Robert (Bobby) N. Jones, Maryland’s longest serving sheriff, has been the long arm of the law in Somerset County for 39-years. Since starting his career working in an antiquated jail built for henhouse robbers, drunkards, horse thieves, and criminals from another era in 1975, he has devoted a lifetime of work to combating crime. He kept jailbirds behind bars, prowled the dark night looking for problems, chased reckless drivers, corralled troublemakers, and oversaw the development of a modern law enforcement agency, as the decades flew by. Although he recalls a different time, place, and era for policing in Somerset County, the very popular sheriff successfully bridged the gap.
Jones started in law enforcement almost by accident. Sheriff Thomas H. Foxwell, Jr. while out fishing on the Chesapeake Bay, caught a tub of Spanish Mackerel. “On his way home, the sheriff stopped by to offer the fish to the people at the Oyster shucking house where I worked. While he was there I asked him if needed any help,” Jones recalls. “It wasn’t too long before I got a call asking me to work some weekends and holidays as a deputy. When I started that December, I went over to a deputy’s house to pickup an old badge and gun.”
The county slammer was built in 1850 and rebuilt after a disastrous 1902 fire. The place, designed to handle 16 inmates, averaged about twenty prisoners a day at the time. “We often worked alone, and we had some dangerous prisoners, from the Western Shore and elsewhere. Murders, work release, you name it. If they were incarcerated in Somerset County, we had them. If you opened that cell door for whatever reason to move some of those inmates around, you wondered what might happen sometimes,” the sheriff recalls.
When Foxwell decided not to run Jones entered the race and was elected Sheriff in 1986. With eleven years’ experience, he assumed command of a department that had three deputies to assist the top cop.
The pace of law enforcement in those early decades was a bit like life in general, a little bit slower and more predictable for major drug busts and gangs were unfamiliar to the thin blue line in Princess Anne. Still, with nearly forty years in the criminal justice system, Jones recalls many remarkable incidents, humorous and serious.
The sheriff recalls one man whom one could imagine being Otis Campbell, the town drunk in the Andy Griffith Show. This man got tanked up so frequently that he had his own cell. In those days we had trustees so they’d run errands and help out in the kitchen and things. So we’d let this man go downtown to cut grass or earn a little money doing odd jobs. We’d warn him not to come back drunk or we wouldn’t let him back in his cell for the night.”
“Once he came back really tanked up so when the jailer asked what we should do, I said let him sleep it off outside. He’ll be out there in the morning.” Well the next day he was nowhere in sight. “We started looking around and soon noticed a broken window in the basement.” The inmate decided he didn’t want to sleep under the Maryland stars that night so he broke into the building. “That’s the first time we ever charged someone with breaking into the jail.”
Another time, he was in court for something and the judge said I’m giving you 30-days, but it’s suspended. The man protested, saying your honor you can’t do that. He went out, got drunk, and fell asleep in the courthouse door. “We arrested him and put him in his cell.”
During trials one judge would occasionally call the sheriff over to the bench to whisper this prisoner is going to cost a lot of money if we lock him up. “Take him over to the Greyhound Bus Station and buy him a ticket to Norfolk,” the judge told me. Jones followed orders, but when he handed the troublemaker over to the bus driver, I’d put a little twist on the story just to make sure we got him far out-of-town. I’d say now the judge has ordered you to take this man to Norfolk. He says you’re responsible for getting him there, so don’t drop him off over the line in Virginia. Make sure he gets to Norfolk. You’ve got to come through here every day and if he gets back here tomorrow, the judge isn’t going to be happy. Those drivers always got the convicts to their destination, as far as I know,” Jones recalls.
On the road, a large part of the department’s job in the 1970s was serving papers. “We used citizen band radios to communicate, and they didn’t cover the entire county. We had handles such as sugar bear and names like that. When I was out on Deal Island serving papers, I’d say come in “great wizard’ this is sugar bear. Everybody monitored the CB radios in those days. When someone on the island answered, I’d say call the office and tell them I’m going over to Crisfield to serve papers, I’m finished out on Deal. That person would call the office and let them know. That was our communications system. It worked because everybody was listening to the CBs in those days.”
Make no mistake about the easy-going style of the time, for Jones periodically faced dangerous moments, such as when a weapon was pulled or when he had to worry about being jumped in an attempted jail break. In those early day officers were often on duty alone and backup was far away.
“We had some tough characters, but I remember this one man who would fight an officer in a minute. One time we got a call that there was trouble at his place and he had a gun. When I got there a couple of officers were already on the scene. He was inside the house creating a ruckus so I shouted, put the weapon down, it’s Bobby.” We exchanged some words, but in a few minutes he shouted ‘Bobby is that you out there. Come on in, I’ve put the gun down’. While he’d fight most men, he always listened to me.” That could be because the sheriff mentioned that he always treated everyone with as much respect as possible.
One night a prisoner started a fire in the jail, after I was sheriff. We managed to get the inmates out safely, but there we were across the street with these prisoners in this little frame building. I had to do something to cut the population, so I started pardoning people on the spot. I said how many of you are on work release. Okay you guys get out of here. How many of you have terms that are ending tomorrow. Okay, hit it. That way we cut the population down, until we could manage it and arrange safe lockups for the remainder of the people.”
Sheriff Jones, a Somerset County trailblazer, oversaw a department transitioning from an earlier time to the modern agency that serves the county today. He was first elected to the county’s top law officer’s post, an agency with four full-time officers (including the sheriff) in 1986. It now has 26 sworn personnel. Having decided not to run for an eighth term, the 74-year-old will wrap up a long career in law enforcement on Dec 2, 2014, at 3 p.m. His chief deputy, Ronnie Howard, will serve as the next sheriff of Somerset County. His personal philosophy of “treat the people with respect,” must have had a lot to do with his success, which filtered down to the force.