A glint comes to Sheriff Bob Fletcher's eyes as he steers his black, Ramsey County-issued Dodge Durango through St. Paul. He's caught a glimpse of another black SUV and is quickly in pursuit.
"Let's surprise him," Fletcher says. He scoots into the St. Paul Police Department garage, pulling behind Chief John Harrington's vehicle, wedging him into his parking spot.
Harrington rolls his eyes at Fletcher's prank, and the two top cops spend some time swapping yarns about their time as St. Paul police rookies 31 years ago. The encounter is innocent enough but hints at Fletcher's push-the-boundaries style.
Now in his fourth term, Fletcher has reinvented the Sheriff's Office, expanding its reach, doubling its budget and polarizing its ranks. His high-profile approach has strayed into empire-building, some believe, and he now faces a rare threat that could make this term his last.
The 17-member Ramsey County Charter Commission, an obscure independent group, is set to vote tonight on a ballot question that would make the sheriff one of only about 10 nationwide to be appointed by county managers rather than elected.
If a majority approves, the question will go to voters in November.
Fletcher's style is considered a factor in the commission's decision to vote on the issue now, after years of discussion. Others suggest it's a DFL-driven act of revenge, since Fletcher, a Republican, beat out former St. Paul Police Chief Bill Finney last fall by just 1,133 votes out of more than 184,000 cast.
Like many boys growing up in Maplewood, Fletcher spent a chunk of his summers at the Tomahawk Boy Scout camp in northwestern Wisconsin. At the end-of-camp carnival, counselors would slap Crisco on a watermelon and send two-boy teams into a portion of Long Lake. A brawl ensued as 20 boys tried to get the slippery melon on the dock.
"Your partner would fake like he had it and swim one way," Fletcher recalled. "Then you'd grab the watermelon and go to the bottom and swim as far as you could until you saw the pipes and sneak it up."
He won three years in a row. Fletcher's competitive -- at times combative -- nature hasn't mellowed since.
A linebacker at Hamline University, he switched his major from chemistry to political science, then stumbled into police work in 1977 after a girlfriend pointed to a flier on the wall of a Burger King, seeking new cops in St. Paul. He soon became involved in politics, joining the City Council at 27 and running failed legislative and mayoral campaigns in the 1980s before winning the sheriff's seat 13 years ago.
At heart, Fletcher remains a linebacker.
"Bob's a bright and a strong guy, but he's had an unusually conspiratorial and combative approach to the world," said former St. Paul Mayor George Latimer, who supports the referendum movement.
Bob Long, another former council member, said Fletcher's "heart and commitment are in the right place,'' but adds that he can " definitely rub people the wrong way.''
Fletcher sued when county commissioners cut his 1999 budget. When a county manager hesitated to build a $61 million jail, Fletcher posted a daily skyway bulletin board of felons being released because of overcrowding, urging people to call the county manager.
Then there was the night five years ago when the League of Women Voters held an election forum. Fletcher's longtime aide, Kris Reiter, was running for the City Council seat left empty after her father's death. When volunteer moderator Sigrid Johnson mistakenly read a question about the Fletcher-Reiter relationship, Fletcher seized the notecard for fingerprinting.
Never mind that he was there as Reiter's campaign manager, not the sheriff, and married Kris a year later.
A July 2003 raid on a Maplewood bar could end up playing a role in the outcome of the referendum question.
When state gambling agents raided the Rock bar that year, they found roulette wheels and blackjack dealers. According to court documents, the bar's former owner first told authorities the money from the illegal operation was going to Fletcher's reelection, then recanted.
The case was turned over to the FBI. In March, nearly five years later, two Fletcher aides were indicted.
Mark Naylon, Fletcher's public information officer and best man when he married Kris, and Inspector Tim Rehak are accused of stealing $6,000 in bills that the FBI planted in a room at the Kelly Inn in St. Paul -- money the men returned a short time later.
FBI spokesman Paul McCabe won't discuss the investigation. Fletcher bristles at any suggestion that he might be the ultimate target. "I know the facts and there's nothing there," he said. "I'm not in any way, shape or form worried."
But he acknowledges that the indictments "hurt the credibility of the department."
In the midst of the FBI probe and his most recent reelection campaign, Fletcher's family life made headlines.
His son Kyle, the second of three kids from his first marriage, was spinning out of control. Fletcher twice had his son arrested. Heroin and cocaine were the underpinnings for his troubles, which included a convenience-store burglary.
"My girlfriend said at the time that my dad would never talk to me again," said Kyle, 18. "But now we're like best friends."
Fletcher said he had his son arrested as "a form of love because I couldn't stand to have Kyle out on the streets one more night using drugs."
Father and son have since visited doctors and researched addiction and medications. "[Kyle's] addiction has become a sort of father-son project," Fletcher said.
Creative - or meddling?
Before Fletcher took over, the Ramsey County Sheriff's Office followed its statutory mandates -- guarding prisoners, courthouses and waterways.
"Most sheriffs follow the book," said Ramsey County Commissioner Tony Bennett, a former federal marshal who Fletcher beat for the sheriff's job in 1994. "Bob creates his own book."
Since Fletcher took office, his roster of full-time deputies has swelled 31 percent from 311 to 408, and his budget has climbed from $20 million to $43 million, a 51 percent rise after inflation. The rest of the county budget, adjusted for inflation, grew 21.5 percent during the same span.
The Hennepin County Sheriff's Office -- the only one in the state larger than Fletcher's -- saw its budget rise 38.5 percent in the same period.
Fletcher points to the larger jail and programs he's launched, including an early role in the state's gang strike force and such efforts as a downtown curfew center and a literacy program in a largely Asian housing complex. He's also added units to track career criminals and sex offenders.
At a recent meeting, nearly two dozen of his aides went over details for the upcoming Republican National Convention. Although the lead local agency is the St. Paul police, Fletcher is angling to direct much of the federal money his way.
"There are clearly people within my organization who would like to see us go back to the good old days when Bob just patrolled the suburbs," said Harrington, the St. Paul police chief. "But I have no great concerns about Bob overstepping because he has jurisdiction in the entire county and I can use all the help I can get."
Harrington's predecessor, Bill Finney, isn't as diplomatic. "Ramsey County is the first responder in the suburbs, but that's a boring job and Bob wants to get in the headlines," he said.
People who have worked in Fletcher's department offer completely different stories.
"We were hired to be cops, but it's not a police department over there anymore -- it's a marketing firm for one individual," said John Moore, a former patrol lieutenant.
Moore won part of a $750,000 settlement this year after he and another deputy sued, contending that they were unfairly demoted after Moore ran for sheriff in 2002.
Top Fletcher aides defend their boss.
"He's honorable, dedicated and smart and probably too forgiving," said Nick O'Hara, a former FBI agent and former head of the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension who runs Fletcher's apprehension unit.
Latimer laughs about the conflicting portraits.
"There's always a chance both people are right,'' he said.
Curt Brown • 612-673-4767