Oak Harbor captain retires after 39 years

Tim Sterkel: “If I made a difference, I bet it was during my years as the drug sergeant.” - Jesse Stensland/Whidbey News-Times
Tim Sterkel: “If I made a difference, I bet it was during my years as the drug sergeant.”
— image credit: Jesse Stensland/Whidbey News-Times

It was the sun that finally did it.

Capt. Tim Sterkel could have ended his career with the Oak Harbor Police Department at a nice, round 40 years, but he said the lure of sunny days and the prospect of trading an office chair for a saddle on a horse was too much for him. He turned 62 and decided to retire.

Sterkel’s final day with the department is Wednesday. He leaves with 39 years of institutional knowledge that he gained under seven chiefs of police.

Rising through the ranks — he started as a reserve officer — Sterkel helped put away murderers and many other bad guys, but he said he’s most proud of his work investigating drug crimes.

“If I made a difference, I bet it was during my years as the drug sergeant,” he said. “I can walk away saying, ‘I think we did pretty good.’”

A lot of change is coming to the department as the Sterkel era comes to a close.

Chief Ed Green said he picked Detective Sgt. Teri Gardner to replace Sterkel as the new second-in-command. Sgt. Larry Ferguson and Detective Ron Hofkamp also recently retired and a patrol officer took a job with the sheriff’s department.

Two new hires start in May and two more position are open; the department is funded for 39 officers. Two people in the department will be promoted to sergeant.

Green said he was very thankful to have Sterkel in the department when he started in fall 2012.

“Of course he’s leaving a big hole in the agency, but I do believe Teri Gardner has the ability to fill it,” he said.

Green describes Sterkel as “old school.” He said he was taught by officers of Sterkel’s generation, so they approached law enforcement in the same way.

Gardner, he said, offers a different perspective and he looks forward to be challenged.

“She brings forth a new way of doing police work,” he said.

“It’s the new generation. It’s refreshing.”

Gardner has nothing but praise for Sterkel. She also worked her way up the ladder from patrol and worked for Sterkel for 17 of her 18 years on the job. She said his institutional knowledge was “invaluable.”

Sterkel came to Whidbey in the Navy and started with the department as a reserve officer in 1972. He was hired full-time in 1975. At the time, the department had just seven officers. He said there was minimal training and low wages.

The first chief he worked under didn’t last long. The officers gave him a vote of no-confidence and he left soon after, Sterkel said.

Sterkel said the department steadily improved with each successive chief.

The biggest changes he’s seen in law enforcement, he said, is in improved communication — with cell phones and email — and greatly improved training.

Sterkel made detective in 1979, just in time to catch some of the serious and bizarre cases that marked the 1980s. One of his most memorable cases involved a man who ingested a large amount of cocaine and then emptied the clip of a machine gun into his roommate, who was lying on a couch.

In another case, a woman caught her husband cheating, so she moved east. She bought a gun and bullets and then took a bus all the way back to Oak Harbor and shot her husband, Sterkel said.

Sterkel was promoted to sergeant and took over drug investigations in 1998. He delved deep into the city’s drug culture and even went undercover on occasion. He said he got a lot of drugs and drug dealers off the streets.

His biggest bust, he said, came nine years ago when he was supposed to be celebrating his 30th anniversary with the department. Instead, he was tailing a Whidbey man with ties to the Hells Angels motorcycle gang.

After he received a tip that the man possessed a large amount of cocaine, Sterkel worked with the Drug Enforcement Administration and the State Patrol.

When it was over, four men were arrested and law enforcement seized 41 kilos of cocaine and 25,000 tablets of the drug Ecstasy.

After Wednesday, Sterkel puts all that behind him. He and his wife own horses and they plan to enjoy a lot of trail riding. He said he’s looking forward to possibly becoming a “snow bird” and wintering in a sunnier climate.

Undoubtedly, he’ll miss the job … and especially the people. He said there’s a really good group of people in the department. He said he really enjoyed working with Green, whom he describes as “a very progressive, proactive leader.”

“I like working for him,” he said, “and I wish I had more time with him.”


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