2009-11-13 / Neighbors

Inside special services

By Daniel Wolowicz camarillo@theacorn.com

Just before 6 a.m. on Oct. 9 Cheryl Wade’s cellphone chirped to life. The early morning call was a reminder that the term “office hours” doesn’t apply to criminals.

“I know when my cell rings in the middle of the night it’s not a good thing,” said Wade, commander of the Special Services Division of the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department.

The call was Wade’s introduction to a bizarre homicide investigation that began with the arrest of an Oxnard man after a brief police chase just south of Camarillo around 2 a.m.

Police quickly learned that the suspect had allegedly shot another man earlier that night and left his body somewhere along Pacific Coast Highway, sending investigators and an army of search teams to comb miles of county coastline looking for the victim. The body was found the next day, nearly 25 miles north of where the suspect in the killing had been caught and miles from where the victim’s wife—who was in the car at the time of the shooting— thought she had seen him killed.

Cheryl Wade Cheryl Wade Although it may sound like an episode of “Law and Order,” for Wade and the team of veteran detectives that she oversees, it’s simply another complicated case that will take endless hours to find out what truly happened.

“It’s not so much what I do as what the detectives do and the amount of time and energy that they put into solving cases to give resolution to families and victims,” Wade said.

Wade, 45, commands a staff of nearly 100 that includes both sworn and civilian personnel.

Her division is made up of seven bureaus—the air unit, major crimes, narcotics, intelligence, the bomb unit, crime analysis and the department’s information systems—that account for a $20-million annual budget.

Chief Dep. Gary Pentis, who oversees Special Services, said the work the detectives do is a 24/7 job. Pentis lauded Wade for her work within the division.

“I have to say that I am extremely lucky to have a commander in this division with her breadth of experience in the disciplines that are involved in this division,” Pentis said.

Sheriff Bob Brooks said the types of cases handled by the detectives in special services can be “emotionally draining” and that in many instances they will work nearly nonstop during the first— and most critical—48 hours of an investigation.

“The drain on the investigator, both emotionally and physically, and the demands of continuing with the case without a break during those critical two or three days when you’re most likely to come up with leads for a quick resolution takes a very dedicated officer,” Brooks said.

Budget cuts earlier this year forced the department to eliminate a command position, which meant Wade had to take on the crime analysis and information systems bureaus.

Her command also includes the SWAT and hostage negotiation teams.

In addition, Wade is in charge of a new cold case team that will look into murder investigations that have DNA evidence but remain unsolved.

The team of three retired detectives—two from the Ventura County district attorney’s office and one from the sheriff’s department—will be paid with a $200,000 federal grant the department received last year. Wade said the grant will end next year.

What’s the toughest part of her job?

“Trying as best I can to keep on top of all my bureaus so that I make sure I get information to the chief before the sheriff hears it from somewhere else,” Wade said with a laugh.

A native of the San Fernando Valley, Wade moved to Ventura County in 1982 and joined the department in 1985. She steadily made her way up the ranks and became a commander in 2005.

Before she took over the demanding Special Services Division in June, Wade oversaw the court services and West County patrol.

A former homicide detective who had served in major crime in the 1990s and 2000, Wade said that when she received the call to command special services she was more than ready for the new responsibility.

The Major Crimes Bureau handles the department’s homicides and significant assaults. It also investigates agricultural crimes, forgery, fraud and sexual assaults and monitors registered sex offenders.

Wade said the demands of working in major crimes can take its toll on detectives, many of whom put in long hours and work under extremely stressful circumstances.

“I would not recommend that anybody stay in major crimes for an extended period of time because I don’t think it’s healthy,” Wade said. “It depends upon their outside lifestyle, their family support group and how they actually handle the job.”

Wade earned her bachelor’s degree from California Lutheran University and a master’s from California State University Northridge.

The commander is working toward a second master’s degree in homeland defense and security through the Naval Post Graduate School, a program funded through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

A mother of two grown children, Wade said she credits a strong support system—family and friends—with helping her maintain a demanding workload.

“For the most part, my work day never ends,” Wade said just moments before the phone on her desk began to ring again.

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