would still be alive today.
Still, the sheriff's words could piss people off. At a 2017 Republican rally in Spokane Valley after Trump's election, he pointed to assassinations of police officers like the five murdered in Dallas in 2016, and declared, "I blame Barack Obama."
When the NAACP confronted Knezovich over those remarks, he dug in and scoffed at the notion that racism was widespread across the justice system.
He didn't know that, just four months earlier, an internal audit found that one of his deputies, Jeff Thurman, allegedly began a phone call to a fellow deputy by saying, "You ready to kill some n——-s tonight or what?"
Knezovich fired Thurman, who denies using the epithet, when the allegation came to light in 2019. When the NAACP and others demanded a "culture audit" surveying attitudes in his department, Knezovich readily jumped on board.
"He was leading it," Robinson says.
But then came 2020.
"2020" — Knezovich snaps his fingers — "it snapped."
Lockdowns and riots, right-wing protesters screaming about masks at school board meetings, left-wing extremists setting police precincts on fire.
Knezovich was just 11 days out of back surgery when he was standing on the front lines during the George Floyd protests. Everywhere he looked, he saw policing under siege.
Racial disparities, crime stats and "systemic racism." Antifa. "Defund the police" and "All cops are bastards." "Killology" training. Live P.D., C.O.P.S. and Paw Patrol. "Crazy reforms" from the state Legislature. COVID restrictions. A recruitment ad from Knezovich's office in Times Square that misspelled "Washington" as "Washinton."
He lumped in some reporters with activists too. His contempt for both grew. You wanna beat Knezovich up for being wrong. Fine. But if you're attacking him just because you disagree?
"You better put your baseball bat back," he says. "Because if you don't, I'm taking mine out. And we'll just see how many times you can thump me while I thump you."
Across two years of conflicts, Robinson believes, the pressure seared away the sheriff's niceties and exposed Knezovich's more antagonistic and fragile core. In the end, his relationship with folks like Robinson and Kendricks was in tatters.
It's difficult to untangle all of Knezovich's grievances with them — they're personal as much as ideological. Both sides feel wounded, lied to and betrayed.
But because Knezovich's electoral victories have been so overwhelming — typically over 70 percent — he argues that if you betray him, you betray all of Spokane County.
"I get to say this because of the mass support this community has given me. I speak for the community, when I speak," Knezovich says. "And they disrespected everything and everybody."
OZZIE VS. THE WORLD
Knezovich has heard the criticism. He says that progressives who saw him as a "coalition builder" now think he's a "trainwreck" who "kills relationships."
But Knezovich disputes all that. He knows the importance of relationships, he says, how "once you damage your partnership, I've never really seen it ever rebuilt."
He knows how crucial it is to admit when he's wrong. While serving as an Army combat medic in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea in 1988, he followed a captain into dangerous territory.
"Left turn at the rice paddy, right?" Knezovich recalls saying, as the captain walked straight ahead.
But the captain ignored the warning, even as they drew closer to the border where they could be gunned down, even as North Korean propaganda that was broadcasting through the woods got louder, even as they found themselves climbing the hill "where an entire patrol got blown up because of landmines." Only a more direct intervention from a major convinced the captain to turn around.
So Knezovich knows the importance of surrounding himself with people willing to challenge him.
At times, he's wondered about whether his involvement with an issue has backfired. For years, the sheriff had beaten a drum for a new jail. But by 2013, Knezovich had concluded that he'd become too associated with that cause.
"As long as it was about me, people could always just go, 'It's just him.'" Knezovich says. "I had to find a way to make it about the community."
So he stepped back, handing control of the jail itself to the Spokane County commissioners. It didn't work, and it's one of his biggest regrets.
"I blew it when I gave that jail up," Knezovich says.
The jail's up there when Knezovich names his top-of-mind regrets. Most are about giving up control, about holding back, or about trusting other people.
"Endorsing Matt Shea?" Knezovich says. "I blew it."
What about endorsing former Spokane Mayor David Condon, also a fellow Republican?
"Blew it," Knezovich says. "Hugely blew it."
A little over a decade ago, Knezovich was pushing a proposal to merge his office with Spokane police into one super agency, all under his command. Condon seemed to support the idea during his first campaign for mayor in 2011, but then he retreated from it.
Gavin Cooley, who served as the city's chief financial officer for Condon and four other mayors, disagrees. Condon was more technocrat than cowboy, Cooley says, and his "more detailed approach served the community more than the Clint Eastwood approach."
"Getting Ozzie to be a team player was exceedingly difficult in most cases," Cooley says, adding that "nuance did tend to escape him."
But if you're on team Knezovich?
"Nothing's better," Cooley says. "Get behind the battering ram and buckle up your chinstrap and let's go."
The causes Knezovich has fought for are many: He decried vaccine mandates, the North Monroe Street lane reduction, and an anti-coal train voter initiative. When Gov. Jay Inslee signed a law barring local officials from helping federal immigration officials, Knezovich went on Fox News and suggested Inslee should resign or "be arrested for obstruction." When voters passed strict statewide controls on assault weapons in 2019, Knezovich said it was unconstitutional and that there was "nothing to enforce."
That kind of thing's essential to Knezovich's charm.
"He's a kind of a no B.S. kind of guy. He'll tell you what's exactly on their mind," says Spokane County Commissioner Josh Kerns, a Republican. "I think people respect it."
And so when homeless people set up camp on state-owned land in Spokane's East Central neighborhood last winter — growing at one point to over 600 campers — the sheriff saw it as the same kind of assault on law and order as the armed occupation of the Oregon wildlife refuge in 2016 and the police-free Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone in 2020.
"This is no different than CHAZ in Seattle or what Bundy did in Oregon," he writes in an email.
Tension over Camp Hope was already cranked when Knezovich barged in this September, abruptly declaring his intention to sweep the camp by mid-October, describing it as disgusting, ridden with crime and drugs.
He thinks the people still living there need more accountability, not more handouts.
His agency flies helicopters overhead and sends confidential informants into the camp. He makes allegations of fraud against the service providers working there and accuses state officials like Lisa Brown, the director of the state Commerce Department and former Democratic state Senate majority leader, of profiting off the camp.
"It feels like it's been inflammatory," Brown says. "A lot of his accusations and characterizations of things are distorted or inaccurate, and he's always throwing shade at me personally and at Commerce."
Spokane City Council member Jonathan Bingle, a fellow conservative, has a different reaction to Knezovich's involvement.
"It was as if we had been screaming to the heavens to no avail," Bingle says. "It felt as if up until that point, the people in the neighborhood were being ignored."
But then Knezovich burst onto the scene, Bingle said, and things started moving. It's an unsettled question: Did the sheriff parachuting into the Camp Hope fight trigger results or just chaos?
At the time of this article's publication, Camp Hope is still standing and the sheriff's plan is tied up in lawsuits.
Knezovich has yet to visit the encampment. "If I go down there, it becomes a circus," he says.
OZZIE VS. OZZIE
In a crisis, you can see who a person really is, even if it's just a piece of them.
In September 2017, the day Knezovich had been fearing for decades occurred. A 15-year-old gunman opened fire at Freeman High School killing one and injuring three. The shooter was in custody when the sheriff arrived at the school, but the kids were still locked down, huddled in their classrooms.
There was Ozzie the Brash Doorkicker, rushing into the breach. Upon arriving at Freeman, he led officers into the school himself to bring the kids out in groups. His SWAT incident commander thought this was reckless, and thought he should've stayed at the command post. But Knezovich disagreed.
"There is no one they trust better and no one they trust more at this scene than me," Knezovich says.
There was Ozzie the Grandstanding Pundit, who used the ensuing press conferences to blame school shootings on national media coverage, the glorification of "gang culture," even video games.
But there was also Ozzie the Compassionate Protector.
Erik Poulsen remembers his wife frantically trying to find their kids at Freeman that day.
"The sheriff saw her running toward the school and sobbing and stopped what he was doing," Poulsen says. "He went over and put his arm around her and let her know everything was going to be OK."
"You don't survive this career without a certain amount of damage to your inner core."tweet this
As black and white as Knezovich can sometimes seem — he's always been complicated. But in the last few years, to some, there's a sense that Knezovich has changed.
Democratic state Rep. Marcus Riccelli chooses his words carefully — a number of people interviewed for this article said they didn't want to kick the sheriff on his way out the door. He'll take his badge off for the last time in January, when his chosen successor, John Nowels, will take over.
"I do think these last couple of years it's been different to work with him," Riccelli says. "Maybe it's COVID, maybe it's because he was feeling the pressure of leaving the community, wanting to solve some big problems quickly."
The brash, liberal former City Council President Ben Stuckart is less diplomatic.
"Ozzie has really taken a downhill turn," Stuckart says. "He's paranoid. He was not like this in 2014 and 2015. He's a sick individual."
But even some of Ozzie's biggest fans have seen a shift. "The years of sheriff have made him hard," says Miles, his local Republican ally.
When asked if he's become more cynical, Knezovich says it's a question he's thinking about a lot. There was a time, he says, when he tried to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. "I find it very, very hard to do that anymore," he says.
Losing that feels like losing part of himself, a part he really liked. All these showdowns — the victories, the defeats, the stalemates — they build up like scar tissue.
"You don't think the Holyk matter haunts me?" Knezovich says. "You don't think the Creach matter haunts me?"
It's not just that he thinks about it on Aug. 25, the anniversary of the pastor's death, though he does. It's that every time he bites into a peach, he thinks about how Creach would eat that fruit every night.
And Freeman. Knezovich thinks about that moment, when a student's mother sees the devastating news written on the sheriff's face. She screams, a scream that freezes everyone at that scene, a scream he's heard far too many times — and then crumbles into his arms.
But as he's talking, the sheriff's voice begins to break — any tone of cowboy swagger or what-happened-to-this-country outrage is gone — and it's just the raw rasp of a human reckoning with the weight of it all.
The sheriff clears his throat, says he needs to compose himself, and for a brief moment, we sit in silence.
Knezovich says he's heading back home to Wyoming soon. For now, he's set aside his regrets about never running for governor. He had a heart attack last December and wants to focus on his family. He'd like to teach. Maybe he'll visit Croatia, where his ancestors immigrated from. He wants to go to New Zealand, to stalk and shoot a stag.
"Maybe try to make a reconnection with pieces of me that I feel are disconnected right now," Knezovich says. "You don't survive this career without a certain amount of damage to your inner core." ♦
This story has been changed to better describe Knezovich's firing of former deputy Jeff Thurman.