Dirty Gerald

The sheriff of Davidson County, N.C., is a big-screen lawman for a TV nation.

Published March 20, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

The jail in Davidson County, N.C., is pink.

That's the first thing anyone will ever tell you about Sheriff Gerald K. Hege (pronounced hayg-ee). They will tell you that, after winning the 1994 sheriff's election by 261 votes, the 6-foot-3, 190-pound Hege strode laconically through the dark Davidson County jail hallways in his soon-to-be-trademark fashion, with his right hand loosely gripping his soon-to-be-trademark mirrored sunglasses, answering each "How are you, sheriff?" with his soon-to-be-trademark, "Wide open," critiquing each dirty cell, surveying each cobwebbed corner.

Imagining what it would all look like in bright pink.

Despite the color most associated with him, Gerald Hege is known worldwide as "the toughest sheriff in America." As self-imposed as this moniker may be, it has caught on fast. Last month in a ratings stunt, Deborah Norville from TV's "Inside Edition" spent a week inside Hege's famous jail.

"I think she was sent down here a little bit to slam me and my style and approach. But she stated in the show, 'Hey, he's a tough guy, but he's a fair shooter.' And she hung in there, she's tough, she wasn't given no slack at all," says Hege. Barely grinning, he adds, "I don't think she took a bath for five days."

If you missed Norville's dramatic impoundment, you might have caught Hege on "Larry King Live," "Today," "America's Most Wanted," Comedy Central or countless European stations, inevitably uttering incredible sound bites illustrating his very, very tough-on-crime stance. "Look, lady, you're a scum bag," said a typically casual Hege to an ex-con on the Court TV program "Pros and Cons." "You're a beauty queen little rich girl who feels like you shouldn't have gone to prison."

Last year, Court TV gave frequent guest Hege his own weekly show. You can catch this small-town sheriff interviewing his toughest inmates from inside his pink vault every Thursday night on "Live From Cell Block F."

"They bring in a full Hollywood film crew, five cameras, robotic cameras, 50 lights, 17 people," says Hege in his slow, Southern drawl, as he reclines in his small cluttered office. An impressive number of Court TV videotapes are stacked to his right and, to his left, the robes of the eight men he convinced to retire from the local Ku Klux Klan hang from hooks along with a sign reading: "We Quit! 8/14/98 The Ex-Boys in the Hood." Several permanent movie lights aim down at Hege from his ceiling, prepared to add a bright key light or soft backlight to any interview.

"They try to treat me like a TV guy, directors and producers in my ear telling me all this Hollywood crap. But I don't let them put make-up on me. Hey -- I'm a man."

Proving exactly how much of a man seems to be Hege's main mission in life. In pursuit of this mission, he has entertained and infuriated people all across America. His extreme personality and exhilarating anecdotes -- whether or not 100 percent true -- are throwbacks to a bygone masculine ideal that is somehow both absurd and appealing. Born in rural Davidson County in 1948, Hege grew up beneath the hot Carolina sun pulling tobacco leaves under the strict guidance of male kinfolk. "I was raised you do something wrong, you get a whippin' for it," Hege says.

After high school, he married Amy, whom he had been dating since the age of 12. It's a day he's not likely to forget. "I got married, I got a speeding ticket, two flat tires and my draft notice all in one day -- August 31, 1968."

In Vietnam, his nickname of "Local" -- as in "local boy" -- soon changed to "Loco." When things "got heavy," as Hege puts it, he was a leader. "I figured that if I was going to go down, I was going to go down blazin'."

"Not a day goes by that I don't think about Vietnam," he adds. "You had to kill people, women, children, watch people get blown away, find people who had been mutilated, sleepin' with snakes and leeches eatin' on your body, 18- to 19-pound rats, the thought of dying every second. It made me appreciate the human being as a person."

So, when his tour of duty ended, Hege came back to Davidson County. That was on a Wednesday. On Thursday, he was a sheriff's deputy.

It didn't last long. "I got into a fight with some prisoners who were trying to smuggle drugs into the jail. I took on four and kicked a couple of 'em's butt, and the sheriff didn't like it. I just said, 'I'll leave, but I'll come back one day. And when I come back, I'll be sheriff.'" Hege left, and became a railroad worker. That was in 1974.

Exactly 20 years later, literally within minutes of taking the oath of office, Hege -- Sheriff Hege, thank you very much -- began his personal crusade to bring moral order back to Davidson County. And he planned on doing things the old way.

The "old way," for anyone not familiar with it, involves lots of rules, lots of consequences, lots of change and the occasional serious butt-kicking.

The first thing he did was to tear each and every television from the jail walls. Then he removed every mattress from its steel bunk, not to be returned until designated "sleeping hours." All books -- save the good book -- were banned. "Most books sent in are not your typical Charles Dickens," Hege explains. "It's usually some sleaze book with girlie pictures in it with revealing buttocks or vagina or large breasts. That's what family members send; they don't send the classics."

Hege revived the 40-year-old practice of chain-gangs, and swapped the traditional orange jumpsuits in favor of candy-colored stripes that grow increasingly absurd with the seriousness of the crime -- baby blue for misdemeanors, lime green for sex offenders and fruit-sorbet orange for felons. He then added to the pink Romper Room decor with paintings of weeping, blue teddy bears sporting cute little vests with the words "Junior Sheriff" stenciled on them.

The effectiveness of Hege's "Pink Alcatraz" is evidenced on his weekly inmate-interview FM radio show, which was the inspiration for the Court TV series. "The [inmates] say, 'Sheriff, look -- I'm sittin' here, 40 years old, I'm looking at a Pepto-Bismol pink wall with blue teddy bears for goodness sake, I don't have a dime in the bank, I don't have a car to drive, look at me.' The whole jail thing is designed for kind of a humiliation," Hege says proudly.

"I came into a jail that for 20 or 30 years had been a place to party," he adds. "You could watch cable TV 24 hours a day, you could get cigarettes, you could even get a woman if you had enough money. [In Vietnam] you'd lay there sittin' in foxholes for 16 hours a night waitin' for ambushes, thinkin' about everything in the world that you could be doing, that you should be doing. That's what I want these [inmates] to do -- 'Why am I here? How dumb can I be to do such a thing?'"

Hege's wrath against lawbreakers and traditional lawmakers seems personal, and that is precisely what disturbs his critics. Hege's opponents stress that inmates are in jail to await trial, not to be punished by a power-mad lawman who has appointed himself judge and jury.

"Don't come here," Hege responds drolly. "That's one of my favorite sayings: Don't come here." Although he admits that his radical modifications did result in a transitional period of increased inmate violence, he claims that it has since dropped by 35 percent.

The Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer-Times reports on other arrogant intimidation tactics: "Hege took out some 911 emergency equipment when he disagreed with how calls were handled. He made animal lovers irate when a retired deputy wept at a county meeting after the sheriff refused to allow him to keep the narcotics dog the deputy had trained and partnered with for six years."

What provokes Hege's rivals the most are the endless publicity stunts and made-for-TV events. Sheriff Hege is a celebrity, and he knows it. What's more, he's got style. He gave his second oath of office atop the roof of his jail. He overhauled the department with crisp, black, military-style uniforms. He changed the department motto to "No Deal" and changed the department emblem to a spider.

Then, in one of his most notorious moves, Hege painted silver arachnids all over his personal patrol vehicle -- a souped-up Chevy sports car outfitted with a Corvette engine. Critics charge that a spider tattoo on a skinhead celebrates the murder of a black man. But Hege's explanation is shockingly innocent: "When I was growin' up, I used to watch 'Dragnet.' I couldn't understand why a guy named Jack Webb didn't have a spider web on his car, and as I'd watch the show I'd fantasize and imagine that it did."

Most controversial of all was the $27,000 worth of drug education money that went into a line of hot-selling Hege promotional items, including: posters ($2); country-music CDs ("Sheriff Hege is his name/He ain't lookin' for any fame/Just to see the country how it used to be ... He's got the spider car/So you won't get very far/When the man in black comes after you"; $5); coffee mugs (showing the sheriff astride "Hege's Harley"; $8); T-shirts ($15); die-cast replica spider-cars ($20); Hege statuettes (available in camo fatigues or black, $30); Sheriff Hege's Lexington-Style BBQ Dip ("If you call it 'sauce,' you're not from around here!"; $3/pint, $5/2 pints, $30/case); and designer pocket knives (with walnut and blue velvet casing, $125 each, $23,000 of which were sold in the first hour of availability).

Opponents say Hege has a big ego. This is true. Opponents also say Hege is a preening, self-serving, camera-hogging, movie-star-wannabe. This is also true -- Hege's hero is the branch-wielding, ass-kicking Tennessee sheriff Buford Pusser (portrayed by Joe Don Baker in the film "Walking Tall"), and the Paul Newman film "Cool Hand Luke" inspired Hege's candy-striped uniforms.

What many critics don't know is that every cent of his merchandise and television appearances goes to charity (he clears somewhere between $15,000 and $20,000 monthly for his Court TV series alone). His marketing savvy is matched only by his professional dedication. "I work 18 hours every day, I work seven days a week," says Hege. "I work maybe 322 days straight before I even take a day off. I don't fish, golf, hunt, drink, gamble. I don't get out of bed doing 50, I get out of bed doing 100."

Hege gives his officers as much slack as his inmates. No profanity. Always shave. Always wear your hat outdoors. Never be at an event that is serving alcohol. First offense, a $100 fine. Second offense, you're fired. Your vehicle must be maintained, serviced, oiled, washed. First offense, 3-day suspension. Second offense, you're fired. And never be late. "If you're late for work, you don't work," says Hege. "You supposed to be here at 8, be here at 8, not 8:01 or 8:02 or 8:03." Second offense, you're fired.

The local media finds his unbiased approach refreshing. "The fact that Sheriff Hege is not afraid of the media is a benefit to our business," says Mac Ingraham, a reporter for CBS affiliate WFMY TV-2 in Lexington, N.C. "He helps us tell the stories we need to tell, even if it's negative about his department."

Everyone who buys Hege merchandise -- especially children -- becomes part of that department, part of "Team 101." That's Hege's radio handle and it is emblazoned on every hat, shirt and autographed 8 by 10 glossy that Hege hands out. As unlikely at it seems, lawmen are "cool" again in Davidson County.

Should lawmen be allowed to be this "cool"?

In any public office, image is important. If you're running for congress, you need to be Jimmy Stewart. If you're running for sheriff, it doesn't hurt to be Clint Eastwood. Likewise, Mr. Smith may be the man to clean up corporate corruption, but when it comes to drugs, guns, criminals and doing what is necessary to save your life ... Dirty Harry is the guy who will do whatever it takes.

Therefore, it would appear that it is OK to seem "cool," at least to children whose role models can be nothing but. For the benefit of children, all crime-fighting campaigns in Davidson County have dramatic code names that sound like Sylvester Stallone movies -- titles like "Spiderbite One" or "Operation: Spiderclaw." "We're going to catch you in our web, like a spider," explains Hege. "That web being information."

As the highly visible department figurehead, Hege straddles the line between being effective in delivering this "web of information" and being obsessed with it, occasionally going overboard with no apologies. His officers, for the most part, stay behind that line.

For those of us who don't live in Davidson County, Hege's television persona allows us the comforting luxury of seeing a stereotype fulfilled; in this case, the colorful, old-school Southern sheriff, one who upholds the law simply because it's the law.

"A sheriff should be a straight-up, honest person," says Hege, recalling his initial decision to run. "I was rough and I was tough, but I knew I would never take a bribe or never be crooked or spend time meetin' the mayor and his friends for golf and maybe a shot of whiskey at lunch."

Statements like these -- as well as "I love the smell of handcuffs in the morning" and "This ain't Mayberry and I ain't Andy" -- are irresistible and almost too good to be true. Hege's evolution into a cartoon cowboy was strictly by choice and serves an explicit crime-fighting purpose, intimidating would-be-criminals with the notion of a man who just might take the law into his own hands.

Currently, Hege himself is under investigation, albeit one that is standard operating procedure. One month ago, while doing standard patrol at 2 a.m. -- Hege still does his own patrols -- a routine traffic stop turned into a 125 mph car chase that then became a foot race. After jumping a fence, the suspect turned around waving what appeared to be a weapon. Hege shot three warning shots into the air, and the suspect ran away.

The presence of nearby homes prompted the perfunctory investigation. Hege shrugs, "Twenty-five years ago, I would've shot him."

Hege no longer wants to "go down blazin'," clutching his spurting chest, mowing down the bad guys with a heroic last spray of bullets. "My wife has given me her whole life and everything's been focused on me," he says. "Might just go buy us a Winnebego, go by and get us two tombstones made up, and wherever we die along the way, just bury us alongside the road."

He pauses, adding, "I get on my Harley now and then and everything will be just fine."

In the meantime, "Live From Cell Block F" continues to do well, although they've recently stopped doing the show live, instead taping Hege with the aid of a TelePrompTer, which he fussily ignores. "I've made more mistakes with that stupid TelePrompTer. They put it up, but I don't read it."

"They called last week and they said, 'We beat "Cops" five weeks in a row!' They're into all that stuff. I don't even watch my own show. It's kind of boring after you've filmed it," says Hege.

"People like me 'cause people like characters, and characters pass through very seldom. When they do, people like to grasp on to that -- 'Old Sheriff Hege, he's something else.'"

"But although you might go out and buy Michael Jordan's merchandise, you're not going to run into Michael Jordan," explains Hege, with his perpetual little lopsided grin. "But there's a good chance you're going to run into Sheriff Hege."

By Daniel Kraus

Daniel Kraus is the director of the award-winning film "Jefftowne."

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