She busted the guy who gave her her first kiss. She sued the county for pay discrimination. She used to drag race cars on Main Street in the wee hours of the morning. Loni Payne says she always was something of a rebel and rabble rouser --or "rebel rouser," as she puts it.

This month, Payne will retire as the highest-ranking woman ever in the Anoka County Sheriff's Office, a trailblazer who left admiring colleagues and disgruntled criminals alike shaking their heads.

Payne, 61, is chief deputy for the county, a sexual-assault investigator who has risen through the ranks during her 26 years with the office.

Her superiors and fellow deputies alike saw something special in the woman who used to drag race on Main Street in Lino Lakes as a teenager and wanted to become a cop so she could drive fast legally.

"Loni has been a mentor and an inspiration to newcomers and veterans of this department," said new Sheriff James Stuart.

"She's smart, courageous, fearless."

Payne grew up in Lino Lakes, worked for Control Data in Arden Hills and then moved with one of the company's divisions to Silicon Valley.

But she wanted to be a police officer. In California, she met her future husband, Gary, who was returning from a tour in Vietnam. They married in 1971, and she went back to school to study law enforcement.

She was hired by the brand-new Hercules, Calif., Police Department. But some scoffed at the idea of a female officer. The wife of one colleague told the chief she didn't want Payne riding with her husband.

It wasn't until Payne answered a call about a bar fight that she was truly accepted, she said.

"There was an officer calling for help," she said. He told her, "When you showed up, I didn't care if you were male or female. All I saw was that badge."

But no sooner had she been accepted than it was time to move on.

"My biological clock was ticking," she said. "I wanted to have a child. I wanted to come back to Minnesota."

Another battle

With relatives able to help with day care, Payne joined the Anoka County Sheriff's Office. She was offered a job as a sexual-assault investigator but wasn't sworn in as a deputy within the year as she'd been promised, she said. Later, when she was assigning cases as a "special investigator," she learned she was making half of what the investigators were paid.

"I had already fought a battle becoming a female police officer in California," she said. "Here, I was fighting another one."

She sued the county, angering some colleagues and alienating others, though not for long. A settlement -- which included her being sworn in as a licensed deputy -- came quickly from a county that treated Payne fairly, said Susan Thurmer, her attorney. Where bruised feelings occurred, friendships and mutual admiration ultimately prevailed, current and former sheriff's personnel say.

There were other stresses for Payne. Her husband was a firefighter for the federal government, stationed at Fort Snelling. He worked 24-hour shifts and she worked 12-hour shifts, often at night. One of her three sisters helped take care of Payne's daughter, who once told her first-grade teacher, "My mother does sex for the county."

Protect the victim

Then there was the stress of Payne's job as a sexual-assault investigator.

"My goal was to make sure the victim didn't go to court, so that the healing process could start," she said. "To do that, I had to get the person to confess.

"I knew when I walked out that door, [the offender] was going to jail. That's what kept me sane."

Scott Baumgartner, Andover's city attorney, credits Payne with spearheading a county program in which high-risk sexual-assault victims are identified through a series of questions asked by officers at crime scenes.

"Sometimes light bulbs go on and sometimes victims are educated on the spot," Baumgartner said. "Loni spent months pushing for this, saying it might reduce high-risk situations."

Capt. Dick Kangas was among those in the department who admired Payne's skills and drive and kept offering opportunities.

She was promoted in 1996 to lieutenant of training and promoted to captain two years later. She was selected to attend the FBI Academy for 12 weeks -- one of 20 women in a class of 262.

When Bruce Andersohn, who recently retired as county sheriff, was appointed to that post, he asked Payne to become one of two commanders and, ultimately, the department's chief deputy.

Now, Payne says, it's her turn to retire. She's got a mystery novel to finish, photography classes to take and her mixed-media art to work on. She and Gary hope to travel. Their daughter lives in Alabama.

"It's been an honor to work for this department," she said.

Even if it included arresting your onetime fourth-grade beau, decades later, on a criminal sexual-misconduct charge? "That wasn't hard," she said. "What's hard are the victims. The victims of these cases are what affect me so much."

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419