Despite physical challenges, Hickory resident Walt Thomas is dedicated to keeping his community safe and crime free.
Affable, with a friendly wave for passersby, Walt Thomas is a man on a mission. From atop his John Deere tractor, Thomas patrols the streets in and around his Woodridge neighborhood, looking out for suspicious activity and lending a helping hand to everyone who asks. Weekday mornings and afternoons, he guards the school bus stops to ensure the children stay safe from predators and to remind motorists to drive slowly. While on his patrol route, Thomas routinely picks up trash and mows the lawn for older and incapacitated residents. A trained CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) volunteer, Thomas carries life-saving supplies aboard his tractor, which is emblazoned with the Woodridge Community Watch and CERT logos. In addition to his local crime prevention efforts, Thomas serves as a board member of the North Carolina Community Watch Association, helping the organization promote awareness and provide crime prevention training.
Catawba County Sheriff Coy Reid recently praised Thomas for his dedicated service as the extra eyes and ears of local law enforcement: “Walt Thomas is the answer to a successful Neighbor Hood Watch program. He goes past the call for duty, putting in many hours making sure his neighborhood is safe. He makes monthly reports to law enforcement and reports any suspicious activity the moment he sees it or receives information from neighbors. I have no doubt that, if we had more Walts, our county would be a safer place.” When asked why Thomas, a Vietnam veteran and former corporate executive, chooses not to spend his retirement in leisure, Captain Alton Price of the Catawba County Sheriff’s Office is quick to reply: “Walt just loves helping people. He asks nothing in return except for them to call and help us prevent crime.”
Recently, Thomas took time from his busy schedule to discuss his crime prevention efforts with USAonWatch:
USAOW: First off, why the John Deere tractor?
Thomas: I worked for Lance [a Charlotte-based snack food manufacturer] for 30 some years after I came back from Vietnam. There, I went into district management and worked in 15 states until I finally got the opportunity to move back closer to home. By that time, my joints had started wearing out and I needed a hip replacement. I tried to do physical therapy to get back on my route—I did commission sales. Unfortunately, I also suffered a stroke and could no longer do my job. I could walk, but not too well, so I bought myself a little John Deere lawn mower. I got it because it was better than a wheelchair.
After I started the patrol, I moved up to a subcompact diesel John Deere with a steel frame, front-end loader, and four-wheel drive. It’s amazing—you can go just about anywhere with that tractor. You can mow yards or sides of roads, and even push down trees.
USAOW: When did you first become involved with the neighborhood patrol?
Thomas: I’ve been doing this for six or seven years now. Everybody knows me. About the time I bought my first John Deere, a drug dealer moved into my development. He and his buddies would sit in his front yard, getting high and drunk. I called the sheriff’s office for advice, and the crime prevention officer asked me to note the times and dates strange cars were pulling up to the house and to write down license plate numbers.
USAOW: Did you take part in any crime prevention efforts prior to your encounter with the drug dealer?
Thomas: Yes, in the 1980s, the Catawba County Sheriff’s Office started organizing a Neighborhood Watch. I signed up and attended the start-up meeting and trainings. At that time, we didn’t have many problems in the community, just a car break-in maybe once a year and minor thefts, but nothing like we see today.
USAOW: What are the major crime issues your community deals with today?
Thomas: The biggest problem, I think, is drugs. So many people are involved—you’ve got the big people, the little people, and their customers. Drugs just destroy people. The dealers wreak havoc—they don’t care.
At one time, we had a gang problem. Catawba County started to get infiltrated, and we began seeing a lot of graffiti along the main road. I saw kids from my community get involved, not as actual gang members but as “wannabes.” One time, a shop owner complained to me that no one would remove graffiti from the wall of an empty building that faced his business. I went to the hardware store and got a roller, pans, and paint to cover it myself. When the hardware store owner asked what I was doing, I told him and he charged me half price. I started painting a little every day, working my way toward Hickory.
A couple of people in our development are professional photographers. They have started taking pictures of the graffiti, which I send to the Hickory Police Department. One afternoon while on patrol, I caught about 15 local kids tagging the back of a business. They had couple of lookouts, but no one was paying attention to them. The kids ran when they saw me, but I got them on video, thinking I could identify them. I found out that the local Hardees restaurant had kicked them out for littering and painting graffiti. They knew the kids and gave me their names to pass along to the sheriff’s office. The sheriff’s office provides interdiction services and gets the parents involved.
USAOW: You gathered information that enabled the Catawba County Sheriff’s Office to bust a drug ring. How did you learn of this criminal activity?
Thomas: After a while, if you keep to the same route, you get to know everybody. When one house has 20 or 30 cars coming and going every day, you know something is up. While on patrol, I would often go past one house in Mountain View and see a man in his yard, talking on a cell phone and exchanging packages and money with people. Later, some kids came and told me that this guy’s “assistants” were trying to sell drugs to local children.
USAOW: Do you ever fear reprisal from drug dealers or other criminals?
Thomas: Oh sure. One guy has swerved his SUV toward my John Deere to scare me. I pay him no mind, but I reported his tag number to law enforcement. I just pray. I pray three or four times a day. I pray for these drug people, too.
USAOW: What led you to begin the bus stop watch?
Thomas: When I started patrolling, I noticed a little girl standing at the bus stop by herself at 6:00 or 7:00 a.m. Later that afternoon, I saw a bully picking fights with kids. When I threatened to tell his mom, the bullying stopped. Afterward, I called the sheriff’s office to volunteer to help out at the bus stops.
One day, a little girl got off the bus, discovered no one was home, and couldn’t get in her house. She didn’t know where to go. She looked down street, saw me, and came for help. I asked if she could operate a cell phone. She said yes and called her mother. I promised the mother that her daughter would stay there with me and be safe until she could get home.
USAOW: How many people belong to the Woodridge Community Watch? What other activities have you participated in?
Thomas: Our crime watch has about eight volunteers who help me patrol in unmarked private vehicles. I send out quarterly newsletters to let residents know what’s happening in our neighborhood. Our group has also branched out to deal with security and maintenance issues. If residents have complaints or concerns, they know to come to me.
USAOW: How has the community responded to your work?
Thomas: Everyone loves us—except the crime-oriented people! We’ve got 110 houses in the Woodridge development and about 80 percent support our work. Wives, divorcees, and mothers especially appreciate us because we help them with the small things. Sometimes, they are too embarrassed to call law enforcement. For example, a divorced lady with two children called one night to tell us she’d heard a strange noise. We went over and checked it out, and she said she felt reassured.
A lot of people hesitate to call law enforcement or 911. They don’t want to bother the police, but they’ll talk to “Old Walt.” I’ve had neighbors approach me to ask if I’ve seen their missing dog or if I’d check to see that their shed is secure.
USAOW: You are a licensed CERT trainer. How have you used your training to help your community?
Thomas: After completing training, I decided to get more organized. Now I carry a CERT bag filled with food, water, rope, mini blankets, and medical kit. We have a good emergency response system here, but we need to be prepared for situations where help can’t arrive for three or four days. I pulled about $20,000 from my retirement account and bought a used Budget rental truck. I had it custom painted John Deere green (to match my tractor) with the CERT logo. I moved all my tools to the truck and added a compressor, two generators, two cots, an emergency tent, medical equipment, lights, blankets, and HAZMAT suits. We call this truck a mobile CERT entity. We can go 500 to 600 miles and set up a camp, if needed. I can take care of 30 to 40 people for up to four days.
We’re now using the CERT truck for training programs. It’s a proven fact that a bystander will usually be first on the scene of an incident. CERT prepares us by providing basic training to handle emergencies until real responders can get there. The CERT manual says to help people go forward with their training, and to get more training. I try to work with everybody—the sheriff, police, fire department, EMS. When I began sponsoring the local Explorers Club, I wanted to train the kids in CERT. The Hickory fire department let us use their facility to hold a hands-on, low-key training for about 40 teens. The kids dressed up in emergency gear and had their pictures taken by a professional photographer.
USAOW: What motivates you to give so generously of your time?
Thomas: My daddy was born in the mountains, dirt poor, but he went to college and lived a rich, full life. When he was about 80 years old, a parolee broke into his home, hit daddy over the head with a flashlight, and left him lying there in a pool of blood. He stole my father’s money to buy more drugs. Daddy lived, but it hurt him. At the time, I was working and not involved in Community Watch. I started driving up to my dad’s place after work, about 20 miles each night, to make sure he was okay. We have an active patrol nowadays, and no one’s home gets broken into.
I enjoy my service. I could watch TV all day in a wheelchair, but I wouldn’t like to do that.
USAOW: You’ve served both your country and your community. How did your experience in Vietnam shape you?
Thomas: I “grew up” in Vietnam. I dropped out of college during the draft and joined the Seabees [the U.S. Navy construction battalion]. I was sent to Danang and enjoyed it. I extended my service two times and spent two years total in Vietnam.
Military training definitely helped prepare me for Community Watch and CERT. We learned medical procedures, field survival, ABC [atomic, biological, chemical warfare], weapons, and security. I branched off into security communications. I was a sergeant and had a crew; this taught me how to handle people and to set goals and objectives.
USAOW: Many people would like to help prevent crime in their communities but don’t know how. What do you recommend?
Thomas: First of all, get in touch with law enforcement. Your local crime prevention officer can help you set up a community meeting. Law enforcement will also educate you on the legalities of what crime watch volunteers can and cannot do. If it weren’t for volunteers, our country couldn’t make it.