Supersized ServiceJanuary 10, 2020
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Story by Bill Powell
Photos by Kaiti Sullivan
In a very real sense, Birdseye’s 6-foot-6, 285-pound town marshal has taken a family business built around public service and supersized it.
Benton Stroud, 32, polices the Town of Birdseye part time and earns most of his keep as a correctional police officer at the Branchville Correctional Facility. There, the married father of two specializes in parole skips, internal affairs work and quelling gang activity.
Residing just inside the Crawford County line, Benton also serves on the English Volunteer Fire Department and is an EMT, having gravitated to that last bit thanks to a cousin who is a paramedic. And, since Benton’s Windy Hill Farms home was his grandparents’ homestead and he grew up farming and raising cattle, he does some of that, too.
He comes to public service honestly.
For starters, both his parents were registered nurses and his mother worked for years in the Crawford County Clerk’s Office. His paternal grandfather, Edward Stroud, was one of seven charter members of the Birdseye Volunteer Fire Department, and his late maternal grandfather, Victor Goldman, was a former Birdseye town marshal.
“I grew up around it,” Benton says of all he keeps on his plate.
But settling in as Birdseye’s town marshal has been more of a prickly path than a picnic.
Benton had the unenviable task of trying to fill the shoes of the late Bob Jenkins, who served 19 years as Birdseye’s marshal.
Birdseye is a town that would like a full-time officer, but due to funding constraints, has been funding the position part time. Despite that, Jenkins, who was retired from Norfolk Southern Railroad by the time he became marshal in 1994, seemingly was on the job 24/7.
Jenkins battled lung cancer and died in June 2013 at the age of 69. Before passing, he took notice of how Benton was conducting himself as a Crawford County jailer.
Benton became Jenkins’ designated deputy-in-training.
“I think it was only a month or two that I was riding with him as a deputy when he tossed me the keys and said, ‘It’s all yours. I’m not going back out again,’” Benton says. “It was literally four days later he passed away.”
Birdseye swore Benton in as an interim. The town then opened the search for a permanent marshal to all interested, qualified applicants. Five people expressed interest, but Benton was the last man standing.
The new marshal set about making the town current on mandated reporting, and he secured a grant to replace an old SUV patrol vehicle that had spectacularly failing wiring. Birdseye then had $54,400 to purchase and fully equip a new truck to police the town.
But residents came to town council meetings complaining about Benton’s availability. He wasn’t Jenkins.
There were council members wanting accountings of his time, to which Benton would explain there had to be more to policing than just being seen when a community’s law enforcement was a one-man department.
Coming to meetings to support the young marshal was then-Dubois County Sheriff Donny Lampert, and a veteran local police administrative assistant. And, at many meetings, there was Benton’s wife, Amber.
“I couldn’t be more proud of him, in all his jobs,” Amber says. “He gives his full heart. Even if that means coming in from the prison and leaving to go straight to town. He seriously has the biggest heart.”
Benton soldiered on, and the criticism eventually lessened.
“It was bad,” he says of the early going. “There’s been several who have changed their opinion of me. It doesn’t matter what you do, some people you just can’t please. My saying, ‘They can’t eat me and they can’t take my birthday.’ I just smile and go on.”
A typical work day finds him rising at 3 a.m. and getting to Branchville in time to talk to departing night shift personnel. He works four, 10-hour days at the medium security Perry County facility where offenders generally have 10 years or less to go on their sentences.
Benton’s title at the prison is security threat group coordinator, a term used to refer to gangs in order to take away the recognition that the word gang connotes.
As a correctional police officer, he carries a gun and his work station has posters of gang tattoos, insignia and profiles.
There’s also an internal affairs component to his responsibilities.
“If corrections officers, volunteers or staff are in the wrong, we investigate them too,” he says. “Any crime that can be tied to the prison system, we investigate.”
He has arrest powers and jurisdiction throughout the state. When not investigating crimes in the prison, he might be assisting with a parole skip.
Benton’s direct supervisor, Lead Investigator Jeff Hendershot, says he can flip any type of investigation to Benton.
“He’s like a machine,” he says.
“Benton takes his job very seriously,” says Warden Kathy Alvey. “He’s pretty squared away. He’s our [security threat group] coordinator, so he’s very knowledgeable with the different types of gangs. He’s very active on where they live, where they work and who they associate with.”
Alvey says Branchville’s offenders refer to the whole staff as petty.
“We are petty,” she says. “We stop the small stuff before it gets too large.”
As a result, Hendershot says Branchville likely has the lowest number of conduct reports submitted in the state prison system.
“We run this place the way it’s supposed to be run” Hendershot says. “We hold people accountable. If you sit a grown man down and talk to him like he’s a grown man, you’ll get good results.”
Benton says Branchville is like its own little city. It has a certified plumber, electrician, heating and air conditioning technician, and mechanic, and offenders are assigned to each of them.
Benton, Hendershot and other correctional police watch security cameras to monitor the facility, but much of what they see on the screens is ongoing vocational and educational programs for citizens who will be returning and reintegrating into society.
And when Benton’s day is done at Branchville?
“I’ll come home, kiss my wife, say hi to my kids (infant daughter Aliza and 6-year-old Adylyn), switch uniforms and usually come here for a couple of hours,” Benton says while in downtown Birdseye.
Evenings at home can be interrupted by squawking scanners, beeping pagers or ringing cellphones. Benton has two fire department radios, two police radios, two cellphones and a pager.
At town council meetings, Benton stresses the law, policy and procedure, and shielding the town from liability. That cautious approach follows when he’s on the beat.
“I want to make sure all my bases are covered,” Benton says. “The sheriff’s department is pretty far away from here. If I get into something crazy, I’m on my own. It could be 10 minutes or half an hour until backup can get to me.”
The component of Benton’s law enforcement career he likes best: knocking criminal investigations out of the park.
Recently, he arrested a Branchville visitor for trafficking drugs and swiftly concluded a Birdseye wallet theft with a recovery and an arrest. And, when an internal theft was reported at a Birdseye business, the suspect, who wanted to speak to Benton and no one else, eventually admitted to the incident.
“My reward is that I’m helping people,” Benton says.”My grandma always said I would give anybody the shirt off my back. If you need something, I’ll give it to you or go out of my way to get it for you. But I can’t stand people who steal.”
Those walking the straight and narrow have nothing to fear.
“I just care about people doing the right thing,” he says. “If you are doing the right thing, you don’t have to worry about me ever bothering you at all.”
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