Scuba-Loving Sheriff Leaves Missouri County High and Dry – Riverfront Times

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Sheriff Chris Heitman is proud of how he’s used scuba to help families in need — but critics say his focus on diving has been a distraction from his day job.

On December 20, about a week before he jetted off to an atoll in the Pacific Ocean, Sheriff Chris Heitman made a stop at City Hall in Belle, Missouri, to execute a search warrant.

Heitman is the sheriff of Maries County, population 8,400, about two hours southwest of St. Louis. Belle is by far the county’s biggest town, and Heitman was at its city hall as part of an investigation into Mayor Daryl White, whom Heitman accused of stealing 12 cans of paint from a city-owned garage. This, to Heitman’s mind, rose to the level of “official misconduct.”

The unusually long, discursive probable cause statement Heitman wrote to justify the charges also makes mention of a gun White allegedly stole. Even so, in the same paragraph alleging the theft, it later acknowledges that the gun is in a locker in the police department where it belongs.

Local media like the Maries County Advocate were on the scene as Heitman executed the warrant — tipped off, Heitman’s critics say, by the sheriff to drum up publicity.

White has long been critical of Heitman, and some of White’s allies believe the raid was payback for a recently filed Sunshine Law request seeking records of the sheriff’s department’s spending on scuba equipment.

White didn’t make the request (in fact, the RFT did). But White acknowledges he previously threatened to make one just like it. The scuttle around Maries County — of which there is plenty — was that Heitman thought the mayor had something to do with the RFT‘s inquiry.

Heitman denies that. But the raid on a known critic has added fuel to the complaints about the sheriff. Critics say Heitman is preoccupied with exotic travel and a scuba side hustle, leading many in Maries County to wonder out loud if he may be neglecting duties that come with his job as sheriff, including running the Maries County Jail. Detractors say people have died in entirely preventable ways there as Heitman delegates its operations to deputies and even detainees.

And that’s only the tip of the speargun. Critics also question Heitman’s connection to a series of suspicious fires on properties he or his associates own.

Vienna Police Chief Shannon Thompson, whose office is four blocks from Heitman’s, outlined these concerns in a five-page letter he sent to the office of Missouri Attorney Andrew Bailey last July.

In addition to concerns about Heitman’s scuba operation, Thompson alleges a litany of other wrongdoing, from financial misconduct to civil rights violations, arson to insurance fraud. He writes that he’d become extremely frustrated after making complaints to several state agencies and trying to get someone to look into Heitman for years.

“I now feel that it is no longer a matter of ridding my agency of the liability of having such information and taking no action but rather, I’m a very frustrated and ashamed law enforcement officer and lifetime Maries County citizen,” he wrote.

He went on to say in the
complaint that Heitman’s tenure has seen “two preventable deaths,” referring to a man who died in the custody of the Maries County Jail, which Heitman oversees, and another man killed after a detainee there was mistakenly released.

Thus far, Bailey hasn’t seen fit to take any action.


Sheriff Chris Heitman, shown in a previous interview with CBS affiliate KRCG, grew up in St. Louis County.

Heitman, 44, grew up in the part of unincorporated south St. Louis County known as Oakville, and says he always knew he wanted to work in law enforcement.

“Ever since I was a young child, I knew I wanted to be a teacher like my dad, or a policeman,” he says. He took criminology courses at St. Louis Community College and later joined the Jennings Police Department.

But when he was in his early twenties, Heitman’s father passed away, leading Heitman to relocate to the family farm just outside Belle, a place where he had spent his summers and many, many weekends growing up.

“I was always a country kid,” he says.

He was first elected Maries’ sheriff in 2008, at age 29. Even his political foes concede he is a larger-than-life figure, media savvy, outgoing and charismatic both online and in the room.

He’s very active across multiple Facebook accounts, including a “digital creator” page, a page for his Scuba Adventure dive shop and one titled “Sheriff’s Thoughts,” where Heitman posts musings on the matters of the day.

But a lot of the content Heitman posts to Facebook — perhaps the majority, in the case of some of the accounts — is about scuba diving, not law enforcement. Posts from the past year show him on scuba expeditions to the Red Sea in Egypt, Bonaire island in the Dutch Caribbean, the Florida Keys, Micronesia and Mexico.

His critics say he spends more time traveling the world and working at his dive shop in Jefferson City than he does at the sheriff’s office in Vienna, Missouri, despite a $70,000 salary. One former deputy, who is now running for the job, estimates that even being “very generous,” Heitman spends 12 hours on the job a month. For his part, White guesses Heitman spent just 10 hours on the clock as sheriff in December before serving the search warrant on city hall. A deputy deposed as part of a lawsuit against the Maries County Jail said that she works mostly in the office and doesn’t see Heitman even once a month. Asked where he might be, she replied, “I don’t know.”

Heitman says he first got into scuba diving in the summer of 2015, when he found himself at the scene of a drowning at the Lake of the Ozarks. He says he witnessed the victim’s family waiting in agony for a dive team to show up. “People shouldn’t have to wait six hours for a diver to get here to get their loved one out of the bottom of the lake,” he says.

After that experience, Heitman started diving himself, and later formed the Mid-Missouri Sheriff’s Dive Team, a “dive rescue and recovery service” that Heitman says is strictly volunteer and does not get any equipment from the sheriff’s budget.

He sent the RFT photos of the dive team looking for the body of a missing person in a lake in Ozark County, for a murder victim in a river in Boonville, and for Kenny Loudermilk, a paraglider who went missing on the Missouri River near Washington last year.

In June 2019, Heitman bought Scuba Adventure, a dive shop a few miles outside of downtown Jefferson City. A statue of three dolphins leaping up into the air sits out front.

In addition to selling scuba gear and running certification classes, the store has for the past several years actively promoted dive trips that can be booked to locales around the globe. Based on photos posted to Scuba Adventure’s Facebook page, Heitman is usually on the excursions. Pictures posted the first week of January, for instance, show him diving off an atoll in Micronesia.

Thompson, for his part, is skeptical about a sheriff of a county with almost no major bodies of water running a dive team.

“I have no proof of it, but about the time he was starting his Scuba Adventure there in Jeff City was about the time he put this dive team together,” Thompson says. “I mean, we’ve got the Gasconade River, but hell, most places you can walk across it.”

Heitman admits he doesn’t spend as much time as he once did on sheriff-related duties, saying that when he first started as sheriff he was putting in 60- to 80-hour weeks, which he does his best to avoid these days. He stresses that he’s “always available” and mostly works at the dive shop nights and weekends.

However, he acknowledges that, in addition to the scuba business, he also does contract work for the U.S. Marshal’s Service at the federal courthouse in Jefferson City. “I may not be in the office, but that doesn’t mean I’m not sitting over in Belle, or sitting somewhere else,” he says.

He hasn’t seen Thompson’s complaint to the attorney general but says that it’s no coincidence that the police chief’s cousin, Buddy Thompson, has been a challenger every time Heitman is up for re-election.

“The Thompson family doesn’t like me,” Heitman says, adding that Shannon may have a particular ax to grind because Heitman once got wind that Shannon was “misappropriating” family inheritance money. Heitman forwarded those allegations to the Missouri Highway Patrol. (They elected not to pursue things any further.)

Heitman denies tipping off the media to the search of Belle City Hall and is adamant the charges against White weren’t motivated by anything other than White’s actions.

“We got a call from an employee that he was stealing again,” he says. “We verified it with another employee that witnessed it, and we acted on it. That’s the only reason why that took place.”


Heitman’s Mid-Missouri Sheriff’s Dive Team searches for a murder victim in Boonville.

Belle Mayor Daryl White, 47, has his own story to tell about politically motivated attacks. He’s lived in or near Belle his entire life. He owns an auto glass repair shop in town and 15 years ago served as mayor for the first time. He got back into city government in 2022 when an alderman got sick and resigned. White was appointed to his seat and then ran for mayor last year, winning election in April.

Asked how his Christmas was, White says, “Horrible.”

White can’t talk about the stealing and official misconduct charges against him, but says that Belle recently ended its contract with Heitman’s department for policing in the city. Speaking through his lawyer, TJ Kirsch, White says he has “no doubt” that played a role in the charges he’s now facing.

Belle had contracted with the sheriff’s department for policing services, paying them around $225,000 a year. But residents felt like they were getting “double dipped,” White says, as they were paying the sheriff’s department to police an area that’s mostly already in its jurisdiction (only the northern tip of Belle is in Osage County).

After Belle reconstituted its own police department in December 2022, White says Heitman refused to let them dispatch through Maries County. Today, he says, there is “zero working relationship.”

White says that as mayor he’s been steadfastly in favor of Belle having its own police department. “We’re self-sufficient,” he says.

Some people believe the request I made for sheriff’s department financial records escalated the tension. On November 29, I sought information on how the department spends money on scuba gear.

I first started looking at sheriff’s operations due to the 2020 death of Marvin Elmore at the Maries County Jail, a facility Heitman is in charge of. A lawsuit stemming from Elmore’s jail death filed in federal court accuses Heitman of being “deliberately indifferent” in his running of the jail. The lawsuit is particularly damning of the person whom it alleges Heitman has delegated day-to-day jail operations to, Sheriff’s Deputy Scott John.

Elmore, 59, was booked into the jail twice in 2020, the first time in January. About a week later, Elmore, a diabetic, saw his blood sugar spike to dangerous levels, but when an ambulance arrived, John refused to release him, signing a refusal form for the EMS.

After Elmore had been in the jail for about six weeks, he was brutally assaulted by another detainee in the dayroom shower. A photo taken of Elmore after the beating shows his face with stitches and a deep purple bruise swelling below his eye.

The severely wounded Elmore was allowed out of jail and remained out of custody for several months. According to others, during this period he told others his beating had been “orchestrated” by John.

Elmore’s second stint in the Maries County jail began on September 1. Elmore entered the facility with extremely high blood sugar and suffered a seizure that night. The lawsuit says John “taunted” him, telling Elmore — who now had less than a week to live — that he wasn’t going to get out of jail by “faking” sick.

Elmore then had a second seizure his second night in the jail, this time rolling out of his bed and striking his head on the floor. A jailer came in and viewed the scene a little after midnight. But it was hours later, only a few minutes before 2 a.m., that she called for an ambulance.

Elmore was found to have a subdural hematoma, a condition which often results from a fall where blood pools between the skull and the brain. He died on September 8, a week after being booked into the jail.

“We treat animals better than the way jail staff treated him,” says Jack Waldron, the attorney representing Elmore’s widow in the suit against the jail. The suit says that at least five assaults have occurred in the jail in recent years.

Heitman couldn’t say much about the jail or the Elmore case, due to the pending lawsuit. Though, he acknowledges, the suit “paints a horrible picture of our jail.”

“I will say it was absolutely a tragic incident. A lot of my staff is very upset over it,” he says. “They tried to help where they could, is really all I can say.”

Then there’s the case of Brandon Veasman.

In August of 2021, the 42-year-old from Dixon was locked up in the Maries County Jail when he pled guilty to tampering with a motor vehicle charges and was sentenced to seven years in state prison. He should have been transferred to the state system to serve his time, but instead, according to Thompson’s complaint to the attorney general’s office, the jail released him to Pulaski County on a different charge and he bonded out.

After bonding out of Pulaski, he fatally stabbed 63-year-old Mark Ethington at Ethington’s home just outside Dixon on September 17.

“If they had done what they were supposed to do, this wouldn’t have happened,” Chantel Farrow, Veasman’s ex-fiance, tells the RFT.

There is plenty of blame to go around. Court records indicate Maries County was supposed to release him to the state system, though Heitman disputes this. However, he’s not wrong that it was actually Pulaski County that let him loose.

“He wasn’t released by our agency,” Heitman says. “There was no wrongdoing by Maries County on that.”


Chris Heitman’s dive shop is located in Jefferson City.

Former Dixon, Missouri, Police Chief TJ Halle worked as a Maries County deputy under Heitman from 2013 to 2016. He says the Maries County Jail is a place where “inmates are sleeping with inmates. Dispatchers are sleeping with inmates.”

At one point during his stint on the force, Halle says that blood vessels burst in his eyes, and he couldn’t work the road. He was assigned to dispatch, a facility located in the same building as the jail.

Halle told Heitman that he couldn’t even see the dispatch
computer screens, but Heitman told him not to worry, he says, and introduced him to a detainee named Stacey Karr. “He’ll do the looking,” Halle remembers being told.

Karr was awaiting his day in court on drug possession charges. “Doing the looking” included looking into the Missouri uniform law enforcement system (often referred to as MULES), a database that is only supposed to be accessed by law enforcement officers.

Another detainee, Alex Schutz, whom Halle describes as a “heavy-hitter with heroin” practically ran dispatch by himself, Halle says. Halle says that he raised concerns to the Missouri Highway Patrol about the jail’s over-reliance on detainees to run both the jail and dispatch, but those concerns fell on deaf ears.

He continued to speak up about how the sheriff’s office was run, he says. For instance, Halle says that he saw deputies conduct warrantless digital searches. “When someone was brought in, they would look through their phone or their laptop or their tablet that they found inside their personal belongings,” Halle says. “And if they found anything inside of it, they would then apply for a warrant afterwards.”

Halle says his complaints led to no changes, and he was shown the door in 2016.

Heitman chalks up everything Halle says to him being a disgruntled former employee. About the jail being a place where everyone sleeps with everyone, Heitman says that a deputy was found in 2018 to be having sex with the detainees, but he fired her and filed charges. He says the prosecutor dropped the case when the detainees she’d allegedly been inappropriate with didn’t show up to testify against her.

The sheriff addressed my questions about Halle, and other critics, early in the new year by phone from Micronesia, where an expedition he’d led to the Truk Lagoon was wrapping up. Near the end of World War II, the Japanese navy suffered heavy losses at the lagoon. Now, in addition to the pristine blue water and warm temperatures, the Truk Lagoon allows divers to swim through and explore the sunken naval wrecks.

“It’s like Japan’s Pearl Harbor, is the best way to describe it,” Heitman says. “It’s amazing, just the history here.”

Just as his critics say, Heitman comes off as personable, even as you raise allegations of him not doing his job. He flatly denies everything his critics say about him, and over the course of two phone call writes them off as bad-faith attacks motivated by overheated small-town politics.

“You’re in the public eye. You can expect some of the negative stuff,” he says.

In part because of all the heat he’s been taking, Heitman isn’t seeking re-election this November, though he has thrown his full support behind his deputy Scott John.

As that campaign kicks into gear, there is now a Facebook page called Maries Countians for Accountability. It recently published photos of documents showing that in 2016 a sheriff’s office debit card was used at a Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse in Mobile, Alabama, as well as a Hooters in nearby Gulf Shores. The card was also used at a few gay bars in Mobile.

Heitman says that several people from his office were in Mobile for firearms training and a deputy accidentally used the department’s card when he meant to use his personal one. The cards, he says, were issued by the same bank and looked identical.

“Literally as soon as it was discovered it was all paid back,” Heitman says, adding that because Maries County is in the Bible Belt it hasn’t been hard for political opponents to seize on the gay bar angle.

“The Thompsons have been saying stuff on the internet,” he says. “They’re some of the most cruel people I’ve ever known.”

Of all the innuendo about Heitman, it is the talk of fires that seems to upset him the most.

White says that the fires are a “hot button” issue in Maries County.

“That bothers me so bad,” says Heitman.

In May 2011, a house Heitman owned on West Parkview Drive in Belle caught fire. According to a police report, a Belle police officer was the first on the scene, and he saw “flames coming from the upper and lower levels of Heitman’s residence.”

Heitman says that he lost everything in the fire, including pretty much everything he had that once belonged to his dad, who died when Heitman was in his early twenties. “All my dad’s guns, we lost so much stuff,” he says.

Speaking to an investigator from the Missouri State Fire Marshal’s Office, Heitman said that at the time of the fire he lived in the house with his daughter as well as Chad Faulkner, 19, who’d lived at the house for the past four years and worked as a jailer and dispatcher at the Maries County Jail.

Faulkner told state investigators he didn’t know of anyone who’d want to burn the house down, but added “that with it being the Sheriff’s residence, that anyone that had a grudge against him or the department could have.”

Heitman says that though he received information that “someone else set it,” the fire was never proven to be arson.

Two years later — on August 12, 2013, to be exact — a four-unit apartment owned by Heitman closer to the center of Belle caught fire. The fire started in a second-floor unit being rented by Halle, then Heitman’s deputy, about 20 minutes after Halle left for work.

A police report says that the fire started from Halle’s unit’s stove, and its burner was found set in the “on” position. Halle says he knows for a fact he hadn’t used the stove in several days. His dog was home when the fire broke out but was luckily saved.

Heitman says it’s “absurd” for anyone to suggest he himself set the fire. “There was no insurance on it,” he says of the four-family flat. “I mean, none.”

Yet according to the police report, Heitman initially told investigators that “he did not believe his insurance was current.” However, an addendum to the report says that Heitman followed up with investigators to say that in fact the policy on the building was still active — though it had been due to lapse on August 14, two days after the fire.

The third fire Heitman is accused of being involved in happened at Scuba Adventure, back before Heitman owned it.

The dive shop used to be on East Jefferson Street. Prior to June 2019, Heitman’s friend Jeff Adams was Scuba Adventure’s proprietor. Heitman often helped out around the store.

On the morning of March 25, 2019, as Adams was on a dive trip in the Bahamas, the business caught fire. The last person at the shop the night before was Heitman, according to a Jefferson City police report. Heitman told police “everything was fine when he left.” Security camera footage from a nearby business didn’t show anything suspicious from the time he left to the time the fire broke out.

Reports from both the Jefferson City police and fire departments indicated the fire was under investigation, but neither report contains any conclusion. Heitman describes the fire as “not even a real fire,” but an electric fire that only caused smoke damage. “That building is still standing today,” he says.

Heitman bought the business six months later.

Curiously, that December, according to a fire marshal report, Belle Fire Protection District Chief Dwight Francis got a tip that “a fire may occur” at the property on West Parkview Drive, the same place where Heitman’s house burned down in 2011. The land no longer belonged to Heitman; in 2017 he’d sold it to his jailer and former housemate, Chad Faulkner, who built his own house there.

The tip came in on December 10, 2019, and Francis passed it along to the state fire marshal’s office, who set up cameras to surveil Faulkner’s house. Those cameras subsequently caught Faulkner’s brother, Cody, setting fire to the house while Faulkner was with his fiance in Mexico.

The state fire marshal’s office conducted an investigation, and at one point Faulkner threatened an investigator after the investigator contacted his fiance. “I’ll take my end of what’s coming, but if you go after her, it won’t be good,” he said.

According to the Maries County Advocate, Faulkner later admitted to paying his brother $5,000 to burn the place down, though not before removing some deer mounts from the residence. Faulkner says he was motivated by “financial hardships.” The brothers both got probation.

Posts made to Heitman’s “digital creator” Facebook page show Heitman was also in Mexico at the time of the fire.

Specifically, a photo shows Heitman in full scuba gear in blue water, doing what’s called “cenote diving,” swimming through underwater caves.

“Is this Bennet?” a commenter on the photo asks, thinking Heitman might be at Bennett Spring State Park, which offers diving, near Lebanon, Missouri.

“No,” Heitman replied. “It’s in Mexico.”

In one of our phone calls, I asked Heitman if his jail employee and erstwhile roommate happened to be on the same trip.

“I was in Cozumel,” Heitman says. “Chad flew out to Cancun, I believe. So, no, I never saw Chad. He wasn’t on my trip at all.” 

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