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Sheriff in balloon saga doesn't shy from soapbox

By DAN ELLIOTT
Associated Press Writer

FORT COLLINS, Colo. (AP) -- The sheriff at the center of the runaway balloon saga says he's not enjoying the media spotlight, but that's never stopped the John Wayne fan from using it to offer brash opinions on hot topics.

Larimer County Sheriff Jim Alderden once used his blog to label a nearby city "the imbecilic borough of Boulder" for being too secular for his taste. At a nationally televised news conference Oct. 18, he declared that much of what's on TV is "garbage."

Alderden, who has worked in law enforcement for 37 years, wasn't well known outside his home county until Oct. 15, when the saga of a boy feared carried away on a balloon captivated a live television audience of millions. Since then, he's been a frequent presence on TV, in newspapers and on the Internet.

At first, he told the world he believed Richard and Mayumi Heene when they said they feared their 6-year-old son was aboard a wayward balloon that was chased 50 miles by authorities on Oct. 15. The boy was later found at the family's Fort Collins home, where he said he'd been hiding because he was afraid he was in trouble.

Two days later, Alderden accused the Heenes of perpetrating a hoax for publicity and said he would recommend criminal charges. He said he had only pretended to believe the couple to gain their confidence while deputies investigated.

Since then, he's received e-mails that praise him as a hero or denounce him as a bumbler. A Denver Post editorial suggested his public pretense about believing the Heenes will make the public more cynical about law enforcement.

But people who know Alderden say he's a dedicated officer who has raised his department's professionalism in this county of 290,000 residents.

"He's no-nonsense" but has a sense of humor, said Lance Clem, spokesman for the Colorado Department of Public Safety, who served with Alderden on a state crime task force. "I would call him a likable guy."

Alderden describes himself as a patriot. He's a big fan of John Wayne and calls his blog "The Bull's-eye: Straight Shooting From the Sheriff."

When his son, 32-year-old John W. Alderden, served 10 days in the Larimer County jail over a traffic fine this year, the sheriff said he ordered his staff to treat his son like any other inmate.

"As a father, I am embarrassed and disappointed in him," the sheriff told the Fort Collins Coloradoan. "We spoke by phone when he was in booking, and he asked for the money to pay his fine. I declined."

Calls to the son's home phone were not answered Friday.

In an blog entry Wednesday, the sheriff said he didn't like the media attention the balloon case generated but that was proud of his department's response. He didn't respond to an interview request Friday.

Alderden was born in 1951 in the Chicago area. A biography provided by his office said he holds a bachelor's degree in business administration but doesn't say where he went to school.

He started his law-enforcement career in 1972 with the police department at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. After stints with the Estes Park and Steamboat Springs police, he joined the Larimer County Sheriff's department as a patrol deputy in 1979.

He rose through the ranks until then-Sheriff Richard Shockley promoted him to undersheriff in 1990. Shockley told The Associated Press that he fired Alderden in 1991 because they disagreed on management style.

Shockley said his own approach was participatory but that Alderden "was more of a structured authoritarian, if you will."

Alderden then worked as a criminal investigator for the Colorado Bureau of Investigation in suburban Denver until 1998, when he returned to Larimer County, ran against Shockley and won.

It was a hard-fought race, with Alderden arguing for fewer restrictions on private citizens carrying concealed weapons.

Shockley, now 71 and heading the corrections department for the sheriff of Hamilton County, Tenn., said he has no hard feelings.

"As far as I can tell, he's done a good job there over the past 10 years," Shockley said. "The people of Larimer County have elected him three times, and who am I to question how he does things?"

Alderden has raised his department's morale and standards, said Kathay Rennels, chairwoman of the Larimer County commissioners. She rates his performance as "excellent" despite their tangles over budget issues.

But Alderden has been sharply critical of the commissioners on issues ranging from benefits for same-sex couples to his right to express his views on the county Web site.

When commissioners approved benefits for the unmarried partners of county employees, including same-sex couples, Alderden ridiculed the move in his blog. He objected to the cost but said moral and religious objections were also valid.

When commissioners suggested Alderden shouldn't use the county Web site to espouse his opinions, he called them the "Board of County Censors" and moved his department's Web pages to another site outside the commissioners' control.

Alderden also took aim in his blog at the Fort Collins City Council for debating whether Christmas displays on city property should be more secular and less Christian. He said Christianity was under attack and invited the public to help decorate a privately funded Christmas tree - "not a holiday tree" - on the grounds of his county-owned complex.

Alderden, a Republican, was re-elected in 2002 and 2006 without opposition. He can't run again because of term limits, and his plans after leaving office in January 2011 aren't clear.

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On the Net:

Jim Alderden's blog, http://www.larimersheriff.org/Bullseye/

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