By Deb Hadachek Telescope editor
For nearly 45 years, the man known by many in Republic County as simply “Sheriff Bob”, hunted criminals.
These days Robert Blecha still roams the roads in Republic County, hunting for pheasants or dry fields of milo to harvest.
Election Day 2016 marked the 50th anniversary of when Blecha, who today lives in Hays, was first elected Republic County Sheriff.
At that time, he was 23 years old and the youngest sheriff in the nation. He served in Republic County until 1979, when he was called to become an investigator for the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. He spent the rest of his career with that agency, retiring after a four-year stint as director in 2011.
“As corny as it sounds, I decided when I was a kid I wanted to be a law man,” Blecha laughs today. “When I was in eighth grade (at Tabor country school) my teacher Ella Moravek had us write about what we wanted to do when we grew up, and I said I wanted to be a county sheriff.”
Blecha graduated from Belleville High School in 1961. He attended Bethany College and Kansas State University before he was drafted and sent on a two year tour of Vietnam. When he came home, he decided to run for sheriff. Paul Wenda was Republic County Sheriff at the time; Vernon Hoover, the city marshall in Cuba, was his opposition in the primary.
“I’ve had three titles in my life that I’m especially proud of,” Blecha says. “One is that I am a veteran. Sheriff Bob was always the best title, but today Grandpa Bob is at the top of my list.”
Blecha credits a number of people with helping him learn to be a good law enforcement officer: sheriffs in surrounding counties, local officers with other agencies, and Dr. H.D. Doubek, who was county coroner at the time he was elected.
“There was no Kansas Law Enforcement Academy when I was elected,” he said. Now new sheriffs and deputies are required to attend a 14 week training course in Hutchinson before they take office.
One of the best pieces of advice he remembers came from local judge Warren Scott: “Authority is like a high powered rifle. Don’t use it to shoot sparrows.”
That attitude served Blecha throughout his career, whether working with kids who had over-indulged in alcohol, or high-profile cases at the KBI.
“If kids had too much to drink but weren’t driving and hadn’t hurt anyone, I would drive them home,” he says. “Sometimes they would beg to go to jail because “dad is going to kill us.”
He worked only one murder case in Republic County in his tenure as sheriff, involving a dispute at Rocky Pond when the suspect then jumped the train. Marijuana was just rising as the drug of choice for offenders.
“There wasn’t a lot of violent crime,” he says. “Mostly thefts and burglaries.”
For many years he and an undersheriff were the full force in the county and also staffed the jail and made meals for prisoners. The sheriff had an apartment in the courthouse, has did the janitor. Joyce Johnson was his first undersheriff, then Johnny Joy and later Oris Thompson. The department hired deputies for special events.
“There was one attorney who always wanted to come visit his clients in the jail at 5 p.m.,” Blecha laughs. “There was one time I honestly forgot he was there and went home. The janitor called me and asked why there was a lot of banging and yelling coming from the jail, and I had to go back and let him out.
“But, that was the last time he came at 5 p.m.”
He shakes his head now that he or the officer on duty didn’t think twice about stopping vehicles by themselves in rural areas of the county in the middle of the night.
Blecha said he may never have left Republic County, except that the KBI offered him the opportunity to focus on criminal investigation. He covered nine counties out of the Hays office. Much of his time was spent working on crimes against children.
One of the most notorious cases he investigated in his career was the multi-state murder spree led by Danny Remeta in 1985.
Eventually, two other local law enforcement officers would join the KBI, Delbert Hawel, who worked under Blecha in Republic County, and Wiley Kerr, who was Washington County Sheriff.
In 1994 Blecha was promoted to assistant director of field investigations for the KBI and moved to Topeka. In 2007, he became director of the state’s largest law enforcement agency.
“I missed investigations a lot,” he said. “But I felt I had an advantage with the Legislature by coming up through the ranks to discuss things needed in all branches of the Bureau.”
During Blecha’s time as director, the KBI started a cyber crime unit, as well as a crime scene unit with agents and laboratory personnel to assist rural counties with major crime investigations.
“That’s one of the things I am the proudest of,” he says.
Blecha said common sense is a key to good law enforcement, along with good people at your side. He said he is surprised that even suspects he interviewed in criminal cases rarely held it against him when they were convicted of their crimes.
Today he returns to Republic County often to visit one of his former deputies, Dave Trecek at Agenda, who also rents his family’s farm. And, he “floats” around the state to visit his five children or 20 grandchildren.
“Being sheriff was great, and what made it great was the people,” he says. “Even if they didn’t like me, they would help me out, or I would have never made it.”