DEDICATED TO COMMUNITY — Pondera County Sheriff Tom Kuka stands in front of his patrol truck after 28 years of working with the PCSO. I-O Photo by Deanna Wakkinen
By Deanna Wakkinen, I-O Reporter
Tom Kuka has been around to see a lot during these last 28 years with the Pondera County Sheriff’s Department and says that when his time for re-election comes, he does not plan to run again.
At that point, with 31 years of service behind him, he plans to retire to his home in Valier and spend more time on the farm and ranch.
Kuka began his career with the Sheriff’s department in 1983 when he became a resident deputy in Valier. He spent part of his time between the county and city of Valier.
Besides all the changes in laws and procedures over the years, he has also seen big changes in Valier and Conrad. Kuka remembers the Lighthouse Restaurant when it was abandoned and run down and is glad to see it succeeding today.
Kuka went to the Montana Law Enforcement Academy in Bozeman in 1984 and continues his education to this day. He also completed his DARE officer training but no longer teaches in the Valier school district.
The age of computers has caused a lot of changes for Kuka and his crew. What used to be recorded on pen and paper is now logged more easily on computers. Also new since Kuka began his work for the PCSO is the state of the art jail. The old jail, which only had three small cells and one holding cell, was remodeled in 1985 and completed in 1986 while Leon Simpson was sheriff.
The new Pondera County Jail includes 10 general cells, two bunks for females and one holding cell. Kuka commented that it can house more and they are required to provide food, medical and clothing.
The PCSO holds inmates for the Border Patrol and other agencies in the area. Two years ago, deputies commented that the jail was full. In the 1990s, however, Kuka remembers it mostly empty and this year it has been empty once.
Kuka continued to work his way up and became the chief deputy in 1995 and then the under-sheriff in 2002. In 2004, Kuka became sheriff. He first had to run for a half term and has run twice since then unopposed.
Kuka commented that this county is a “great place to live, we take it for granted-how great of communities we have.”
Kuka has worked with many different people over the years and Sheriff’s Deputy Karl Suta commented that “he always puts his officers first.” He continued by adding, “There’s nothing he won’t do.” Suta remembers when the PCSO no longer had laundry service available to them and Kuka would take loads down to the laundry mat himself. Kuka is grateful for the washer and dryer set that the department has acquired since then.
Since Kuka has taken the job as Sheriff, our county has added the Safe Trails Drug Task Force and the Canine Unit. Kuka says the department has a good working relationship with other agencies in the area and that they take drug problems seriously because 85 percent of violent crimes are drug related.
Memorable moments for Kuka include the jail break in the early 1990s when one man escaped out of the recreation area and two men, the escapee and the accomplice, were brought back after being captured in Shelby. They also include a gentleman who refused to leave the jail after his sentence was served during the wintertime. The man was eventually turned out into the cold and proceeded to steal a car and drive it around town until he was arrested again.
During his early career, in 1984, Kuka was on duty to take Duncan McKenzie to his trial in Billings. The McKenzie case was the first case in 32 years to end in the death penalty in Montana.
Of the more recent events, Kuka says the on-going investigations into cow mutilations he could do without. He commented that he’s heard from all sort of theorists and even said he had a call not more than a week ago from Canada and was warned that the Canadian government’s death ray was the cause. After the laughter had stopped, Kuka commented that he’s glad those cases have gone to other agencies.
The stories will continue and Kuka will leave a legacy behind him, but for now, he’s here to stay and will leave his mark on our communities.