JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – The open Washington County sheriff’s position has a third candidate — former U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency special agent Michael Templeton.

A Sullivan County native who started his law enforcement career at the Johnson City Police Department (JCPD) in 1992, Templeton will compete in the May 2022 Republican primary for sheriff and also hopes the Washington County Commission will tap him as interim sheriff next month.

He joins Washington County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO) Chief Deputy Leighta Laitinen and JCPD Major Keith Sexton as official candidates for both next year’s election and next month’s appointment to fill the last nine months of retired Sheriff Ed Graybeal’s term.

Templeton said he considers drug addiction and trafficking and other crime that accompany it are Washington County’s number one issue from a law enforcement perspective. Many other crimes stem from addiction.

“The people that are addicted to whatever drug it is are going to steal, burglarize houses, steal from their employers, lie to their family to get the money to procure the drugs,” he said. “It’s all related.”

He said that’s why one of his top priorities will be to establish a standalone drug unit within the Washington County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO). People could be redeployed from within the department without affecting other outcomes, he said, meaning such an effort shouldn’t require additional funds.

He’d measure success by metrics related to crime and addiction, Templeton said.

“The reduction in property crimes in the county. The reduction in thefts. Reduction in domestic violence … (and) if we can lower the amount of babies born dependent, I think that’s a good metrics to start with.”

Templeton said some county school zones have close to half of their students living with a grandparent or other non-parental caregiver due to addiction issues.

And he said the problems aren’t a matter of moral failings, but rather the disease of addiction.

“Once you’re addicted, it’s not about being right or wrong; it’s about surviving. And in your mind, the only thing you can think of is not going through withdrawals and getting that next fix. And you’ll do whatever you can to do it.”

The only beneficiaries are foreign drug cartels and large regional dealers, Templeton said — adding that he has the right background to combat their sophisticated networks.

Three decades in law enforcement

Templeton earned an accounting degree from East Tennessee State University in 1990 but turned to law enforcement shortly after.

Following three years as a patrol officer with JCPD, he served one year with the First Judicial District Drug Task Force. In 1996, he joined the DEA, where he served for roughly a decade as a special agent in Northeast Tennessee.

Templeton has also served in Middle East anti-drug efforts. He spent two years in the DEA’s Islamabad, Pakistan office during the period when American Navy SEALs killed Osama Bin Laden.

Following a stint in south Florida, from early 2019 until August 2021, Templeton was in Afghanistan as a DEA liaison officer to special operations forces targeting drug trafficking elements of terrorist groups including ISIS, al Qaeda and the Taliban.

He specialized in tracking the informal money network drug traffickers utilize, which in the Middle East is represented by the Hawala network.

An underground financial network thousands of miles away may not seem to have much connection to keeping Washington Countians safe and combatting the local drug problem. However, Templeton said because money is the engine that drives drug trafficking, innovative ways to hide its movement tend to have similarities.

He said Mexican drug cartels are as ruthless and well funded as ISIS K, and that their personnel reaches beyond the southern border.

“They’ll have cell heads here. If they’re not in Washington County, they’re in a neighboring county that answer to a cartel leader in Atlanta.

“So I’m going to use the same lessons learned on how to tackle ISIS K in Afghanistan through finding them, building a case on them, working not only through the sheriff’s department but I have friendships with the leadership of the DEA, the FBI, Homeland Security, the TBI. We’re going to attack that cell head and we’re going to follow it all the way to the U.S.-Mexican border. That’s how you do it.”

That will require the experience and the kind of leadership that makes people want to follow. Templeton said he’s got both.

Templeton worked patrol in Johnson City’s zones 4 and 1 in the mid-1990s at the height of the crack epidemic.

He also spent six months in investigations before covering Washington, Carter, Johnson and Unicoi counties for the First Judicial District Drug Task Force.

“I have that from patrol to CID, I was on the SWAT team in Johnson City. I’ve worked local narcotics here as the drug task force, and then I spent 25 years with the DEA, and out of that 25, 10 of that was right here in Johnson City serving Washington County residents. And I took down the largest drug trafficking networks in the entire region.”

With the DEA, he began leading large quick-strike operations early on. He wrote a $5.6 million budget in less than a week, securing vehicles and equipment for a Pakistani operation.

“The $20 million-plus budget in Washington County is not going to be a problem for me. The leadership of 200-plus employees is not going to be a problem for me, nor the safety of the 600 inmates. I can handle all that.”

He said that includes gaining trust. Templeton said he did that with three dozen plainclothes Afghans who worked for him, going into harm’s way to find drug traffickers and financiers in Afghanistan.

“People can see through you when you’re not being forthcoming or if you’re trying to talk out of the side of your mouth. I was just myself and so yeah, I gained the trust of the people who were assigned to work with us,” Templeton said.

He said people with loved ones battling addiction shouldn’t fear a Templeton administration.

Whether it’s the half dozen or more drug unit members or a rookie patrol deputy, he said, “every single employee of the Washington County Sheriff’s Office needs to be part of the intelligence collection.”

A deputy who works for a community “needs to know everybody in that community and he needs to have a relationship with them to where they come to him, they tell him their problems – my son’s addicted. Or, this house over here has 25 cars coming and going all day long.”

He said that will require building trust as well – trust that deputies are more interested in directing people to resources, including addiction resources, instead of seeking only the punitive side of justice.

Deputies, Templeton said, will be expected to avoid approaching community members “with an attitude.

“I don’t want people to mistake kindness for weakness by any means, but all of our deputies will treat people with empathy. They are their neighbors. We are their neighbors, we just happen to work in law enforcement within Washington County, but they’re not coming in like stormtroopers, they’re coming in like a member of their family who wants to help.”

Templeton said he hopes the WCSO can be part of a “team of teams” effort that draws on state and local non-profits, churches and others with a stake in minimizing the impact of drugs on the county.

“It’s not just the sheriff’s department,” he said. “We can’t solve drug addiction on our own, but it starts with leadership, with an understanding on how to do that, and a communicator.

“I’m going to go out and talk to the churches, I’m going to talk to the people who are running the non-profits so we have a holistic approach that we help our neighbors.”

Templeton, who said he won’t distribute corrugated plastic yard signs because they’re non-recyclable and don’t break down for 400 years, said he is starting his campaign with a goal of introducing himself to people.

“I’ll ask for your vote next year. Just get to know me and get to know your other candidates.”

Templeton has a website and electronic billboard runs in Jonesborough and north Johnson City that begin Friday.