SALT LAKE CITY — Lee Perry has a corner office on the fourth floor of the Utah Capitol with picturesque views of both the south and west sides of Salt Lake County.
Perry, R-Perry, watched as the snow fell outside his window one day this past week and admitted that for the first time in 30 years, it didn’t give him anxiety.
“I look out the window and see it snowing today, and I don’t feel the stress I used to feel when I saw snow. For years … when it snowed, I was always a little bit on edge because I worried that somebody is going to get hit. I’ve been hit. I’ve seen many of my guys get hit. And that was always a big stresser for me. Not to mention the citizens driving up and down our highways getting hurt,” he said.
But now, for the first time in many years, once Perry finishes his day at the Capitol, he won’t have to hurry home and change into a Utah Highway Patrol uniform.
Perry just retired from the UHP after a storied three decade career. His name has almost become synonymous with northern Utah where he not only grew up, but he also became the UHP lieutenant over Box Elder, Cache and Rich counties, in addition to representing the people of that area in the Utah House of Representatives.
Perry admits he has a passion for the people of northern Utah and making sure they got home safe at night was important to him.
But the constant worrying about both the public and his own troopers — particularly when it snowed — took a toll on him both mentally and physically.
“I didn’t realize the impact it was having on me personally and on my family until this last summer,” he said.
It was when he and his wife took a cruise to Alaska to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary — when he had no cellphone service and had the chance to truly take a step back from the job — that he recognized the toll that the stress of the job was having on him.
As Perry explains it, people, like cars, operate on red, yellow and green. Law enforcers, he said, are constantly working in yellow, always cautious about what’s going to happen.
“Especially when you’re a supervisor. You worry about your people, you worry about what’s going to happen,” he said.
It takes a huge emotional toll every time you have to go up and tell someone their loved one is not coming home,
But while he was on his cruise and unable to use his phone to check on what was happening, Perry said he had no choice but to be in “green” mode for seven days. By the end of the trip, his wife noted to him, “You’re a different person.”
“I was in green for that whole week in Alaska. I didn’t worry about anything. I was hitting all the traffic lights green and I was like, ‘This is awesome.’ And we got done and my wife said, ‘I think you’re getting close to the end,’” Perry recalled.
What may have finally pushed him to retirement was in September when UHP Sgt. Brian Nelson was hit while on I-15. For Perry, who was Nelson’s supervisor, it was another unwanted moment of being in the “red” because another trooper was hit. After several minutes of uncertainty about what had happened and after calling for a medical helicopter, Perry said Nelson’s own voice came over the police radio.
“I don’t need a stupid helicopter,” said Nelson, whose injuries were not life-threatening.
While Perry can now chuckle at Nelson’s response, the stress at that time may have been enough for him to call it a day.
“That 3 to 5 minutes of red adrenaline, I said, ‘I don’t want to do that again.’”
After consulting with his wife, he said it was their joint decision to retire.
But the job wasn't all stress all the time. There were also elements of both service and excitement that kept Perry going back for more, even after he originally planned to retire after 20 years.
“I think the same thing that brought me in, kept me here. I got in for the excitement, the love, the joy of serving people. And driving fast cars. That’s kind of what drew me in, a little bit. Serving people and helping people and having an impact on people’s lives, I think is what got me into the patrol and kept me there. I just didn’t want to give that up.”
‘This is sweet’
Becoming a police officer, however, wasn’t a career that Perry could originally see himself having. In fact, after his brother was killed, his feelings were quite the opposite.
In 1984, Bradley Newell Perry was two days shy of his 23rd birthday and working a graveyard shift at the Perry Texaco Short Stop convenience store in Box Elder County when he was stabbed multiple times, bound and bludgeoned to death.
The case went cold for many years, frustrating Lee Perry and his family. On top of that, Perry said his stereo was stolen out of his car that same summer.
“I wanted nothing to do with law enforcement at that point,” he recalled. “I was more upset with law enforcement. ‘Why can’t they solve this murder? Why can’t they find they guy who took my stereo?’ Instead, I get pulled over while delivering pizzas. ‘Don’t (police) have anything better to do?’”
But while serving a mission in Texas for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Perry said his perspective began to change after he was pulled over by a trooper in that state for a minor traffic violation.
“He didn’t know what church we were, but he had a brother on a mission for his church, and he said, ‘People who work in these type of clergy jobs can’t afford tickets, so I’m not writing you a ticket,’” Perry recalled.
When Perry returned from his mission, he got a job at the Flying J in Brigham City and later the Flying J in Willard. In his mind, he was going to get a business degree at Utah State University and continue working for Flying J.
But in 1988, his family encouraged him to apply for a job opening for the Utah Highway Patrol at the Willard port of entry. At that time, port of entry officers were special function officers and not fully certified law enforcers. They acted as policemen only while on duty at the port. Perry’s family told him the job paid better than Flying J and he could use the time to study for school.
Perry applied and got the job. One day, a UHP trooper — future Box Elder County Sheriff Leon Jensen — went to the port and asked Perry if he wanted to go for a ride-along. Perry agreed and got into Jensen’s UHP-issued Mustang 5.0 just as a semitrailer blew by the port of entry without stopping. The next thing he knew, Jensen and the 22-year-old Perry were doing 100 mph on the freeway to catch up with the semi and pull it over.
“This is sweet,” was Perry’s reaction. “By the time the day was over I was thinking, ‘This is so cool. We get to help people. We get to drive fast. This is the job I want to do.’ When I got done that day I was hooked. I want to be a trooper. How do I do this?”
Soon, Perry found himself going through the police academy and was hired by the UHP. And although it didn’t happen to every trooper, he was assigned a Mustang.
After 31 years, @UTHighwayPatrol Lt. Lee Perry is retiring. Today was his last day. On @KSL5TV at 10, we’ll get into what led him into law enforcement as well as what the hardest part of the job was. #ksltv#utahpic.twitter.com/JZQi8JT2xg— Alex Cabrero (@KSL_AlexCabrero) January 1, 2020
Years later, after his brother’s murder case had been reopened and the Utah State Crime Lab began retesting forensic evidence collected years ago, he got a call from his friend at the lab. Perry said at the time it was against protocol — and it was something he couldn't tell anybody for years — but his friend told him first that the lab had come up with a DNA match on a suspect.
The crime lab was required to give that information only to the Box Elder County Sheriff’s Office so it could continue its investigation. But in this case, Perry said years of law enforcement friendships took precedence.
“It was cool to be a law enforcement family,” he said. “I was grateful they had my back.”
In 2008, Glenn Howard Griffin was convicted of capital murder for the death of Bradley Perry. A jury spared him the death penalty and sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole. It was only years later that Lee Perry admitted that he was told first that the crime lab had identified a suspect in his brother’s cold case murder.
Officers’ mental health
It was because of his own experience with police during the time his brother was murdered that Perry made it a personal commitment to make sure that death notifications were done right. Because his wasn’t. And he didn't want any family to be told their loved one had been killed in the way his family was told, he said.
But Perry admits that every time he had to knock on a door in the middle of the night, he gave a little piece of himself away,
“It takes a huge emotional toll every time you have to go up and tell someone their loved one is not coming home,” he said.
That’s why he said it’s important that as law enforcement moves forward, more is done to help troopers and officers deal with mental health issues and for peer counseling to be provided.
When Perry was a rookie trooper, that was something that was unheard of. He recalled an incident over an Easter weekend when he responded to a crash and found a girl in the driver’s seat struggling to breathe. Perry thought he’d get the girl out and be a hero.
But when Perry removed the girl’s seat belt to move her, “I find her brother behind her and he’s broken her neck in back as he wasn’t wearing a seat belt and flies across and hits her and kills her and she dies basically right there in my arms,” he said.
Instead of being a hero, Perry was now looking at two dead siblings. It had an impact on him, he said. His supervisors just told him to “buck up.”
“My supervisors back then were like, ‘That fatal bother you?’ ‘A little bit.’ ‘Well buck it up, dude.’ And that was the attitude 30 years ago, buck it up. Figure it out. Nobody suggested go see a counselor. Nobody talked about feelings 30 years ago. And we have changed that,” he said.
Over the years, Perry was also affected by close friends and co-workers who were killed in the line of duty.
In 2012, his good friend Aaron Beesley, 34, a UHP tactical flight officer, was part of a crew rescuing two teenagers stuck on Mount Olympus Trail. A UHP helicopter spotted the teens and picked them off the mountain. Beesley stayed on the mountain to make room for the teens. When the helicopter returned for Beesley, they found his body at the bottom of a 90-foot cliff.
“Losing Aaron was a big deal to me. It impacted me, and I was like, ‘Maybe I’m done,’” Perry recalled. “Then after talking with his widow, there were still things I could accomplish, so I stuck it out.”
Then in 2016, trooper Eric Ellsworth, 31, of Brigham City, was hit by a car driven by an inexperienced 16-year-old girl while trying to direct other vehicles around a traffic hazard along a rural stretch of state Route 13 near Garland, Box Elder County.
“And that one was harder, because I was like, ‘Why me? Why have I had to go through this twice?’ And I questioned it really big time in 2016, ‘Maybe it’s time to go,’” Perry recalled.
Still, he continued to serve for three more years. But the constant worrying of whether he was going to get another phone call in the middle of the night informing him about another trooper being hit, or having to make another death notification to a family, remained.
While admitting the mental health needs of law enforcers has improved over the past three decades, Perry said more still needs to be done to change that mindset of “buck it up” in order to afford troopers a sustainable career.
Serving northern Utah
In spite of the stress, Perry said he wouldn’t have stayed with the UHP so long if he didn’t love the job.
He took particular pride in getting drunken drivers off the road, and would often come home late from work because he needed to make “one more stop.”
“That was a big deal to me,” he said. “To me, I was making a difference.”
Perry also looked forward to helping a motorist change a flat tire on the side of the freeway or giving a teddy bear to a child involved a crash as a way of letting them know everything would be OK.
“That felt good. I loved that part of service.”
He recalled another time when he helped U.S. servicemen who needed to get to the airport. It was also because of that incident that Perry has kept his trademark mustache for nearly his entire career.
When he was a rookie trooper, Perry was assigned to go to the Utah-Wyoming border at Evanston and pick up two military members who needed to get to the Salt Lake City International Airport but their car had broken down.
Perry picked them up and the trio went speeding away in his Mustang to Salt Lake City. But as the three young looking men passed semi trucks along their way, some truck drivers began to question what was happening.
“I think three kids just stole a highway patrol car,” Perry and others heard a trucker exclaim over his CB radio.
While the incident was good for laugh, Perry said he also didn’t like his baby face, so he grew a mustache that has essentially remained to this day.
Over his career, Perry has worked in Salt Lake County, was assigned to Gov. Mike Leavitt’s security detail, became the UHP Association president and fought for trooper pay raises, helped during the 2002 Olympics, and worked with the Utah Hope Project, a program by the Utah Department of Public Safety that helps fulfill the wishes of children with terminal or potentially terminally illnesses. Perry said through the program he has helped children do everything from going to Disneyland to meeting the Backstreet Boys.
It was in 1992 while serving on Leavitt’s team that Perry again experienced tragedy. Trooper Joey Brumett was hit and killed while assisting with another accident on I-15.
Perry also became heavily involved in starting the effort to erect roadside crosses for fallen troopers and is the legislative liaison for the Utah Law Enforcement Memorial that stands on the grounds of the Capitol outside his window.
In his office at the Capitol, a framed Deseret News photograph of him and other troopers installing Brumett’s roadside cross is his favorite,
About the same time state lawmakers made changes to the retirement pensions of law enforcers, a lot of senior UHP troopers retired, Perry said. That soon result in an opening in Box Elder County.
For Perry, who was born and raised in Brigham City, he called it his “dream job.” His wife and both of their families are from that area. Because of that, Perry said he has a passion for protecting the people in that area that other UHP supervisors might not.
On Dec. 31, many of those people whom he served for so long attended a goodbye party hosted by the UHP in Perry’s honor.
“Congratulations,” said UHP Col. Michael Rapich as he gave a framed plaque and certificate to Perry, followed by a round of applause from those in attendance.
“He will be missed. He has been a valuable part of this community and someone I knew I could always rely on for help,” said Brigham City Police Chief Michael Nelson.
“I knew if I ever needed anything, Lee would be there to help,” added Box Elder County Sheriff Kevin Potter.
“This community will greatly miss you,” said one woman.
“Thank you for everything you have done,” said a man while holding Perry’s shoulder.
In addition to members of Perry’s family, Kristie Beesley, Aaron Beesley’s widow, was in attendance.
In 2010, Perry took his dedication to public service in northern Utah a step further by being elected to the Utah House. As to whether the upcoming legislative session will also be his last, Perry hasn't made that decision yet.
Neither has Perry revealed what is in store for him next. But he said he will likely find another job. While his wife was on board with him retiring from the UHP, Perry said his wife also informed him, “Don’t expect to just sit around the house,” he said with a laugh.
Contributing: Alex Cabrero