Eric Woodward was hiding in a hay bale just before his 2013 Faulkner County Sheriff’s Office Deputy of the Year honor was bestowed.
“We were chasing a guy on patrol; he had just broken into a house,” Woodward said. “It had just snowed; we were tracing his footprints.”
Woodward said he and other deputies thought they knew where the suspect would go, and Woodward was going to try to head the man off.
“I hid in a hay bale — I dug out the center of a hay bale,” he said. “It was very cold, and it was much warmer in that hay bale than outside.”
The suspect didn’t go in the expected direction, and Woodward eventually emerged from the hay in time to make it to the Christmas party and receive his award.
“I went from a hay bale to our Christmas party to get this,” he said, referring to the award on the corner of his desk in the Major Crimes Unit.
The 34-year-old Woodward, who lives in Conway, has risen in the ranks quickly since he joined the sheriff’s office in 2008, and he became a criminal investigator four months ago.
Woodward was born in Illinois, but his mother had a serious car accident and couldn’t take care of him and his stepbrother and stepsister, so when he was 5 years old, he moved to Lynn, Arkansas, with his stepfather, who adopted him. He grew up in the tiny Lawrence County community and threw himself into basketball and baseball — the only two sports offered in the high school, which since has been consolidated.
He made straight A’s.
“I was that kid who never got in trouble,” he said.
He graduated from high school in 2011 and went to Arkansas State University-Jonesboro on an academic scholarship.
“My interests lay everywhere, and it was very hard to focus on what I wanted to do. Sometimes I think I could have been a lawyer; sometimes I think that I think like a lawyer,” he said, laughing.
He left ASU after two years.
“I think I had a little bit of culture shock — some of the classes were as big as my whole school,” he said.
He said he had friends in Van Buren County, and he loved Greers Ferry Lake.
“The idea of a cliff was … foreign to me,” he said.
Woodward moved just outside of Clinton and worked in construction, doing residential roofing and building homes and cabinets. He ended up with his own business.
When construction was slow in the winter, Woodward looked for another job to supplement his income.
“I stumbled across an application to work in the jail in Faulkner County,” he said.
The more he learned about law enforcement, the more he liked it.
“It spoke to me, I guess. I had just a genuine interest of what happened in law enforcement,” he said. “I started getting a community-service mindset. I love to build things, but it wasn’t satisfying that need for community service.”
Woodward became a detention officer (previously called a jailer) in 2008.
“I learned a lot of patience in the place,” Woodward said. “It was an interesting job, to say the least. Your job is to keep people there, and they don’t want to be there.”
However, the same inmates often keep coming back.
“There are people I met in 2008 that I still deal with today. I got to know some of them in jail, so it helps me now,” he said.
Within six months, Woodward became a supervisor.
“I’ve always been a people person anyway,” he said. “I rose to that very quickly.”
In another six to eight months, he became a sergeant and supervised the entire jail.
“Policy is a huge thing in the jail. The Constitution governs the way we do things,” he said. Policy becomes broader as you advance, he said.
“There’s this giant stack of policy we have to learn,” he said.
To set a good example, Woodward said, it’s better to know it — not to have to look up answers.
He didn’t stay a supervisor for long. Former Sheriff Karl Byrd “decided I’d make a good patrol deputy,” Woodward said.
“I loved it; I absolutely loved it. Sometimes I miss it. You never know what’s going to happen,” he said. “I might take dog calls all day long and then get something crazy.”
Asked to describe a “crazy” incident, Woodward exhaled. “Where to begin?” he said. “Lots of drug use. … I’ve found naked guys in fields; fights; we’ve had hostage situations, chased guys through creeks, woods — all sorts of things.”
Woodward said his job can be dangerous, and he’s been scared.
“Oh, absolutely. I’ve had guns pointed at me before,” he said.
One incident was a routine call, a welfare check on a little girl whose neighbor noticed the child had come home after school, but nobody was there.
Woodward said he met the girl, talked to neighbors and found out the mother was drinking at a neighbor’s house during the day.
Another deputy was in the area and came to assist. When they knocked on the neighbor’s home where the child’s mother was said to be, no one came to the door, but they could hear banging inside.
“The next thing we know, there’s a guy who has a gun pointed at us when he opens the door,” Woodward said. “We got him to put the gun down.”
The deputy sought his recent promotion.
“What this job does, it digs deep into the actual cases,” Woodward said. A patrol officer comes in after the fact, Woodward said, gathers information and compiles a file, which he hands over to an investigator.
“I wanted to be the one that dug deeper into that file,” Woodward said, sitting at his desk, which had at least a half dozen file folders neatly arranged on it.
Woodward is one of seven criminal investigators in the Faulkner County Sheriff’s Office. One specializes in Internet crime, another in narcotics. He and the other four are considered general investigators, he said.
The investigator said random tips sometimes open a case that’s been closed for years, or a current case will yield a tip on an old case, “if we just ask the right questions.”
The worst call he’s had was an aggravated-robbery case, he said.
Criminal investigators are on call for a certain period of time every day to assist the patrol officers.
A man and his female relative were robbed of $100, Woodward said. The pair chased the robber in their vehicle and crashed into the robber, who was in another vehicle.
Then the brother of the suspect started shooting. The female had a good description of the suspect, Woodward said.
“We’re working on warrants right now,” Woodward said.
“That’s what we’re after — we want to get people their stuff back. If you work hard and have something, you should expect to keep it.”
Cases aren’t solved as quickly as they are on television, Woodward said.
“Out of all the TV shows, 48 Hours is probably the most accurate. CSI — no way we could wrap up a case that quickly,” he said. “There isn’t a database for tire tracks. You can’t run fingerprints on your desktop computer and come up with a match that quick.
“What they do in a few hours, we take months to do, from a relative standpoint. I’ve never seen them do paperwork, either, and that’s a big part of my job.”
Being organized, detail-oriented and able to multitask are important skills for an investigator, he said.
Faulkner County Sheriff Andy Shock said Woodward “is the kind of employee who is a supervisor’s dream. Through his hard work and dedication, he has been promoted many times. That is a testament to his character and work ethic. We are very proud of him and his accomplishments.”
Woodward said that’s another aspect he likes about his career.
“Law enforcement’s tight. We’re a really tight group of people,” he said, mentioning an upcoming canoe trip with co-workers.
“You have to go get your mind off what you’re doing to keep that mind healthy,” he said.
It’s not that Woodward doesn’t think about his job after hours, though.
“I’ve been on Facebook after work and found stolen property on some auctions,” he said. “We had an arrest on Craig’s List just last month.
“It’s not an 8-5 job; it’s 24/7,” he said. “It’s almost kind of a lifestyle, to an extent.”
On April 27, when he realized a tornado was coming toward Faulkner County, he “started getting dressed,” Woodward said. “Not just me. When the tornado came down, [Faulkner County deputies] were right behind it. We have a great group of people here.”
To satisfy his desire for community service, Woodward volunteers to play in charity golf tournaments, and he jumped into Beaverfork Lake as part of the Polar Bear Plunge to raise money for Special Olympics.
He received the Deputy of the Year award by a vote of his peers.
“That meant a lot to me,” Woodward said. “Like I say, we’re really tightknit.”
Faulkner County has become home, he said.
“I want to stick with the sheriff’s office. After I’ve had my fill of all these files, I’m sure I’ll be in an administrative position and supervise again.”
For now, though, he has case files on his desk that need his attention.
“I want to dive into all of them,” he said.
After all, he might find that needle in a haystack.
Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or firstname.lastname@example.org.