Former county Sheriff John Pierce, a controversial figure during his short tenure as the county’s top cop in the mid-1970s, died Tuesday at Twin Cities Community Hospital in Templeton. He was 79.
A native Californian born in 1931, Pierce had been serving as Calaveras County undersheriff when then-Sheriff Larry Mansfield hired him in 1969 to be his undersheriff. When Mansfield suffered a heart attack four years later, Pierce threw his hat in the ring for sheriff in 1974.
The campaign was called one of the most heated in the history of county politics. Pierce showed his gloves-off style of campaigning when he ran against Lt. Jerry Pearce, who was the department’s patrol division commander, overseeing 80 officers.
That’s to say, Pearce held that position until Pierce reorganized the department in the middle of the campaign and put Pearce in charge of the department’s technical services division, consisting of six civilian employees. The move left Pearce delegating from a desk in a hallway.
“If he put me in the men’s room,” Pearce said of the move, “I’d still perform whatever duty to the best of my ability.”
Pierce told the then-Telegram-Tribune the following day: “One thing Jerry and I agree upon in this campaign is he can probably do his job just as well in the latrine.”
Pierce beat Pearce with 56 percent of the vote the following November and assumed the $21,000-a-year job.
Shortly after taking office, Pierce announced a softening of the department’s image, which he said at the time was perceived as being “badge heavy.” Deputies would wear cloth hats rather than helmets, bailiffs would wear blazers and officers would carry complaint forms that citizens could fill out.
Eighteen months later, Pierce had triple bypass heart surgery and refused to return to work, saying his doctors told him the job was too stressful. The situation outraged tax groups, as well as the Board of Supervisors.
He later set a retirement date of June 1977, enough time to collect full disability pay.
Supervisors were further angered when they learned Pierce was operating an 18,000-acre cattle ranch while not working but collecting full pay as sheriff. The board called for his resignation, cut his then-$26,000 annual salary to $13,000 and asked state Attorney General Evelle Younger to file suit to force Pierce from office.
After filing a successful claim with the state Worker’s Compensation Board — which resulted in a settlement of $16,000 in cash, coverage of $9,500 in outstanding medical bills and continued medical payments — he resigned in April 1977, but not before one last brouhaha: the ordering of two gold-filled ruby-studded retirement badges.
Relations between the county and Pierce were so strained that Auditor-Controller Fred Cusick said the cost of the badges, about $110, wasn’t a legitimate county expenditure, although previous retired sheriffs had received them. The Sheriff’s Association eventually purchased the badges.
After leaving office, Pierce leased a 25,000-acre cattle ranch on the Carrizo Plain and unsuccessfully ran for sheriff again in 1986 — although he was still collecting $1,000 a month in disability payments from his previous stint as sheriff. His campaign centered on cleaning up the image of the department. In later years, he worked as a private investigator.
Services are pending.