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Sheriff Bill Gore knows what many rank-and-file cops and deputies say about him. That he’s not one of them. He’s a fed. From the arrogant FBI, no less. He’s never patrolled the mean streets in the lonely predawn hours with his life on the line.
The perception is a key reason he lost the endorsement of his own deputies and 24 other police associations to an opponent, Jim Duffy, in the race for sheriff.
“I hear it all the time,” Gore said of the outsider label. “It’s just not my nature to say, ‘Hey guys, I’ve done this, I’ve kicked doors in.’ I point out the job of the sheriff is not to kick down doors and get in shootouts.”
Gore is reluctantly starting to tell his door-kicking stories now to shake the image. There’s the one where he and other FBI agents storm a hijacked airplane on the tarmac at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in 1972, saving passengers and wounding the gunman.
And the one where he pulls the trigger on his shotgun and kills a bank robber who’d pointed a handgun at his face. That was 1979. Gore was 31, about to get married to a fellow agent who was inside the bank, posing as a manager.
“It’s just like it happened yesterday. It’s still in slow motion, tunnel vision. I can see when my pellets hit him. I can see him turning and twisting.”
And then there was the aftermath, when he couldn’t immediately locate the dead robber’s weapon. “There was a moment of panic when you think you accidentally shot an unarmed person. The gun had landed in the bushes.”
Some suffer from feelings of guilt in the aftermath of a shooting. Gore suffered guilt because he didn’t feel guilt. The guy pointed a gun at him. “It was him or me,” Gore reasoned. Because of these life-and-death experiences, Gore said, he can relate to his own deputies on a deeper level.
Gore is the candidate who is trying to overcome the “outsider” label, the one who seems like the anti-sheriff, awkward in a uniform but dapper in a suit. He’s the one with a friendly smile, who looks more like a brainy executive with tidy white hair and wire-rimmed glasses than a tough-talking, gun-slinging sheriff.
As the incumbent he is also the candidate benefiting from recent public exposure as the county has collectively mourned the losses of two murdered children. Incumbency also has meant he’s the candidate on the defensive. His opponents have tried to exploit his involvement in some of the bureau’s most controversial incidents — the 1992 siege at Ruby Ridge and the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
And they’ve attempted to cast him as handpicked by the city’s powerbrokers in a backroom deal. As an insider.
Although his father and two brothers were local law enforcers, Gore never intended to become one. He planned to be a lawyer. But he was drafted by the Navy and entered flight school as the Vietnam War subsided. He never got his wings or his law degree and was out of the Navy a year later, just as the FBI was on a hiring spree.
During 32 years with the FBI, Gore reached the highest levels of the bureau when he became an assistant director at headquarters, and his career was marked by some of the bureau’s most significant — and controversial — cases.
Early in his career in Kansas City and Seattle, Gore tracked fugitives, investigated kidnappings and extortions, worked counterintelligence cases and SWAT operations, and became supervisor of the violent crimes team.
He was in charge of the Seattle FBI office when he was called to assist at Ruby Ridge, the now-infamous 1992 siege at the Idaho mountain cabin of Randy Weaver, who had failed to appear in court on weapons charges. During a 12-day standoff with hundreds of federal agents surrounding the cabin, Weaver’s wife was mistakenly shot by an FBI sniper as she held her baby.
Controversy in the aftermath centered on who gave permission to use military-style rules of engagement — a green light to shoot on sight — rather than FBI rules to shoot only in self defense. Gore said it wasn’t him. About a dozen FBI agents were demoted or suspended in the aftermath.
Gore and other agents refused to testify about Ruby Ridge before Congress. Gore said he cooperated with investigations by the FBI, the Justice Department and a federal grand jury. But when the Senate Judiciary Committee subpoenaed Gore and others, a local Idaho prosecutor was working to indict agents for murder. Those cases were eventually dismissed.
Gore’s lawyer was Brendan Sullivan, the same attorney who defended Oliver North in the Iran-Contra scandal. Sullivan told Gore to invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. “He said, ‘There’s no way you can testify while a local prosecutor is trying to indict you for murder. You can’t walk in there and spill your guts,’” Gore said.
The issue comes up a lot at candidate debates. Candidate Jay LaSuer criticizes Gore for not questioning the change in FBI shooting policy or FBI leadership, as well as for refusing to testify.
“When you hear Jay tell the story, I authorized the FBI to shoot this poor woman in the head when she held her 6-month-old baby in her arms,” Gore said. “I’ve had someone yell, ‘Baby killer!’ at one of these forums.”
While FBI colleagues were disciplined, Gore’s career continued to thrive and he received numerous promotions in the years following Ruby Ridge.
In 1994, he was named an assistant director of the FBI. From Washington, D.C., he oversaw internal affairs for the entire bureau.
Gore was in charge of the San Diego FBI before and after the Sept. 11 attacks. A congressional report later found that the “best chance” to foil the attacks was lost in San Diego, where two hijackers rented a room in the Lemon Grove home of an FBI informant.
Gore, still stinging from that characterization, said the CIA did not share crucial information with the FBI, in particular that the pair was on a watch list. The congressional report acknowledged this.
“If the CIA had given the FBI the information about the two hijackers … had that information been passed, we could have tracked them,” Gore said. “It wouldn’t have been difficult to find them. They were listed in the phone book. You can’t find someone you’re not looking for.”
Former colleagues at the FBI say Gore is a savvy and supportive leader who treated agents and supervisors alike with respect. The agents asked not to be identified because the bureau forbids commenting on anything without permission.
Gore was also in charge of the San Diego FBI during the corruption investigation of three San Diego City Councilmen and strip club associates. He said he was intimately involved in the case because it involved elected officials.
While his agents planted listening devices in City Hall offices and at Cheetahs strip club around in the hours before dawn, Gore said he was wide awake, taking it all in from headquarters, at the ready should anything go awry.
Gore had jumped at the chance to return to San Diego when the office had an opening at the top. He is a San Diego native whose father was an assistant San Diego police chief and mentor to a young officer with a bright future — Bill Kolender.
Kolender went on to become an institution in local law enforcement as San Diego’s police chief and county sheriff. Ties between the families run deep. “We always said we had the same mentor — my dad,” Gore said of Kolender.
For years before Gore stepped into Kolender’s shoes, the law enforcement community gossiped that Kolender intended to step down mid-term so that Gore could take his place and have an election-day advantage as an incumbent. That’s precisely what happened.
Gore said there was no backroom deal to get him elected.
County Supervisor Ron Roberts, who has endorsed Duffy and wanted him to be appointed, said he found the circumstances of Gore’s appointment unsettling. “It left me with an uncomfortable feeling,” Roberts said. “I don’t know that anybody planned this from day one, it just kind of appears that way.”
In a recent interview, Kolender was adamant that he cut his term short because of family issues. He is an ardent Gore supporter; he raves about his successor.
Jack Drown, Kolender’s undersheriff before Gore, said Kolender brought Gore to the department believing he would be a good successor, but it wasn’t a done deal.
“That’s not to say that the speculation didn’t have some basis to it,” said Drown, a Gore supporter. But, “you can talk about whether he’s handpicked, or preordained. But that’s a bunch of hooey because ultimately it’s the voters who will decide.”