As Steele County’s top detective for almost two decades, Sgt. Gary Okins provided the pulse on nearly every major criminal investigation in the county. Last week it came to an end as the veteran law enforcer hung up his badge for good.
Okins retired from the Steele County Sheriff’s Office after more than 31 years as a deputy. He served as a detective for the past 19 years. In all, he leaves behind 36 years of law enforcement experience as he worked for a couple other police agencies prior to coming to Steele County in 1988.
As he reflected on his long career, Okins marveled at how he never found a shortage of major cases to investigate in what is one of the smallest counties in Minnesota. “For the size of Steele County, I can't believe all the bad stuff that has happened,” Okins said, noting he has seen his fair share of murders, robberies, home invasions and plane crashes. “For 19 years, I’ve been a part of them all.”
Sheriff Lon Thiele said Okins’ vast experience will be sorely missed around the department. “He was a wealth of knowledge,” Thiele said. “With 31 years, he was able to remember people, where they hung out and who they associated with,” he said, adding that kind of knowledge played a key role in solving crimes.
After being promoted to investigator in 2000, Okins didn’t have much time to waste before dealing with serious crime. Just months into his job as detective, he investigated the homicide committed by Roger Schleicher near the Steele-Waseca county line.
Schleicher called 911 to report his friend had been accidentally shot on his elk farm. Knowing Schleicher and his history of mental illness, Okins immediately knew something wasn’t right even before responding to the farm. Okins’ intuitive nature proved to be a life saver.
Okins kept other officers back from responding to the farm. Investigators later learned Schleicher had a whole line up of rifles waiting to shoot every police officer that responded to the murder scene. Officers used a road grader as a battering ram to arrest Schleicher without further incident. He later told police he didn’t follow through with his plan because of the number of legs he saw behind the road grader and that there were more people than he could shoot.
The worst cases Okins dealt with during his career involved multiple deaths in two different plane crashes. He says the most gruesome case came in June 2004 when four people were killed after the pilot of a small plane became disoriented and crashed into a farm house east of Owatonna.
What made the scene especially difficult for Okins was the human carnage. “You couldn’t tell who was who,” he said. “There were body parts all over the place.” He noted that the investigation utilized 2,000 flags as evidence markers to identify as many body parts and other evidence as possible.
Another plane crash that will be memorable for Okins took place at Owatonna’s Degner Regional Airport in July 2008 after a massive rain storm. A corporate jet carrying businessmen from the East Coast skidded off the runway and plowed into a corn field. Eight people died in the crash.
Throughout his career, Okins has come face-to-face with human evil. In 2009, Okins investigated the murder of Katie Anderson who had been stabbed 109 times by Ryan Hurd and dumped in a field west of Owatonna.
And as Okins found sometimes crime takes on bizarre and ironic twists. In June 2016, a teenager was stabbed “just feet” from where Anderson was murdered. The irony? The teenager was also stabbed 109 times like Anderson, but survived the injuries.
Solving crime takes on many challenges for detectives like Okins. In 2016, Okins handled the meth-related homicide of Richard Jurgensen on a gravel road northeast of Owatonna. Okins and other investigators had their hands full sorting out the truth with many different witnesses and suspects. All the people involved in the case had criminal records and did not want to cooperate with police. In the end, two people were charged and pleaded guilty to second-degree murder.
“It’s tragic for our small county to have the homicides that we’ve had,” said Okins. But he takes great pleasure in knowing there are no unsolved homicides or major crimes as he leaves the sheriff’s office. “We have solved it all,” he said.
Okins credits his success in solving crimes to the ground work that officers put together in developing informants and contacts. He said it’s important to “know the people you’re protecting in the county.”
Through the years, Okins said the key to his success has been the teamwork displayed by the rest of the department. “We all worked together. It’s not just one person handling it,” he said, adding he will miss the people he worked with the most.
He says he has survived in law enforcement as long as he has because of one major reason. “It’s just a job. Never take it personal,” Okins said. “I have never taken it personal. You still have to try to put on a smiley face in hopes of solving the case.”
Okins admits there have been times when he would have liked to reach across the table and grab suspects by the shirt collar and shake them. But he has always kept a professional demeanor in order to get a confession and let the rest play out in court.
“The goal of law enforcement is to go home every day safe at the end of your shift,” Okins said. He said he can see how the pressures of the job can get to people. But, he added, “You just can’t take anything personal.”
As Okins heads into retirement, he has one regret. He’s not real keen on how the world perceives law enforcement these days. He says it amazes him how the people who dislike law enforcement so much reach out to call police the first chance they get when they’re in trouble needing help.
In retirement, Okins, 58, plans to work a part-time security job in the Twin Cities area with the potential of it becoming full-time.
Thiele said a sergeant promotional process will be taking place in the near future to replace Okins.