Michelle Walden was an 18-year-old waitress at Western Sizzlin’ on Washington Road when she became friends with a couple of special duty Richmond County deputies who asked whether she saw herself being a waitress the rest of her life.
“They told me to go down to the sheriff’s office and apply for a job,” she said. “I thought, why not?”
Now in her sixth year as an investigator with the fraud division, and 28 years after she put on her deputy’s uniform, Walden admits she never planned to go into law enforcement. The only girl of four children still smiles when she thinks about what her brothers thought of her career choice.
After years as a road patrol deputy and an investigator in violent crimes and sex crimes, one incident still haunts her.
In 1997, part-time WFXA-FM disc jockey Irene Shields, 31, was assigned to Walden. She said she was scared of her boyfriend, Garry Deyon Johnson.
Walden checked Johnson’s background and found out he had a violent criminal history, including being accused of murder. When Walden asked Shields whether she knew about his history, she said she did.
Johnson had not assaulted Shields, so investigators could not arrest him, but Walden said she had a bad feeling.
Walden’s team sent Shields to a shelter and told her to stay there. On Dec. 27, she disappeared. The next day, her mangled body was found in Burke County. She had been bound and gagged and run over repeatedly with a vehicle.
In November 2000, Johnson was sentenced to life without parole for killing Shields.
“You always think, was there more I could have done?” Walden said. “Did I do enough?”
After six years in violent crimes, Walden was moved to sex crimes.
“It was the worst three years of my life,” she said. “It hit a little too close to home.”
She was raising her four children and her 2-year-old niece at the time and saw cases involving children close to their ages.
At the end of 2005, Walden happily traded jobs with an investigator in the fraud division who was trying to get into violent crimes. She said she has never looked back.
As a technical crimes investigator, Walden deals with all types of fraud, from counterfeit money to identity theft. It is not uncommon to see more than five cases a day, she said.
“This is a whole different world,” she said. “I had no idea how much fraud happens on a daily basis.”
The No. 1 crime she sees is credit card fraud. She said people either give their card to a family member to grab something from the grocery store only to discover they took it to the mall, or the card gets stolen.
Older people tend to be victimized by scam artists, she said. On a weekly basis, she runs into a case in which an elderly person was contacted by a fake relative who needed money in another state. In the confusion, the elderly person sometimes ends up sending thousands.
“Never give your information over the phone if the person called you,” Walden said. “If you initiated the call, you will be a little safer.”
She also advises parents to regularly check their children’s credit. Sometimes new parents post information that can be easily accessible to criminals. It can be 15 or 20 years before the parents realize what happened, and children can spend the rest of their lives dealing with it.
Walden said the most difficult part of her job is keeping up with the technology.
“When you think you’ve seen it all, the next thing comes along,” she said.