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– Just days after patrolling Stearns County in his squad car, Sgt. Steve Soyka got a big promotion, moving into the wood-paneled corner office at the local law enforcement center as the top cop in one of Minnesota’s highest profile and increasingly diverse counties.

Soyka, who started his new job last week, is the first new sheriff in the central Minnesota county in 16 years. He succeeds John Sanner, who retired in 2017 before his term was up and was replaced by Don Gudmundson, who, as interim sheriff, criticized the department’s “squandered” handling of the Jacob Wetterling abduction and murder case. The fate of the 11-year-old boy, who was abducted near his home in St. Joseph, Minn., by a masked man in October 1989, remained a mystery for 27 years until Danny Heinrich confessed in 2016 to kidnapping and killing him.

Soyka, 49, a 24-year employee of the sheriff’s department, who lives in St. Stephen, defeated Waite Park Police Chief Dave Bentrud in the November election. He said one of his top priorities as sheriff will be to rebuild trust with residents of the 1,300-square-mile county.

“That’s probably what Stearns County will always be known for,” Soyka said of the haunting Wetterling case. “And the reality is, really there’s not many people that are working here that were part of any of that. … Hopefully we learn from some of that [case].”

Soyka hopes to rebrand and market the department to boost recruiting and build trust through more community outreach. He wants the department to tap social media more for public updates, mend strained relationships with other agencies and establish a group with deputies and Somali-American leaders to bridge gaps between law enforcement and the refugee community.

“I’m hoping over time the agency evolves,” he said.

As sheriff, Soyka oversees the jail, a $24 million budget and 222 full-time employees.

The department — like law enforcement across Minnesota — faces more mental health-related calls, which is why a quarter of the staff has completed crisis intervention training to learn how to better de-escalate situations. The county also is cracking down on drug arrests, mostly meth, and sex trafficking, arresting both traffickers and sex buyers. Last year, the county, along with Waite Park and St. Cloud police, started a new sex trafficking task force.

“I like the positive approach he has,” said Stearns County Attorney Janelle Kendall.

Soyka said he has aspired to be sheriff since he was a teen growing up in St. Cloud. At 15, he joined the Explorer Program, which gives teens and young adults a glimpse of the profession through police ride-alongs and other events. After graduating from St. Cloud State University, Soyka worked for the Benton County Sheriff’s Office for five years before moving next door to Stearns in 1996. He is the county’s 29th sheriff.

“It is a big responsibility jump and there’s some people out there in the community that were like, ‘How are you going to be able to do it?’ ” he said last week. “But I will say, one of the benefits is I’ve been in the Sheriff’s Office for 24 years now, so I’ve seen the highs and lows of this place. … It’s a dream come true.”

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141