New Fannin County sheriff takes office

Alex Maxwell Herald Democrat
New Fannin County Sheriff Mark Johnson swears in his personnel in a ceremony at the sheriff’office outside Bonham Sunday. (courtesy photo)

With two days on the job, new Fannin County Sheriff Mark Johnson said he’s still settling in, but has plans in the works to increase the sheriff’s office potential.

“Our goal is to increase the patrol division — get more deputies out on patrol — and try to provide the county with a better service,” Johnson said.

Johnson was sworn-in as sheriff Sunday morning by Judge Laurine Blake. Johnson later swore in his deputies at the sheriff’s office and hosted a reception with the public that afternoon. Johnson noted it was a standing-room only event. On Monday, he said he was still working on moving in, cleaning-up and getting the office organized, but he has taken steps aimed to up the level of professionalism.

Johnson has around 30 years in law enforcement, a career which began in 1981 as a dispatcher for the Sulphur Springs Police Department. He later became a jailer for the Hopkins County Sheriff’s Office, then he moved to the Rains County Sheriff’s Office — first as a jailer then a jail administrator before becoming a deputy. In 1992, he joined the Honey Grove Police Department and was eventually promoted to sergeant. He later became chief of the Savoy Police Department where he worked until 2001. From 2003 to 2013, Johnson served as the chief of the Honey Grove Police Department.

In March 2016, Johnson won the Republican Primary defeating incumbent Sheriff Donnie Foster. Because Johnson did not have a democratic party challenger, he was named sheriff. Before Johnson took office, Foster served in the role since Sheriff Kenneth Moore retired at the end of 2010. Foster won the 2012 election against Johnson and another challenger.

With the new administration in the sheriff’s office, Johnson brought in a new lieutenant, a professional standards officer and a chief deputy. Besides these three people, he said the staffing is the same.

Doris Whitworth was also sworn in Sunday as the new chief deputy of the sheriff’s office. Whitworth said she has known Johnson for about 20 years, and she’s looking forward to serving the county with him. She said she’s excited to help move the department in a new direction by “just improving the standards of the department — helping to make them a more professional department that we can be proud of.”

Whitworth, a Fannin County native, started her law enforcement career in Whitewright where she eventually became the assistant chief. In 2000, she said she left the city to join the Allen Police Department where she served for nearly 15 years. During the first two years, she served as a patrol officer, then she moved into criminal investigations where she became a detective. Whitworth was in retirement for about two years before becoming chief deputy for Fannin County.

“Being raised here, I felt like if I could make a difference here and bring it up to standards, it would make it a place to be proud of,” Whitworth said.

Johnson said they’re implementing a new personnel policy, and they’re working on training the deputies in it. He said he’s been working with the supervisors and sergeants so all the personnel are working on the same page.

“It’s going to be a learning process for them, but they all seem to be real receptive here,” Johnson said. “We’re looking forward to it.”

The previous policy and procedure manual was somewhat open-ended and vague, Johnson said, so they compiled a new one to better fit the office. He said he combined manuals from several different agencies and tailored it for Fannin County.

“It directs officers into everything they need to know and what they should be doing and how to do it,” Johnson said. “It’s a pretty cut and clear policy.”

While campaigning for office, Johnson vowed to reopen the unsolved murder case of Jennifer Harris. Ms. Harris was killed in 2002 and her body was found in the Red River. Several agencies aided in the investigation, but it came to no resolution. Family and advocates alleged the sheriff’s office mishandled the case and were not open with the public about its efforts in solving it.

“We’re still pursuing a more detailed investigation on the Jennifer Harris case and some other cases that are here,” Johnson said. “We’re going to open those back up and start working on them.”

Johnson said the Harris case is a top priority for him and after the office is settled and organized, he plans to dedicate more time to the case.

“I’ll be able to focus more of my time on the Jennifer Harris case and the Jack Morris case and see what’s going on with them,” Johnson said. “I’ll try to get everybody a little insight on it and get some answers out of it.”

Jack Morris disappeared outside Bonham in August 2009. Family found his pickup and conducted searches, but Mr. Morris was never found.

When asked where he wants the sheriff’s office to be four years from now, Johnson said he wants more officers out on patrol and to have the criminal investigations department better staffed. He said there was only one officer in criminal investigations when he took office, and he has already added a second. The ultimate goal with adding more officers to criminal investigations is to get the cases processed and solved quicker, he said.

Fannin County Judge Spanky Carter said he and the commissioners have had a solid relationship with the sheriff’s office under Foster’s leadership, and they hope to continue that relationship with Johnson at the helm. Carter said he extends the same offer to Johnson that he extends to any county official — he’s there to help in anyway he can and he wishes him well.

“Ever since I have been the county judge, we’ve had a tremendous relationship with the sheriff’s department,” Carter said. “I certainly hope that continues — I certainly want that to continue.”

Johnson also thanked Fannin County voters for having the confidence in him to allow him serve as sheriff and plans to show people he will live up to his word.