State Police head speaks of Charlottesville, Richmond challenges
Virginia State Police Superintendent Col. Gary T. Settle returned home last Saturday for his first public speaking engagement in Rappahannock County since his appointment by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam fifteen months ago.
“Anytime I can come home on a weekend and be with you folks it’s always a blessing for me,” said the superintendent, who was the keynote speaker for the 2019 Rappahannock County Friends of Scouting Breakfast at the Washington Baptist Church.
A graduate of Rappahannock County High School, Settle figured he knew “99 percent” of his breakfast audience, among them Supervisors Roger Welch and Christine Smith, County Attorney Art Goff, and School Board member Lucy “Pud” Maeyer.
“When I got this position I would go around and people would ask me where I was from, and I would answer Rappahannock County,” Settle began his remarks, pointing out that most assumed he was referring to the Rappahannock River region of the Northern Neck.
“And I would say no, Rappahannock County is next to the Blue Ridge Mountains. I come from a place where there’s more cows than there are people, there’s no traffic lights, and what have you. And they’d say, gosh it sounds like God’s country, and I’d say it is.”
Approaching 35 years in law enforcement, Settle today oversees more than 3,000 Virginia State Police employees working in seven divisions that stretch from Winchester to Wise to Virginia Beach. A “humbling” and tremendous responsibility he didn’t see coming.
“I never aspired to go to Richmond,” said the colonel, recalling that his first post in the state capital, after numerous assignments around the state, was deputy director of the Bureau of Criminal Investigation. “I often accused the superintendent of bringing me to Richmond under false pretenses, because they put you in this little eight-by-ten room with no windows. I had to go down the hall to see if it was daylight.”
While working one particularly long day in 2017, a state legislator telephoned Settle shortly before 8 p.m. State Police Superintendent Col. Steve Flaherty had let it be known that he would be retiring after 14 years in the top post, and the lawmaker wondered whether Settle might be interested in joining other candidates for the position.
Settle replied halfheartedly that he’d think about it, and remembered “laughing and joking” about it later that night with his wife, Rappahannock native Kelly-Jo Gilkey Settle, thinking to himself “this is crazy.”
The next evening Settle’s office phone rang again, the same legislator asking if he’d had enough time to think about it. It took the colonel one week to complete his application, which he submitted a mere 15 minutes before the deadline. Ten days later he was sitting before the governor, his chief of staff and transition team.
“I’ll tell you, that was about as nervous as I’ve ever been,” Settle told the crowd, which included Boy Scouts and leaders from Rappahannock Troops 316 and 36 and Crew 36. “I studied notes, and studied notes, and [thought] there was not a question he’s going to ask that I can’t answer.”
And he was right, so to speak.
“We talked about everything but law enforcement,” the superintendent revealed. “We talked about farming, fishing, hunting; people in general, how you treat people. I thought, I have bombed this interview.”
That next Friday evening, as Settle was en route home to spend the weekend in Rappahannock, he received a text stating that if he were to receive a call from the actual phone number 000-000-0000 “you might want to answer, it’s not a robocall.”
The call from the governor, said Settle, came a short time later, at 5:34 p.m. “And he offered me the position.”
Since that day, the superintendent continued, the “safety of our people keeps me up at night.” He recalled the tragic death last month near Farmville of Virginia State Trooper Lucas B. Dowell, his life cut short by an armed drug suspect. It was the department’s 66th death in the line of duty.
“Extraordinary family and young man. And he was a Scout,” Settle noted. “He gave the ultimate sacrifice. It’s a toxic environment today.”
The superintendent drew attention to Charlottesville, pointing out that the State Police “averages about 120 protests a year that we respond to. It’s the environment we live in now . . . Two years ago, as you well know, in Charlottesville, we had some tragic events down there. We lost two of our pilots . . . in the helicopter crash, and certainly Heather Heyer lost her life there.
“This past year we were back in Charlottesville again, and of course it looked to be uneventful. But I can tell you we changed the way we did some business last year. Politics played a big role the year before. I’m not a political guy. People might think you are because you’re superintendent. I don’t think you’re in a political game when you’re dealing with issues like that.”
Asked by the Rappahannock News whether the State Police Executive Protective Unit was taking extra precautions in light of the recent controversy swirling around Gov. Northam over the racist yearbook photo, Settle replied that the elite unit is constantly “on high alert. Certainly our antennas are up.”
Interestingly enough, Settle said the commander of the governor’s protective unit is none other than Rappahannock County native Marc S. Wiley, who has the rank of first sergeant. Wiley’s unit provides daily security and transportation for the governor and immediate family members, and is also responsible for the safety of dignitaries visiting the state. Wiley most recently was elected to serve as president of the National Governors Security Association, which is comprised of protective details from all 50 states and 5 U.S. territories.
“I’m fortunate to work with some extraordinary people,” Settle said.
A final question from the audience came from Supervisor Welch, who inquired of the superintendent: “Does your office have a window now?”
Replied Settle in a folksy manner to much laughter, “I got the beautifulist windows you’ve ever seen.”