Fifteen months ago Matt Coates stepped into a situation he never could have imagined.

Just hours after the late sheriff Tommy Bryant committed suicide in December 2016, Coates found himself at the Erath County Courthouse with county officials asking him to step in as interim sheriff.

At the time, Coates was working as an investigator for District Attorney Alan Nash.

After discussing the situation with his wife Denys, Coates agreed to step in as sheriff, setting him on a path he says has been both gratifying and difficult.

“I knew it was going to be challenging, but I did not think it would be this tough,” Coates said Thursday during an interview inside his office.

Hours after taking the reigns of an office mired in suspicion and under investigation by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, Coates did one of the hardest things in his career: Suspend the department’s top officials.

Then he made the rest of the department reapply for their jobs.

The search for stability

High on Coates’ immediate list of things to do was stabilize the department.

“Things were a mess,” he said. 

Bryant’s suicide had rocked the community and department and Coates knew he needed a fresh perspective to help make sense of what was happening.

So he brought in two men from outside the department - Heath Crossland as chief deputy and Jesse Metcalf as captain.  

The trio began the process of identifying and correcting problems and developing relationships with the staff.

“We inherited a mess, but we also inherited a very talented staff who assisted in getting us back on track,” Coates said. 

During several internal investigations it was discovered the department had been out of compliance with its racial profiling reporting.

“We spent thousands of dollars trying to get that compliant with state law,” Crossland said.

They restructured the major departments, made corrections to procedures and continued to develop staff.

“We stepped into an environment with a lot of talent, but the staff didn’t feel empowered,” Crossland said. “After 15 months we have seen true leadership and confidence emerge in our employees.” 

‘Now it’s real’

Coates enjoyed an overwhelming victory Tuesday in his bid to remain sheriff. 

The race for sheriff was particularly ugly and it took a toll on Coates and the entire department.

“Ninety-five percent of the people in this county are great. They are fair,” Coates said. “But the five percent made this the ugliest race I have ever seen and it doesn’t have to be that way. It shouldn’t be that way.” 

Coates beat his three challengers by getting nearly 53% of the vote - a stunning victory considering the number of people in the race.

“We were prepared for a runoff,” Coates said. 

When asked how it felt to be elected by the people, he said, “Now it’s real.”

Moving forward, change still coming

After living away from his family for more than a year, Metcalf is leaving the department and heading back to Martin County to work for the sheriff’s office there. Friday was his last day on the job.

“I’ve enjoyed it here,” Metcalf said. “The experience has been of great educational value.”

Deputy Cody Keith will take his place as captain. 

“Everyone loves Cody,” Crossland said. “He is good at what he does and is an effective communicator with our staff and the community.”

Coates and his team are also enjoying some recent kudos: They passed a surprise jail inspection with flying colors.

The department is also working with area schools on ways to improve school safety.

“That’s one of our top priorities,” Coates said. 

And things in the department? Well, they are finally “leveling out.”

“We are heading in the right direction, but we can always do some things better,” Coates said. “I’m looking for forward to a bright future with this department.”