A man who has served as sheriff in three Minnesota counties added a fourth to his résumé last week when he was appointed the top cop in Stearns County.

Stearns County commissioners chose Lakeville resident Don Gudmundson to fill out the remainder of the term of John Sanner, who retired as sheriff in April.

Gudmundson, who previously served as sheriff of Fillmore, Dakota and Steele counties, was sworn in to his new job Wednesday.

"It's a never-ending quest to be sheriff of all 87 Minnesota counties," he joked in an interview last week.

Gudmundson is believed to be the only sheriff to have served in that role in four Minnesota counties. He's also been the police chief in Lakeville and Faribault.

A longtime presence in law enforcement, Gudmundson is known for using wit to defuse the tensions that go with a policing career.

The Stearns County job, however, will likely be his last as a sheriff, Gudmundson said. The county's voters will choose his successor in the fall of 2018, and Gudmundson said he doesn't plan to seek the office at that time. He said he's only focused on filling out the remainder of Sanner's term.

"With these interim positions, you have to hit the ground running," he said. "You have to talk to a lot of people."

The Stearns County Sheriff's Office was at the center of one of the nation's longest missing-child investigations after the disappearance of 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling in October 1989. Jacob's fate remained a mystery for 27 years until Danny Heinrich, an early suspect in the kidnapping who had been arrested in 2015 on child pornography charges, confessed last fall to the boy's abduction and murder. As part of a plea deal, Heinrich led investigators to Jacob's remains in a farm field near Paynesville, Minn., about 30 miles from the rural St. Joseph, Minn., road where Wetterling was abducted.

In March, Sanner was named as one of several defendants in a lawsuit filed by Daniel Rassier, a Wetterling neighbor who alleged that Sanner and several other law enforcement officers defamed him and intentionally inflicted emotional distress while pursuing him as a "person of interest" in Jacob's abduction.

Gudmundson said Friday that he's spoken with the Stearns County Sheriff's Office staff about the case.

"They were happy to finally get it solved," he said. "It's still an open wound. That will take a long, long time to heal."

Bruce Bechtold, Sanner's chief deputy who filled in as interim sheriff, had also applied for the full-time position but resigned from the county after the commissioners made their pick.

Gudmundson, meanwhile, said he plans to find a place to live in Stearns County while he serves the remainder of Sanner's term. His commute from his home in Lakeville to his new office in St. Cloud is more than an hour's drive on Interstate 94.

Recently, while driving the route, he said he saw a motorist texting while driving. Gudmundson said that even though he's served warrants, made arrests and done the difficult work that befalls officers in law enforcement departments everywhere, he's never had to text while driving.

"Come on," he said in exasperation. "What's so important?"

Gudmundson said he's grateful the commute will run counter to the rush-hour push, where morning and evening drives from Monticello to the Twin Cities and back are often bumper-to-bumper affairs.

"When you're in the stop-and-go traffic in the middle of a cornfield," he said, "it distorts your sense of reality."

mckinney@startribune.com • 612-673-7329