BLOOMFIELD — In his rookie year, Mike Kovacs' partner at the Aztec Police Department was shot in the head by a 16-year-old boy later convicted and sentenced to 17 1/2 years in prison.
He's been spit on, cussed out, degraded and mocked. Then Kovacs decided to run for sheriff, a mistake he said he will not make again.
"I am not good at politics," he said. "I am not good with liars, to be frank with you. There is a lot of deception. It's unfortunate in this county, there is a lot of individuals that, they are two-faced. I don't know how to be nice about it. It left a sour taste in my mouth."
Kovacs, 45, recently retired as Bloomfield's police chief after 20 years of service, an experience he looks upon much more fondly.
He said the shooting of his partner, Officer Ronnie Garner, was a "deciding factor" in his life. Garner was 30 years old in March 1994 — five years Kovacs' senior — when he was shot in the temple by Joseph Patterson. Patterson and another boy, suspected of car theft, were running from Garner at the time. Patterson lay in wait and fired once after Garner rounded a corner, according to an April 1994 article in The Daily Times.
Garner survived, Kovacs said, but had to retire from the force and suffered cognitive damage.
"Ronnie is still — him and his family — I think they are in Cortez now," Kovacs said. "It is unfortunate losing touch with people. But it really gave me the overwhelming desire to be that individual, that night watchman, for my community."
Kovacs served as an officer in the Aztec Police Department for two years. In 1996, he was hired by the San Juan County Sheriff's Office. He was promoted to first detective and then sergeant during his 10 years there. In 2006, he was hired on as deputy chief in Bloomfield, his hometown, and was named police chief in 2008.
"That is just a quick snapshot of my 20-plus years of law enforcement," he said.
Capt. Shane Utley of the San Juan County Sheriff's Office served as Kovacs' training officer at the Aztec Police Department. He and Kovacs graduated together from Bloomfield High School.
"He was pretty quiet," Utley remembered. "He got good grades. On the football team — football was pretty much his life, that and school — he was different from the norm. Your picture of the football player is someone who is sure of himself. Mike was really quiet."
Kovacs is a large man with an easy smile and a flattop, likely a carryover from his years in the U.S. Navy. Utley said Kovacs came back from serving in Desert Storm a different person.
"He came back wanting to help people," Kovacs said.
Many people who talk about Kovacs mention his leadership skills.
"Just to give you an idea about Mike," Utley said. "During my 22 years of law enforcement, at the sheriff's office, we keep an eye on the departments of Aztec and Bloomfield, because we are looking for good officers to recruit. Bloomfield and Aztec would typically lose officers to Farmington and the sheriff's office. But when Mike took over at Bloomfield, we started losing people to Bloomfield. That is the kind of leader he is."
That was the case for Marlin Wyatt, who is currently serving as interim chief in Bloomfield.
"He hired me on and promoted me up to deputy chief," Wyatt said. "He is one of those guys that have seen the good in me. We have taught each other, and I learned a ton from him."
Wyatt said the City of Bloomfield has chosen a new police chief, but he was not sure whether the candidate has formally accepted the position.
Kovacs gets emotional when he talks about the people closest to him, particularly his wife LaVergne, who he says supported him throughout his years in the Bloomfield Police Department.
"Without her, I don't know what I would have done in the last decade," he said. "Because it's been a lot of stress. A lot of stress."
For her part, LaVergne Kovacs said the primary race for sheriff was toughest.
"... That was probably the hardest, because both of us worked — well, I work for the district attorney's office, so we both worked in law enforcement," she said.
Kovacs said he was heartbroken about losing the race.
"We sat on the couch and monitored (the results), and it was frustrating, because there were so many people that were pulling for me," he said. "I was so honored that they would help me and participate in the election process and the campaign. The group I had around, I cannot say enough about."
About incumbent Sheriff Ken Christesen, the Republican primary winner who is running unopposed in the general election, Kovacs says a lot less.
"Ken got elected," Kovacs said. "What was the turnout? 27 percent? It was really low, and that is the population that wanted that. I say he got elected and I get to move on to doing bigger and better things, too."
Kovacs said he is concerned that Christesen will retaliate against his friends and supporters working in the sheriff's office.
Christesen declined comment for this story.
Utley said the loss in the primary was tough for Kovacs.
"I don't even know how to explain it. He really felt that he had something real and tangible to offer the community," Utley said. "He was an employee of the sheriff's office. He wanted an opportunity to give back."
Kovacs campaigned on keeping oil fields safe through an increased law enforcement presence. Now that he has turned in his badge and gun, he said he will be working for Colorado-based company Crossfire LLC doing something similar.
"I am going into the oil-field safety industry," Kovacs said.
He said he will be responsible for ensuring workers are following state and federal safety laws,
"Crossfire is a very successful, very forefront business, and I am very happy to have been offered an opportunity," he said.
Kovacs said he will miss law enforcement, a job that gives as much as it takes.
"Twenty years of putting up with the 5 percent of the populace that is just so disgruntled in life — it's a long time," he said.
But he will miss the thank you's, from victims and occasionally suspects.
"That is a big deal in law enforcement," he said. "Just to be told, 'thank you.' Just to be told, 'I'm glad you're here.'"
Steve Garrison covers crime and courts for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4644 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SteveGarrisonDT on Twitter.