Retiring sheriff’s deputy has been a familiar and respected figure in the Methow Valley
By Ann McCreary
After more than two decades of working in the Methow Valley as an Okanogan County sheriff’s deputy, Laura Wright is retiring from the department.
Her final day was Wednesday (May 31), ending a law enforcement career that spanned 28 years. She will take a new job as a recreational warden with the Washington Department of Natural Resources.
“No more bulletproof vest and gun belt — at least 25 pounds less weight than what I was carrying around before,” Wright said.
While she won’t miss the heavy gear, Wright said she will miss the daily interaction with the Methow Valley community that was an integral part of her job as a deputy.
“My area has always been the top of Washington Pass to Pateros, Brewster, and Malott. The valley always had my devoted attention, because I know everyone here,” Wright said in an interview last week.
“The saddest part [of retiring] is I won’t have quite the public input and help I’d like to give.”
Wright’s law enforcement career began in 1989 when she started working as a volunteer reserve officer for the Winthrop Marshal’s Office. She had a couple of different jobs in the Methow Valley at the time, including working as a typesetter and proofreader at the Methow Valley News.
In 1992 she joined the Winthrop Marshal’s Office as a deputy, and attended the state law enforcement academy.
As a deputy marshal, she enjoyed sometimes riding her horse and her bike on patrols around town.
She joined the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Office in 1995 as a deputy, attracted by the opportunities available in a bigger department. “I wanted to be able to expand on my experience,” Wright said.
She soon developed expertise as a collision reconstruction expert for the sheriff’s office, investigating traffic accidents to determine their causes.
She also worked in child passenger safety education, teaching proper use of booster seats and conducting safety clinics around the county.
After about eight years, Wright stepped into the specialty that became her favorite assignment as a deputy, working as a K-9 officer with a narcotics-sniffing dog named Echo.
“I’m an animal person anyway. It was the most rewarding because no matter what, you’re never alone. And the bond you develop — Echo was just a joy and so intelligent,” Wright said.
Echo, a Belgian Malinois, “had the best nose around” and successfully sniffed out large quantities illegal drugs and narcotics. “When she was trained, of course, marijuana was illegal,” Wright said.
“She was constantly hyped and ready to go” when she was at work, Wright said.
Echo was trained in Belgium, and Wright commanded her in French. Wright was born in Canada and educated in England, where she learned to speak French, so speaking to Echo came easily.
When it was time for Echo to retire, Wright kept her. “The sheriff’s office allows us [handlers] to buy them for a dollar.” Echo was the family dog until she died at age 13.
After Echo retired, Wright became a field deputy, and served as a field training officer for new officers in the sheriff’s department. She also provided training for deputies in other specialties as well, including radar operations and computerized ticket writing.
Different but equal
During her 22-plus years with the sheriff’s department, Wright has often been the only female among the 30 members of the department. The sheriff’s office currently has a female detective and a field officer, and another female deputy will be joining soon.
Though the majority of her law enforcement colleagues were men, Wright said she was generally accepted as an equal.
“Earlier in my career there were men who didn’t appreciate women doing the job. They didn’t think women were up to it. In the first five years or so, they disappeared and went to other departments or got other jobs,” Wright said.
“For the majority of my career the guys have been very supportive. There were times when I know other women felt they had to prove themselves. There might have been times when that crossed my mind, but I just went out and did my job,” Wright said.
“There are certain skills women bring to the job that men don’t. I don’t need to lift 50 pounds and bulk up to do my job. I don’t think the physical aspect of it is what got me 25 years through my career,” she said.
Sometimes citizens, including people she was citing for traffic violations, were surprised to be dealing with a female deputy, Wright said.
“There were times I’d get up to the side of the car, and they’d look out the window and say ‘Hello sir,’ and then say, ‘Sorry, ma’am!’ They automatically assumed a male deputy would walk up to the window,” Wright said.
“I’ve had people I’ve arrested who want to open the door for me … even when they were in handcuffs,” Wright said with a laugh. “I’d say, ‘Thank you very much, but I’m going to open the door for you.’”
Sometimes, her presence could diffuse a tense situation, she said. “If I see a male officer having a bit of an issue with someone, I’ll step in, whether to distract them or have a different point of view,” Wright said.
“I don’t know how to put it, but sometimes the testosterone gets in the way. I don’t have that. I don’t have to prove anything.”
After working in the Methow Valley for so many years, Wright is well known in the community. Some people, who were apprehensive about calling the sheriff’s office with problems, would call her at home, she said.
She often sees people around the valley that she has encountered on the job.
“People would recognize me off duty. I would just leave it to them” to decide whether to acknowledge her, she said.
“For the most part I’m fine chatting, on duty, off duty. But there are some people who don’t like what I do for a living. I can, after all these years of police work, tell by body language whether they’re law enforcement-friendly or not,” Wright said.
Support and appreciation
Publicity surrounding incidents of police shootings and brutality in recent years has made working in law enforcement more difficult in some ways, Wright said. “There are people that shouldn’t be doing law enforcement. But there aren’t many,” she said.
Despite the “bad press,” she has felt a lot of support for the work she and her colleagues do.
“Throughout the valley and Okanogan County, people are still very supportive,” she said. “Literally, I can be in Safeway waiting for coffee and people I don’t know will come up and say, ‘I appreciate what you do.’ When I first started, that never would have been said.”
During her career, Wright has had her share of frightening moments involving serving search warrants, making arrests, and dealing with active shooters.
“Over the years there have been times I’ve been threatened, because people know where I live,” she said.
Just two weeks ago Wright was involved in a high-speed chase in the north end of the Methow Valley that reached speeds of 100 mph and resulted in an arrest.
One of her most hair-raising experiences, she said, was during floods caused by rainstorms in August of 2014, in the aftermath of the Carlton Complex Fire.
An older couple had ignored a road-closed sign on Highway 20 and were driving their car east toward Loup Loup Pass when Frazer Creek became a raging torrent and overflowed its banks.
“They were driving through all the water. All of us [in law enforcement] were having to do evacuations. I had a pickup truck that I borrowed from Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. I was trying not to yell at them” as she made the couple turn around and head back toward Twisp.
“I looked up the highway and it was black. Frazer Creek flooded and was rushing down like the black plague. It was really creepy, like someone feels when a tidal wave comes,” she said.
Despite the risks involved in law enforcement work, Wright said she has always felt supported by her daughter and her husband of 30 years, Jim.
“He has helped me impound vehicles, towed deputies out of ditches in the snow. He’s nothing but supportive, considering I have to go out all times of the day and night.”
Wright “has earned the respect and admiration of all of us, and especially the ones she worked with on a daily basis,” said Sheriff Frank Rogers.
“Laura’s drive, work ethic and her love of law enforcement is truly going to be missed by all of us in the sheriff’s office, the law enforcement community, and the citizens of Okanogan County,” Rogers said. “Laura was a class act.”