Sheriff Donny Lampert: Keeping the Peace

The walls of Dubois County Sheriff Donny Lampert's office are decorated with portraits of President John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as well as a crucifix, a 9/11 remembrance flag and the call sheets from the sheriff's department's funeral details for fallen Marines Alec Terwiske and Eric Lueken. "They all gave the ultimate sacrifice," Donny said. "They're there to remind me that there is no sacrifice that is too great for your fellow country-person."

Story by Bill Powell
Photos by Sarah Ann Jump

Police from multiple agencies establish a perimeter around a house where a military veteran is reported highly intoxicated, armed and suicidal.

It’s late October and the troubled man inside has reportedly said that, if the police come, it is going to get bad. Authorities report the man is known to have multiple firearms and military equipment.

Officers take up positions that give them a visual on the home’s doors and windows. Roadways are barricaded for public safety. An ambulance and first responders go on standby.

The next move is up to Sheriff Donny Lampert as incident commander.

He reaches out to the man’s relatives.

A short time later, Donny radios for officers to stay put, adding the veteran’s brother is with him and the suicidal subject has agreed to go to a veteran’s hospital with the sibling.

Donny has arranged for the brother assisting authorities to activate his truck’s flashers if there is any issue once his sibling climbs into the cab but the man comes out and is cooperative.

It ends quietly. Peaceably.

“That was not by the book,” Donny later says. “You’ve got protocols for everything. But there are times you have to deviate a little bit.”

While speaking with Holy Trinity Catholic School preschoolers, Donny points out his sheriff's badge on Oct. 15. Once retired, Donny's sheriff uniform will be displayed at his home in a room that also houses his Army National Guard and Air Force uniforms.

For Donny, a key to such incidents is looking beyond the moment.

“How can we look forward, find the positive and get it going that way,” says the lawman wrapping up his second and final term as sheriff.

“I believe we’re all family,” Donny adds. “I believe we can work through everything together.”

At that bit of quasi-hippie talk, fictional lawmen like Judge Dredd and Dirty Harry Callahan might dub Donny “Sheriff Moonbeam.” Famous marshals who kept the peace with smoking Colt Frontier six-shooters might roll over in their graves.

The sheriff about to ride into the sunset has put his own stamp on keeping the peace in Dubois County. This Sheriff Moonbeam intends to officially retire Dec. 31 at age 54.

If he’s needed, he’ll likely be barefoot on an old Massey Ferguson tractor. Look for his 2-year-old daughter, River, to be on his lap and a German shepherd named Heinrich to be patrolling alongside as they chug past cows named Hildegard, Tabby and Winchester.

River had a hand in naming those critters at the home spread. Her mommy, Donny’s’ wife, the former Nicole Kreilein, recently returned to work full time as the Dubois County Community Foundation’s communication and engagement manager.

Donny plays tea party with his daughter, River, 2, at their home in Bretzville on June 26.

Nicole had been squeezing her foundation duties into two intense days a week after marrying the sheriff during his second term. They met when Donny began working with the foundation to get a new K-9 program off the ground. Nicole often tells people she met her husband in jail, just to see eyes widen.

“In January, momma gets to go back to work and I get to stay home forever,” Donny told River this summer as they talked about coming changes.

Having Nicole and River at home and a large, close-knit family around him keeps his batteries charged, according to the sheriff.

“This position has got to have a solid structure around it and Nicole, River and the family are that for me,” Donny says.

Donny catches up with his wife, Nicole, at home on Dec. 7. Nicole recently returned to work full time since Donny will soon be retired and able to stay home with River.

Donny grew up on Denny and Lindy Lampert’s farm with eight siblings. He graduated from Northeast Dubois High School in 1982. In addition to River, he has two older daughters from his previous marriage.

Donny’s daughter Cherie, 29, is a registered nurse at Memorial Hospital and Health Care Center. She is married to Chase Kippenbrock. They and Donny’s grandchildren, Cambree and Cohen, live in Kyana.

Middle daughter Ashley, 25, is married to Damian Vargas and lives in San Diego. Like her father and grandfather — Donny’s dad Denny is an Army veteran — she joined the military. Ashley is in the U.S. Coast Guard and has gone on patrols to Costa Rica, Alaska and Mexico. She went on leave in June and caught up with her dad in the sheriff’s department’s squad room, where they dined on jail food.

“I never remember you not being a cop,” Ashley says during that lunch, noting some new, donated cabinets deputies installed in the squad room pantry kitchen.

A deputy arrives and refers to Ashley as “Grandma.” She says he’s called her that since she was a little girl being criticized for taking too long in a sheriff’s department restroom.

Donny and his daughter, Ashley Vargas, get lunch at the Dubois County Security Center in Jasper on June 13. Donny often eats the food at the jail “to make sure that the inmates are eating good.”

Donny was an honor grad at a security police academy at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. He had specialty training in air base ground defense with Army Special Forces and was involved in guarding nuclear warheads at Whiteman Air Force Base near Knob Noster, Missouri.

He joined the Dubois County Sheriff’s Department as a jailer in 1989 and became a road deputy in 1990, settling on a law enforcement career because it was the closest thing to the military.

“It’s not a job,” Donny says. “It’s not work. It’s a way of life. I love this way of life.”

After he learned the ropes, the deputy believed he could do more as sheriff and it was his calling to try for the office.

Voters elected Donny in 2010.

Ever since, the department’s top dog has been known for showing up at all hours of the night and the wee hours of the morning to assist at accident scenes and traffic stops. Being constantly on the move suits him, he says, and being sheriff is a 24/7 calling.

“There is no hours,” he says. “Wherever I’m needed, that’s where I go.”

Donny jokes with kids from his perch in the dunk tank at the Child Abuse Prevention Awareness Kids' Fest at Jaycee Park in Jasper on April 25.

And when he’s needed on the horn, like when a woman leaving an abusive relationship nervously awaits word a protective order has been served, he answers.

When he first became sheriff, Donny asked everyone in the department — not just deputies — who they wanted as chief deputy because that individual is a liaison between every deputy, jailer and cook and the sheriff.

Members of the department unanimously chose Donny’s brother, Tim Lampert, to be chief deputy.

“Me and Tim designed it where he goes in early in the morning to make sure he sees the night shift (deputies) and the (arriving) day shift,” says Donny, whose late-afternoon arrivals allow him to rub shoulders with deputies at the next shift change.

They go over breaking matters and review what has occurred in the county in the preceding hours.

Tim Lampert just ended his own bid to become sheriff. It fell short.

During his campaign, Tim noted many of his memberships and outside activities were designed to allow him to interact with children in ways where he can try to make a difference.

Sheriff-elect Tom Kleinhelter, while recently announcing his 2019 appointments, tabbed Tim to be the first school resource officer in the Northeast Dubois School Corporation. Kleinhelter also purposely left one sergeant slot open for the time being, just in case Donny changes his mind about his future.

Donny was already a road deputy when the incoming sheriff started in the department as a jail officer. Kleinhelter would end up going on numerous ride-alongs with Donny, “so to say he helped me through my career would be an understatement,” the sheriff-elect says.

“I think the most important thing I took from him was the caring that he showed to victims,” Kleinhelter says, “and I hope that has helped me in dealing with certain situations.”

Donny says inspectors looking at his department have remarked on the caring, personal touch of the law enforcement in this area.

“That’s powerful when that happens,” he says. “We’ve got a very outstanding staff.”

While sheriff, Donny expanded inmate access to medical professionals, counselors and programs. This spring, he brought an Indiana State University professor into the jail to teach Shakespeare to inmates.

“If you can help one of them,” Donny says, “you’ve helped thousands because they have kids, family and friends.”

A part-time staff member at the jail is a woman who went through the criminal justice system, changed her life and is now attending college. She teaches life skills and Donny says she has a better idea than most how to show inmates how to help themselves.

The sheriff stresses to deputies that the people in Dubois County are family.

“That’s the way you need to treat them,” he says. “When I started, I told my staff the best teacher I’d ever seen as far as designing an organization is what Jesus did.

“If the community and law enforcement aren’t one, there will be resentment and problems.”

Donny and his daughter, River, 2, ride on his Massey Ferguson tractor at their home in Bretzville on June 26. In retirement, Donny plans on being a stay-at-home dad to River and farming with his family.

Donny’s deputies are officers of the court, transporting prisoners to court appearances and serving protective orders, warrants and subpoenas as they respond to everything from traffic accidents to domestic violence calls. The sheriff’s department also runs the jail and, when jail officers are maxed out with full cells, deputies will help serve meals.

“They’ve bought into, for the most part, not saying that’s not my job,” Donny says. “That’s the only way you can do it and be efficient.”

Now, after eight years as sheriff, Donny feels it’s time to step back. It’s what the department and the community needs, he adds.

“One of the things I have seen in government is people stick around too long,” Donny says.

Retirement will provide time for being with family, whether it’s while farming or hunting, and for travel. One of the few trips he and Nicole have made took them to Arizona.

“We went to a church out there,” Donny says. “And it was a school. It was really neat.

“I think it’s good to never stop searching. Once you stop searching, you’re not going to learn. I enjoy going to the different places to see the different atmospheres. The different feels.”

Nicole says one of the first things she noticed about Donny “is he’s always looking for signs. Little things in nature that make him think, ‘I’m doing what I should be doing.’

“He’s really big on signs.”

“To me,” Donny says, “it’s communicating with God.”

And, he adds, since he met Nicole, “everything has a reason. It means something.”

When Donny started noticing storks — lots of storks, in odd places, and Blue herons that look like storks — “it opened up the discussion about us having a child.”

Then came River.

“As a result of that,” Donny says, “we got to meet a kid who is phenomenal.”

Donny’s unit number is 19-1. The “Ten Signal” for ending a tour of duty is 10-42.

Donny speaks with his brother, Chief Deputy Tim Lampert, before leaving the office at the Dubois County Security Center in Jasper on Oct. 15. After 29 years at the department, Donny is retiring at the end of the year. "This is a way of life. It will never not be a part of me," Donny said. "I will always be looking for that person that needs help."

The outgoing sheriff will radio dispatch just before midnight on New Year’s Eve to say he’s going 10-42. Before then, he’ll box up the things that have dominated his office.

There are large portraits of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy. There is a crucifix. And there are framed police call sheets from the funerals of fallen Marine Corporal Eric Lueken and Marine Lance Corporal Alec Terwiske.

The items from his office wall represent people who selflessly did things for the good of all, according to the sheriff.

“You have people who have sacrificed their lives to try to make the world a better place to live in,” he says.

Also to be boxed is a white binder stuffed with inspirational sayings collected from here and there that has been handed out over and over to people who are struggling, be they ex-cons, fellow officers or family members.

“People who don’t know him, I just wonder sometimes if they think he’s the real deal or just a whack job,” Nicole says. “That’s who he is: the real deal.”

“I think they know that the sheriff does care,” Donny says. “I hope so.”

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