For Bobby Jack Woods, a 37-year veteran lawman, it isn’t easy being the sheriff in drug-ravaged Kentucky, where 1,404 people died from overdoses in 2016.
But his faith in God helps him handle the heart-wrenching plague of drug abuse he encounters on a daily basis.
In recent years, more Kentuckians have been dying from drug overdoses than from car crashes. Heartache, grief and brokenness are rampant.
Woods, a member of Unity Baptist Church in Ashland, serves Boyd County, which ranks among the Top 5 in Kentucky in overdose deaths. Paramedics there answered 230 overdose calls between January and September.
In Woods’ jurisdiction alone, first responders have spent $20,000 so far this year on Narcan, the drug administered to reverse heroin and fentanyl overdoes. The drug has been successful in saving nearly 200 lives in Boyd County this year.
“Being a sheriff in Kentucky is a test of faith, and I mean that sincerely,” he said. “You see so much heartache. There are times when you wonder why God lets people suffer or why God lets people do some of the things they do.”
At the end of the day, though, Woods remains thankful that he can lean on his faith as he goes about his duties to protect and to serve amid an opioid crisis that some political leaders have described as “a scourge.”
Heroin and, increasingly, fentanyl — a lethal narcotic even in low doses – are ravaging the state, pushing overdose deaths to unprecedented levels, according to the 2016 Overdose Fatality Report from the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy.
While nearly every community in Kentucky has been affected, Boyd County has been among those hit the hardest.
A new direction
Woods, the son of a Baptist preacher, grew up in church in Catlettsburg, but he didn’t come to know the Lord until he was 44. In his words, he had been doing “everything I could to be sent to hell.” The change in his life was dramatic.
It was while still a state trooper working on a security detail for former Gov. Paul Patton when he learned that he had a heart blockage. He was petrified about his eternal destination if he didn’t make it.
“I remember being on that table and being scared for maybe the first time in my life,” he said. “I wasn’t ready to die, and I knew it.”
Woods decided it was time for a new direction in his life.
“I said ‘If you get me through this, I’ll do what’s right.’ He did and I have,” Woods said.
Woods said he has never looked back as far as his profession of faith is concerned.
“Every night my prayer is to give me wisdom to make right decisions,” Woods said.
Kentucky Baptist Convention Executive Director Paul Chitwood said Woods has done precisely what Christian men and women need to do — get involved.
“I’m thankful Southern Baptists are willing to step up for such a time as this,” Chitwood said. “We have so many people who are gifted of God to minister amid the pain and brokenness in our state, nation and world. They’re ministering from every angle, including law enforcement and government. It’s reassuring to know Christians like Bobby Jack Woods are standing in the gap.”
Lord, give me grace
Woods, 62, was elected sheriff nearly three years ago, taking over for Terry Keelin, a popular lawman and local high school football hero who decided not to run for re-election.
Overseeing a department with 27 deputies, 11 court security officers and three full-time office workers, Woods had worked every day since taking office in January 2015 until, finally, he and his wife planned a getaway in Gatlinburg, Tenn.
The first morning there, his cellphone began ringing non-stop. Rod Williamson, one of his deputies, had been hospitalized after being struck by a car driven by a fleeing suspect who was later charged with attempted murder.
Lt. Jamie Reihs recalled that Woods made a beeline for home and worked into the early-morning hours to track down the suspect, who was later captured in Virginia.
“I prayed ‘Lord, give me the grace to handle this; they’re looking for me to be strong,'” Woods said.
God answered that prayer for the sheriff who had served 20 years as a Kentucky state trooper, more than six of which were on the governor’s security detail.
Reclaiming the neighborhoods
Now he’s on the front lines of the war against drugs.
“We’ve got to take the neighborhoods back,” Woods said.
The drug epidemic has fueled other crimes, keeping the court dockets and jails full. Woods said he recently arrested a young man who had four burglaries in a single day because “he had to get a couple of days’ supply of heroin.”
The drug problem, Woods said, isn’t limited to the young. Not long ago, a couple, 72 and 73 years old, were found dead of overdoses in an Ashland motel.
“There’s no age limit,” Woods said.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions declared drug overdose deaths “the top lethal issue” in the nation. Speaking at the annual conference of the National Alliance for Drug Endangered Children, Sessions said preliminary data show nearly 60,000 overdose deaths nationally in 2016, the highest number ever.
“Our current drug epidemic is indeed the deadliest in American history,” he said. “We’ve seen nothing like it.”
In Boyd County, Woods’ deputies worked 14 overdoses in one 24-hour span beginning June 30, the result of a powerful strand of heroin brought into the area.
Woods said the drug problem has “reached past an epidemic to biblical plague proportions.”
— Mark Maynard writes for Kentucky Today, www.kentuckytoday.com, where this article first appeared. Kentucky Today is a news resource of the Kentucky Baptist Convention.