Blanton looks back at 40-year police career

Published 9:48 am Monday, May 16, 2016

Port Arthur Police Chief Mark Blanton is putting away his badge after a 40-year career in law enforcement.

Blanton joined the Port Arthur Police Department at the age of 18 and is one of the youngest officers ever hired.

Blanton 4-WEB

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“I received a calling a long time ago and have led a blessed career,” Blanton said.

Blanton has served in virtually every capacity, held every rank and worked in every division at the police department since he joined April 24, 1976. He ticked off a quick list; patrol, detective, desk sergeant, ID sergeant, worked all three shifts, served as lieutenant shift commander, chief of patrol, assistant chief and chief.

Former Police Chief James Newsom, who hired Blanton, was skeptical about his age and maturity level at first but believes he made the right decision.

“There was something about him,” Newsom said. “Within 15 minutes of him describing his background I realized he was probably the most mature person of that age I’d ever talked to. When we got through that interview we took a vote, as chief I voted last, and I said yes.”’

Blanton’s dream of becoming a police officer came at just the right time for a city that was in the midst of growing pains. At that time city leaders had decided to annex the communities of Lakeview, Pear Ridge, Griffing Park and Sabine Pass in addition to seeing an influx of Vietnamese refugees, all of which added to the population.

Port Arthur Police Chief James Newsom, left, promotes Mark Blanton to the rank of sergeant. Courtesy photo

Port Arthur Police Chief James Newsom, left, promotes Mark Blanton to the rank of sergeant.
Courtesy photo

Hence the police force needed more officers. A call for applicants was issued for the age range of 21 to around 35 but applicants were few and far between. A decision was made to drop the age to 18 as long as the person met all of the qualifications.

Newsom’s story turned humorous as he described the first time he saw the 18-year-old Blanton. At that time Newsom’s secretary, Ms. Wells, was known to order pizza for the officers.

“I walked in and saw this young man sitting there and asked Ms. Wells ‘have you paid him yet?’ She said ‘I didn’t order any pizza. He’s your next applicant.’ He knew he wanted to be a policeman and he deserved to be interviewed.”

Newsom also got his first peek at Blanton’s ambition and no-nonsense demeanor when he asked his goal should be stay in the police force.

“He shot right back, I’d like to have your job,” he said. “I told him it would be a while. I’m not going anywhere for a while.”

Years later when Blanton was promoted to chief he called Newsom who at that time was enjoying retirement in a travel trailer in Colorado.

“He said I told you I was going to get your job. I didn’t run you off,” Newsom said with a laugh. “If I had to vote to have accepted him as chief I would have done it. I’m proud of his accomplishments. He is a people person and if I had to do it all over again I would do it.”

Blanton shared memories of his early days as an officer.

“My first shift was, … unique. They gave me a uniform that day and I went to work that night. We sat in the car and listened (to the scanner). I got a nickname from my training officer, Benny Rooster. There were many times he would reach over and grab my belt to stop me from running out to the car. He told me, ‘we’re using the car.”’

His decision to protect and serve the public at the age of 18 didn’t go over well with his grandparents who raised him and his siblings.

“My grandfather was very upset with me. He wanted me to go to college and be an engineer. He didn’t speak to me for the longest,” Blanton said. “When I told him I wanted to be a policeman he looked at me and said ‘you’re going to get yourself killed because you’re too stupid to know when to be afraid.’ I said you told me not to be afraid. We didn’t speak for two years but he finally came to understand what the job meant to me. I miss him. I think he was worried. He said it was a thankless job.”

The retiring police chief recalled the first time he was shot at in the line of duty and his worry not for grandparents.

“I was 19-years-old. It was June 19, 1977. I had been there a little over a year, he said of the incident that happened at the Jim Appliance warehouse in the 1100 block of Fort Worth. “I had a younger brother who lived at home with our grandparents. I called and told him to turn the radio off so our grandparents wouldn’t hear about it. He said it was too late, they had already heard. I just didn’t want my grandmother to get all worked up before I could tell her. It didn’t work that way, it hit the airwaves.”

As an officer of the law Blanton has seen his share of death. There was James Autry who shot and killed a store clerk between the eyes after arguing over the cost of a six pack of beer. Two witnesses were also shot, one in the head who died and another who was left with serious injuries. Autry was the second person in Texas to be executed after the death penalty was restored.

Then there was David Lee Holland, a bank robber who herded a bank manager and teller into a vault and shot and killed them in 1985.

“Myself and several other off-duty officers went and waited by a drainage canal near the airport and recovered the bank drawer,” he said adding the other officers were Brit Featherston and Kent Walston.

Port Arthur has also been home to not one but two serial killers in the past and Blanton was one of the responding officers when Elroy Chester held the city in a grip of terror. From 1997 to 1998 Chester killed five people. He was sentenced to death for the killing of Willie Ryman III, a Port Arthur firefighter.

Blanton was in Huntsville when Chester was executed in 2013.

In 2005 there was Gary Sinegal who beat two elderly women to death and stuffed their bodies in closets in their homes. Under a plea deal with the Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office he was not charged with the death of a third victim. A fourth victim was attacked and fought him off which led to his arrest. He is serving life in prison.

There were also times when Blanton had to make the hard decisions for the betterment of the city such as during 2005’s Hurricane Rita. He was acting chief, later appointed to chief, at the time.

“Probably the toughest time for me was during Rita,” he said. “Desperate time called for desperate measures. We commandeered stuff to make the city function in the interim. And we found a way to feed our workers. Marcello Molfino and Randy Moyer, that’s a debt I can never repay. I asked if they would help and they worked many, many hours in the most difficult situations.”

PAPD Det. Mark Holmes has been with the department for 33 years and has worked with Blanton through the years.

“He has been a cops cop since he hired on and always will be,” Holmes said. “If there was every anyone who wanted to be a policeman, it was Mark Blanton. He lives and breathes Port Arthur Police Department and all it entails.”

Behind the badge is a family man who isn’t one to boast of his community service.

Blanton would often make sure to pick up a box of crab claws form a local seafood restaurant and drop them off for his grandmother after his grandfather’s death, Holmes said.

“What most people don’t know about Blanton is that for years and years, if there were boys or young men who were in trouble or had been kicked out of their home or couldn’t make it financially he would give them a home and a place to stay. Make sure they got to school and back,” Holmes said. “He did that for quite a few young men to help them out. Fed them, clothed them and made sure all their needs were met and was involved in their schooling and all their school activities. He coached youth sports for years and went way over and above what anyone would ever expect.”

Blanton took these boys and young men fishing, some who never had the opportunity to get out. Some from broken homes with no father figure, he added.

Blanton got a different nickname while working with the youth — McGuiver, named after a then popular TV show. The chief explained that he would bring the kids out on his boat and they were amazed at what he could fix with a pocketknife.

He’s going to miss the men and women he’s worked with through the years.

“I’ve served with some good, hard working people. Very dedicated,” he said. “I’ve seen many officers take money out of their pocket to help those I need. It doesn’t get discussed. You now, one bad apple somewhere else brands it for all but doesn’t seem to affect bad doctors or lawyers. I’ve never met a police officer who got up it he morning intent on hurting someone, intent on doing anything other than serving the community.”

The department’s Blue Santa program grew from officers trying to help underprivileged children they encountered at Carver Terrace Apartments. There was a small group of kids they were trying to help. It’s not something they have to do; they did these things and still do. Police officers don’t want to be recognized for what they do. It’s not the big, tough, police image you see on TV. If they can do something they do it and go on. I’ve seen it time and time again.”

Blanton gives kudos to the beat cop, the ones who patrol the streets.

“A chief can be a chief and visible but the work gets done by the patrol officer. I never want to forget what it’s like to be a patrol officer,” he said. “You work a wreck in the rain, trying to help someone out in the cold. That’s where the work gets done.”

Mary Meaux 721-2429

Twitter: @MaryMeauxPANews