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· Charles Heidebrecht (b. 1927)
Reverend Richard Burson, minister at the Gospel Chapel, Elm Street and 6th Avenue, Hutchinson, Kansas, takes a deep breath. He looks shrunken, his eyes downcast.
It’s Sunday, July 30th, 1972, two days before Reno County citizens vote in the primary election to decide who will be the next top lawman. The Republican winner will almost certainly be the next sheriff since there’s no Democrat challenger on the ballot.
Click to read Sheriff Charles Heidebrecht’s political advertisement supporting Undersheriff Howard Nelson: Heidebrecht endorses Nelson
Rev. Burson, 54, is about ready to face his congregation, to apologize for unintentionally spreading an evil rumor.
Rev. Burson has prayed about his professional dilemma. Howard Nelson, 47, and Jim Fountain, 43, are both running for sheriff on the Republican ticket. Burson has been drawn into the political campaign because members of his congregation have told him about rumors they’ve heard and have asked him for his advice.
In an attempt to get the facts, Burson has visited with Sheriff Charles Heidebrecht, 44, at his office in the Reno County courthouse. Heidebrecht informed Burson that when Captain Fountain worked for him on road patrol two and a half years earlier, the deputy was a drunk.
With that information, Burson preached to his congregation, warning them not to vote for Fountain, that Undersheriff Nelson would make a better sheriff.
When Fountain supporters learned that Burson had been spreading rumors from the pulpit, they informed candidate Fountain. Quickly, with the election just days ahead, Fountain, a family member, a friend, and Fountain’s minister, visited Rev. Burson at his church. All four of the men convinced Burson that Fountain did not have a drinking problem, and accused Heidebrecht of misleading the minister.
“I really thought I was doing something right,” said Richard Burson to Jim Fountain and his supporters. “I’ve failed my flock and I need to make things right.
“You must not pass along false rumors, Exodus 23:1,” quoted Rev. Burson. “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him, Proverbs 18:17.
“It’s hard for me to believe a police officer wouldn’t give me straight-forward information. I didn’t feel Sheriff Heidebrecht was trying to lie to me or mislead me, but I’m afraid I’ve been very much misled.
“I feel I should rectify this. I feel the information he gave me wasn’t factual. It was colored by what he wanted me to think, and it was not told to me in strict confidence.
“Mr. Fountain, I am sincerely sorry for having spread an evil, false rumor about you . . . I wish you luck in the upcoming election.
“Now, I’m going to correct my error to my congregation and ask them for their forgiveness.” With those final words, Rev. Burston stood up, prepared to rectify a wrong.
“How could a minister give a sermon in violation of confidence?” asked Charles Heidebrecht. “Rev. Burson asked to speak to me privately and confidentially.
“I apologize to Jim Fountain and his family for Rev. Burson’s breach of trust in exposing to the public what I tried so hard to conceal because I didn’t want to embarrass my former deputy or his family.
“What happened was deplorable. Howard Nelson did not want a mud-slinging campaign. It appears to me that I, not Rev. Burson, is a pawn in a political gimmick.
“I regret that I have been forced to enter into this type of campaign. Rev. Burston has labeled me a liar. I know of no other way to defend myself except to answer his accusations in like manner; publicly though the press.”
Everyone involved, Rev. Burson, Charles Heidebrecht, Jim Fountain, and Howard Nelson, might have agreed that politics, especially when it gets personal, can be ugly and leave a bitter taste that won’t easily be washed away.
After Fountain won a narrow victory over Nelson, there was no smooth transition, as promised. Instead, the Hiedebrecht Administration was in a hurry to abandon ship.
The sheriff, undersheriff, Detective Captain Charles Maddox, and Office Manager Alice Bragg, all announced their three-month early departure, taking effect October 1st.
Sheriff-elect Fountain was appointed by Governor Robert Docking to fill the unexpired term of Sheriff Heidebrecht.
When the new administration arrived at the almost new city-county law enforcement center, 210 W 1st Ave., on their first day of work, they weren’t expecting a band, or a parade, or even a cake. Instead, they found a welcoming gift atop the sheriff’s desk. It was a giant pile of unmarked department keys.
Until next time, happy writing and reading.