The longest-tenured Powell County Sheriff retired on December 31 after 33 years of service to the people of the county.
Sheriff Scott F. Howard said, “I’ve had the greatest job on the world; if it were not in a rural county I would not be able to say that. It was a great job, but it’s time to retire. Change is good. I don’t have any definite plans after retirement. I’ll do something, but for now I’m going to take time to ‘reboot’ and be a normal person for a while. I’ll even get to sleep in and I won’t miss the phone ringing all the time.”
His accomplishments include a sophisticated 911 system, upgrades in the dispatch center, and upgrades to the radio communications system throughout the county, as well as several successful high-profile investigations.
Howard was born in Missoula then lived in Garrison and Deer Lodge until the fourth grade when his folks divorced and he moved to Wisconsin with his mother.
He said recently, “Montana’s my home, and I always wanted to come back. After high school graduation in 1978 I returned to Deer Lodge, where my Dad always lived. He had a small engine repair shop and I worked with him.”
Deer Lodge Police Chief Bill Woods often stopped by the shop and had coffee with them. In 1985 Woods said he needed some part-time help, and said Scott Howard should apply. He worked for six months as a part-time officer and another six months full-time.
Powell County Sheriff Dave Collins said he wanted Howard to come work for him, and in 1986 when a position opened, Howard went to work for the Sheriff’s Department.
“It was pretty overwhelming in the beginning, but a good learning experience,” he said, “Dave taught me a lot; and I got to know the old way for doing things. Later, I was able to discard the things that didn’t work for me and apply the things that worked well.”
Howard’s first big case was the murder of Ned and Celene Blackwood in Ovando on July 5, 1988 by Terry Allen Langford. Howard worked with Montana Dept. of Criminal Investigation agent Ward McKay on the case. As a result of that investigation, Langford was sentenced to death for the crime on January 26, 1989 and executed on February 24, 1998.
“I don’t know how many sheriffs can say they investigated a double murder, got a conviction, a death sentence and observed the execution,” he said. “I worked a lot of major cases with McKay. He was one of the best teachers I had in regard to investigating a case.”
Howard said he enjoyed the working side of major crime investigations, helping the people even as people helped his department with tips and information. He earned a reputation of being one of the best investigators in the state and on occasion was called on by other counties for assistance.
His most memorable, and most recent case, was the Giannonatti murders in October 2015. "It was a big case, but I got a confession and the perpetrator took me to the bodies," Howard said.
“I’ve been given a gift from God; I don’t know where else it came from,” he said. “I’ve been able to sit down with fully Mirandized people who have done terrible things to others; and after a while they would confess and tell me why and how they did it. It wasn’t from training, it was just there. But I’ve added to it by taking advanced training in investigation and cold-case investigation.”
Jerry Fiske was Sheriff from 1990-1994. Howard became Sheriff on Jan. 1, 1995 after being Undersheriff for Collins and Fiske.
“I was blessed to work with Jerry,” Howard said. “His experience as a military policeman brought more modernization to local law enforcement. Once again I took his good ideas, and discarded the things that didn’t work for me.”
In the 1990s Howard was instrumental in getting a rudimentary 911 system installed in the county. During his tenure, he made significant upgrades until it is now a very advanced system. Because of the terrain in the county, radio communication can be a challenge, but improvements were made in that area as well. Initially there was one radio repeater, now there are three: in the south near Deer Lodge; central near Helmville and north near Seeley Lake. He explained a lot of the Bob Marshall Wilderness is in this county and it isn’t uncommon to respond to calls there.
The Sheriff and four other officers patrol and respond to calls throughout the 2,333-square-mile county; reserve officers help with events.
“I’ve always made sure to put good, dedicated people around me as employees, because you cannot do this job if not. We all benefit each other. My career was extended by voters because of the work we have done here.”
For 23 years, Howard was chairman for the Southwest Montana Drug Task Force, working with sheriffs and agents from eight counties.
“They were a great bunch of guys to work with,” he said. “We faced all kinds of challenges, but saw many drug busts that benefited all eight counties.”
He said the greatest challenge as sheriff was balancing the work load and administration duties: budgeting, jail, communications, 911 and deputies, without an administrative assistant.
The biggest new concern for law enforcement is social media, Howard said. It can be good, but it can also fuel issues.
“I’ve worked extremely hard to build relationships with bordering counties and counties across the state,” he said. “Fortunately, the county commissioners and budget allowed Gavin (Roselles, the new sheriff) to shadow me for about one year and that has helped make the transition so smooth.”
John Strandell, Chief of the Montana Department of Criminal Investigation, said, “Scott has done an outstanding job during his time as sheriff. We have had a great working relationship from when I was Sheriff of Cascade County and during the past 14 years in this position. He is professional and an outstanding investigator. I’ve been impressed by his ability to work with a wide variety of people.”