Time to put down the gun; Local investigator retires after 40 years
On her first day of retirement, Linda Patton enjoyed breakfast in bed and watched the “Today” show — both real treats for this Quincy woman who has spent the past 40 years waking up and going to work for Plumas County, the last 20 as its welfare fraud investigator.
“I loved my job, but I was just ready,” Patton said of her decision to retire.
Patton’s job took her to every corner of the county, and not always the most desirable ones. She didn’t wear a uniform, but she did carry a gun, a Taser and a walkie-talkie. She never knew what she would be walking into.
“I don’t make an appointment; I just show up,” she said during a recent interview, talking as if she were still on the job, just three days into her new life.
Impromptu visits allowed her to discover what was really happening in a home and it wasn’t uncommon to find illicit drugs, loaded guns or squalid living conditions.
Of the latter, Patton said that one of the first things she learned was that she couldn’t judge other people’s living conditions by her own standards. Still, there were limits to what would be considered tolerable, especially if there were children in the home.
“It always hurt the most to see children hurting,” she said, tearing up a bit as she recalled some of the situations she witnessed. Patton, a mother of three, would go home and hug her own children at the end of a rough workday.
But she would also do what she could to help. Sometimes that meant calling child protective services; other times it meant offering a helping hand.
“I never wanted to give people money,” Patton said. But she and her coworkers at social services would collect clothing, toiletries, food and gift cards to give to families or others who needed help.
“We don’t want to be the bad guys,” Patton said. “We are social services; we are there to help.”
Sometimes that would involve telling the family about other services that were available to them.
“When you see a family trying to help themselves, you want to help,” she said.
But as a welfare fraud investigator, she often found people trying to scam the system, such as people who were living in another state, those who received duplicate benefits, or those who had unreported assets or earnings.
She received leads from a state hotline, anonymous callers and tips from eligibility workers.
Once she had a lead, Patton went to work. When she was hired as the welfare fraud investigator, she attended the Basic Specialized Investigators Institute and the Academy for Welfare Fraud Investigators.
During the basic investigative training, Patton learned how to tail suspects, handle evidence and build a proper court case, among many other skills. “I learned anything to do with investigations,” she said.
Her work life sometimes spilled over into her personal life.
She said that Tom Vaglivielo, her partner of 20 years, would tell her “You’re not investigating these people,” when she asked a lot of questions of friends or acquaintances.
“It’s just my nature,” she said. “It’s just my nature to ask questions.”
She said that could be why her work life developed as it did.
Patton didn’t plan a career in law enforcement, but after taking several administration of justice classes at Feather River College, the field piqued her interest. Patton received her associate degree from Feather River College in 1972 as a member of its first graduating class.
She went to work for the sheriff’s department, first working in the front office and later transferring to dispatch.
In 1984, she moved over to social services and worked for Hank Klement, the county’s welfare fraud investigator. When he left in late 1989, she took over the job.
The position reported directly to the social services director, and since 1997 that has been Elliott Smart.
“She worked in the same field for the same general employer for 40 years. That’s rarified air,” Smart said. “And it’s emblematic of somebody who is dedicated to their work and their employer.”
Gayla Trumbo, the county’s human resources director, said that there are only a handful of employees who attain that many years of service.
But Smart’s respect for Patton extends beyond the years she has devoted to her profession.
“She was a sworn law enforcement officer,” Smart said, “but she had a sensitive side. She wanted people to do the right thing, but not in a heavy-handed way.”
Smart said he was often concerned about her personal safety, though she took the dangers of her job in stride.
“For whoever replaces her, she has set the bar pretty high,” he said.
The replacement process is under way and Patton is committed to training the new investigator.
Then she has a list of plans for retirement that includes traveling, boating and spending time with her family.
To help celebrate her new life, Patton’s co-workers threw her a farewell party on her last day of work and her children organized a retirement party for friends and family. The Plumas County Board of Supervisors presented a certificate of appreciation to Patton during its Nov. 6 meeting.