After 33 years with the Department of Public Safety, including 14 years in the Rim Country, Sgt. John Whetten has seen and experienced it all.
From being the first on scene at a fatal car accident, to collecting the deceased’s personal belongings — a necklace, a few coins, maybe a handkerchief they were wearing — and finally delivering them to the grieving family who hold onto the items like they do the memories.
Whetten knows grief on a professional, as well as personal level. He lost his own son in a motorcycle collision three years ago. But Whetten also knows the joy of public service having busted countless drug deals, chop shops and other dangerous criminals.
Since Whetten’s retirement a little more than a week ago, he says he hasn’t had time to reflect on all the memories, but hopes to make a few new ones with his three remaining sons, parents and fiancee.
“I don’t want to push my luck anymore,” Whetten said, “I want to be around for my parents and boys.”
In October 2005, Whetten tragically lost his son Daryl Rhett Whetten in a motorcycle accident in Mexico. Daryl had just been hired by the U.S. Border Patrol and was looking forward to a new career near the border. When Daryl was killed, Whetten said it drastically changed his outlook on his career and how he handled fatalities.
“For 33 years I had to go and tell parents that there loved one had died, but it is totally different now,” he said.
“I can remember the exact day, time and what I was doing when I found out Daryl had died. I take the time now to help answer their questions, show them the exact location where there loved one died, give them all of their personal items and tell them their final words. I do this because I know how much it meant to me.”
Whetten, who planned his retirement five years ago, says he was looking forward to spending more time with Daryl after retirement.
“I was so looking forward to spending time with him and I am mad he did not wait for me.”
Whetten had plans to restore Daryl’s 1969 Camaro RSS with him, but now says he will complete the car in Daryl’s memory.
Along with the Camaro, Whetten plans to restore several other cars, including a 1965 Pontiac LeMans convertible, 1970 El Camino super sport, 1971 Chevelle SS and 1966 Chevrolet short bed truck.
“I love cars obviously,” Whetten said.
Whetten is finishing construction work on his new home in the Rim Country, the seventh house he has built. The home has room for four cars upstairs in the garage and eight cars downstairs along with a 3,200-square-foot home attached. When finished with the home, Whetten said he plans to take several, long vacations with his fiancee, retired DPS officer Bernadette Koren, who also had her fair share of close calls in her years of service.
Two days into her new job as a police officer with the DPS, Koren was shot. On her ninth traffic stop of her career in Winslow she got into a gunfight with a wanted fugitive.
Koren was shot once in the back, but her vest deflected the bullet directly between her arm and chest sending the bullet through her arm.
Like Koren, Whetten has been in his fair share of gunfights, but was luckily never hit. In 1989, a man pointed a .22 long barrel rifle at him in a Valley church parking lot, but Whetten’s partner shot the man before he could fire on him.
Whetten said he never planned to be an officer and definitely never planned to spend his life on call 24 hours a day. Like most, he fell into the job and never left.
“I started with DPS in 1975 due to an economy similar to today,” he said. “I had been laid off several times in construction and I was looking for something more stable.”
Whetten was familiar with DPS because his uncle, Officer Gib Duthie, was killed on the Beeline Highway on Sept. 5, 1970 in an automobile accident at the Sycamore Creek Bridge and his father served as a reservist with DPS. But, Whetten never once thought he would become an officer.
“I was going to be an architect,” he said. “I never thought I would be a cop.”
Needing a new job to support his growing family, Whetten applied at DPS and was finally hired as a patrol officer in Globe.
“I thought it would be a temporary thing.”
Several years later, he was moved to the Apache Trails area for motorcycle patrol and then served four years on the SWAT team. By 1984, he had moved into the criminal investigation department and was promoted to auto theft supervisor in 1985.
For six years, Whetten worked in an undercover sting operation that busted vehicle thieves and narcotic dealers in the East Valley. The unit was only supposed to run six months, but after busting 60 felons in half a year, the unit continued another five years.
Spending time undercover was Whetten’s favorite time with the department.
“It was so much fun dealing with these guys, it was like a chess game trying to figure out their next move,” he said.
One of the more memorable busts Whetten took part in was arresting a car salesperson at a Tex Earnhardt dealership who was selling new cars for $150.
“We would tell him what we wanted and he would drive them off the back lot and sell them,” he said. “We bought three cars off him, because once you have three controlled buys, the attorneys office can show a jury that it was not entrapment.”
Another time, Whetten spent several weeks frequenting a strip club that was selling drugs. “I would get the dancers confidence and get them to sell to us. The only hard thing was they wanted to party with us afterwards.”
After the sting operation ended, Whetten headed south to work on a border liaison group that recovered stolen property from Mexico. Then in 1993, Whetten headed to Tucson to start up a sting operation with the Tucson Police Department.
“While I was in Tucson I got a call about a Payson job and I wanted to get back to a small town, so I brought my four kids up here.”
For the next 14 years, Whetten served as supervisor in the Payson area.
“I reached a point in my career where it was fun. I never expected it to be a job that I wanted, but I found myself waking up every day looking forward to it.”