By Melissa Powell

Police officer Cherie Padgett established such a strong bond with a 4-year-old sexual assault victim that the little girl would call 911 in Roanoke to try to reach her.

The girl, who had been sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend in Clifton Forge, was placed with her father in Roanoke, where police officers would transfer her calls to Padgett back in Clifton Forge.

Listen to: Female Cop Takes Tough Cases

Padgett, 39, was working as an officer for the Clifton Forge Police Department when she was assigned to the child’s case 11 years ago. She is now the first female and only investigator for the Lexington Police Department.

Police investigator Cherie Padgett (Photo by Melissa Powell)

“It was just really hard, and it was my first sexual assault case,” Padgett said. “I didn’t feel like I had a clue as to what I was doing.”

Padgett said the experience with the little girl helped her realize that she had a talent and passion for working with victims. She served as an officer in Clifton Forge for six years before joining the Lexington department in 2005.

Working with victims—from sexual assault to identity theft—is now a central part of her job description, which includes handling the “serious crimes” that can’t be solved quickly, Lexington police Capt. A.M. “Bucky” Miller said.

That means she does traditional detective work, such as interviewing witnesses, visiting crime scenes and putting together victims’ case files for the commonwealth’s attorney.

“I think when I’ve got a victim, I just focus on my victim,” Padgett said. “I realize that what I do has an impact on their outcome.”

The road to law enforcement

Padgett wasn’t much older than the 4-year-old sexual assault victim when she discovered she wanted to be in law enforcement. She still remembers being mesmerized by a visitor in Mrs. Cruz’s kindergarten class.

“Mrs. Cruz’s husband was a state trooper, and he came to our class with his police car and his shiny belt,” Padgett said. “It just made a really big impression on me in that point in my life.”

After she graduated from Alleghany High School, her parents refused to pay for her to go to college for a criminal justice degree.  Her mom was afraid that Padgett would get shot.

Instead she pursued a nursing degree at Dabney S. Lancaster Community College to please her mother, who was a registered nurse. But Padgett dropped out because she says she lost interest.

She worked as a bartender for several years until she met James Padgett. A week after they were engaged, Padgett found out that she was pregnant. They married in 1996 when their daughter, Chelsea, was 11 months old.

Her new family altered her lifestyle. Her husband, an engineer for Georgia-Pacific, a pulp and paper company, traveled for work. Padgett quit bartending, and she and her daughter went with him. Their second daughter, Harley, was born in 1998. Less than a year later, she was divorced, with no job, no financial support and no college degree.

“I had to bear down, and after I wiped the tears away and sulked in my pillow for a while, I realized that things weren’t going to change unless I changed them,” Padgett said. “So I started thinking about my childhood dreams and started putting applications out at different police departments.”

Padgett sent out several applications, but she needed money fast and the bigger police departments took longer to hire new officers. She had spent most of her life in Alleghany County, and when the Clifton Forge Police Department offered her a job, she jumped on it because she and her daughters could live with her parents.

A tomboy from the start

Padgett entered a man’s world. She was the only female officer in Clifton Forge, and she said she felt like she had to prove herself.

“I wasn’t so accepted right off the bat,” Padgett said. “So I wanted to show that I was a team player and wanted to do my part, show that they could depend on me.”

She started working over-time and taking the shifts of officers who called in sick.

It worked. In 2001, she was voted officer of the year. There was only one vote she didn’t get—her own. She felt bad voting for herself, she said.  

Padgett may wear mascara, occasionally play with her long blonde hair and carry her signature perfume, Beautiful by Estée Lauder, with her everywhere she goes, but she’s far from being a girly girl. She grew up on a farm, helping her father cut and sell hay.

“I liked boys, but I was still tough. They told me I was tougher than a pine knot.”

Two years after she started at Clifton Forge, she was assigned to the Drug Task Force, where she gained experience in investigations. Soon after, she decided to leave the police department and go back to the community college for a criminal justice degree. She said she had been saving money for school, but she soon ran out and needed a job that paid more.

That, she said, is what brought her to Lexington.

Life as supermom

Padgett didn’t have enough money to leave her parents’ home in Alleghany County, and she commuted to Lexington for the first three years of her new job.  She said she rarely saw her children because she worked long hours.

“I think it’s easier now that she’s an investigator and works mostly daylight, but when she was working patrol, it’s really hard to raise two small kids,” said Miller, who served as Padgett’s supervisor when she was a patrol officer.

“When we worked 4 in the afternoon to midnight, she’d see her kids when they went to school in the morning, but then she wouldn’t see them till the next morning,” he said. “She didn’t even see them to put them to bed. That’s really, really hard.”

Padgett saved enough money to move to Rockbridge County in 2008, when she bought a farm. She needed the land to keep her nine horses, which she and her daughters, now ages 16 and 13, ride.

Miller said that because she is a mother, she has a unique perspective.

“People can come in here and talk about things that I don’t understand because I don’t have kids, but she automatically understands it because she does have kids,” he said.

Padgett said she thinks that being a mother helped her bond with the little girl who used to call 911 to reach her.  The little girl and Padgett’s oldest daughter are the same age—another reason Padgett says she thinks she connected with the young victim.

A multitasking cop

Padgett was moved to the Drug Task Force a couple of years after she came to Lexington because of her experience in Clifton Forge. She soon became the narcotics investigator. When Chief Al Thomas reorganized the department in November 2010, he promoted Padgett to investigator.

That made Padgett busier than ever. She is also in charge of the department’s accreditation, which Miller calls “a full-time job in itself.”

When assessors from the Virginia Law Enforcement Professional Standards Commission come to look at the department, Padgett has to show that officers are complying with state standards on policy and procedures, management, operations and support services.

“If I say we give domestic assault victims a packet of resources that can help them through the bad times they’re going through, I have to show them and prove to them that we do it,” Padgett said.

She also writes policies and makes sure everyone in the department is aware of updates.

“Taking on accreditation has helped her realize that she can do anything she sets her mind to because sometimes she doubts herself,” Miller said. “But there is nothing that she can’t do, and I’m a firm believer in that.”

Her hours became more stable once she was promoted to investigator. She now usually works between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m.  But her workload tripled. On top of accreditation and investigations, where she can be working five or six cases at a time, she now has court appearances and meetings with the commonwealth’s attorney.  She said she is called to testify in court at least once a month.

David Natkin, a local defense attorney, said Padgett’s testimony is fair.

“She has a very good way with people. People like her and it’s easy to talk to her, which is a good quality for a cop and particularly someone in her line of work,” he said. “She’s just very down to earth and very personable.”

Communicating to the community

Having daughters has made Padgett hypersensitive to young women’s ignorance about recognizing dangerous situations and relationships.

Padgett works with Project Horizon, a sexual assault prevention and outreach program in Lexington, and speaks to members of the sororities at Washington and Lee University about protecting themselves.

“I like to spice things up and make it interesting so I keep their attention. I’m not telling them, ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that,’ because they get enough of that from their parents,” Padgett said.

She said she tells young women to change into pajamas to create a laid-back atmosphere.

“I’ve got a sense of humor about it,” she said. “I’m not a stick in the mud. I like to crack jokes. Deep down, I’m a girl, too. I like to poke a little fun.”

Leonard Stuart, Project Horizon’s director of community service, praised Padgett for taking time to talk to the W&L women.

“Cherie’s a credible person, which is a huge trait to have as a police officer, as an investigator,” he said. “Credibility and the ability to communicate with folks are key elements that are needed in law enforcement, and I think she possesses those.”

Padgett said she just hopes to impact people—in a small or big way.

“Every time I go to a school to speak, I think back to kindergarten with that state trooper,” she said. “I always wonder if there’s that one kid out there, a little girl, who’s looking at me, thinking, ‘I can do that!’”