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Obituaries

Charles Byrd, 56; First Elected Black Sheriff in California Served Four Terms

September 30, 2003|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Charles Byrd, who in 1986 became the first African American ever elected sheriff in California and who served four terms as sheriff-coroner of sparsely populated Siskiyou County, has died. He was 56.

Byrd, who stepped down as sheriff in January after losing his latest reelection bid, appeared to have died in his sleep, according to the Siskiyou County Sheriff's Department.

His body was found in bed on Sept. 23 in his home in Weed, Calif. An autopsy was unable to determine the cause of death and more tests will be conducted, a department representative said.

Byrd was the 39-year-old police chief of Weed, his hometown, when he easily defeated veteran Siskiyou County Sheriff's Capt. Kenneth Jourdan in the sheriff's race in November 1986.

At the time of his election, the large California-Oregon border county, with a population of 42,000, was only 1.5% black.

Although some subtle racism reportedly surfaced during the campaign, there was no mudslinging and observers at the time said race had not been a large factor in the election.

"People judged me on my past performance, not on the color of my skin," Byrd told The Times in 1987. "They know me. I ran on my record."

Byrd was born and raised in Weed, where his parents moved from Louisiana in the early 1940s to work in one of the town's lumber mills.

He played on his high school football team and attended College of the Siskiyous, planning to become a civil engineer.

His plans changed after the Weed police chief asked him to become a reserve officer. He joined the department full time two years later.

"What I like about law enforcement is helping people," Byrd told The Times. He also served as director of the Siskiyou Food Bank and volunteered with the Salvation Army and other charitable groups.

"He was a big man with big ideas," Siskiyou County Sheriff's Lt. Gary Peery said last week.

Peery, who had known Byrd since "he first wore a badge," said the former sheriff "had a very forceful way of persuading people -- just by the power of his personality. He knew when to schmooze and when to bluff. He was a consummate politician."

Peery said Byrd had brought the Yreka-headquartered Sheriff's Department into the 21st century in technology and training.

Rural Siskiyou County is the size of Rhode Island and Delaware combined but has a population of just 47,000.

Crime in the rural county, Peery said, typically consists of drug- and alcohol-related problems and the violence associated with them.

While running for reelection in 1998, Byrd made unexpected headlines after he was stopped by a California Highway Patrol officer one night on a frontage road in Weed for not wearing a seat belt in his truck.

After pulling him over, the officer discovered a half-empty bottle of whiskey on the seat next to Byrd.

Byrd, who was then also president of the California State Sheriff's Assn., was not given a sobriety test and was not cited for either the seat-belt violation or the open container.

The CHP officer's supervisor, who later arrived on the scene, reportedly determined that Byrd was fatigued or ill, not intoxicated, then drove him about a mile to his home.

Byrd felt the heat after news of the incident leaked to the press, and the state director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving issued a statement saying that Byrd should have been cited.

But after a review, a Highway Patrol official concluded that the officers made the right decision, adding that officers often give verbal warnings for minor offenses.

"I'm embarrassed," Byrd told the San Francisco Chronicle.

"I screwed up, the CHP extended me a courtesy, and I appreciate that," he said. "I just hope the voters can understand, and that they will vote on my record."

Byrd did win the 1998 election but was finally defeated last November by Yreka Police Lt. Rick Riggins, who garnered 58.4% of the vote to Byrd's 41.2%

"That devastated him," said Peery, who attributed Byrd's loss to "kind of the 'oust the incumbent philosophy' " shared by many voters in 2002.

"A lot of chiefs lost their jobs," Peery said. "I think it humbled him."

Byrd is survived by his mother, Eddie Byrd of Weed; his brothers, Arnold Byrd, Al Bearden and Larry Byrd, all of Weed; and his sisters, Ella Byrd and Charlene Byrd, both of Sacramento, and Rose Applewhite of Weed.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Oct. 4 at the College of the Siskiyous gymnasium in Weed.

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