By Gail Penniman
In 1996 Tom Gilbertson was awarded the Silver Medal of Valor for diffusing a potentially lethal situation when a disturbed individual near Big Basin State Park aimed a .357 Magnum at his face. In his quiet and humble way, Gilbertson tells the 21-year-old tale, about how the individual came out of it with non-life threatening injuries and that he and the park ranger who called for assistance were unharmed. The Silver Medal of Valor is the second highest award law enforcement professionals can receive and the Gold is usually awarded posthumously.
How it All Began
Tom Gilbertson and his six siblings grew up in Santa Cruz, raised by a very determined single mother, Dolores Weiss. His ancestors came here from the east coast around 1910, having originated in England and France the century before. After attending several local elementary schools, he graduated from Branciforte Junior High School and spent four years at Harbor High School when it first opened. As a senior he decided on a career in law enforcement then entered Cabrillo College’s “Police Science” program – later known as “Administration of Justice.” In 1974 he earned his AS degree and in 1975 became a reservist for the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office.
In September of 1976, Gilbertson was hired as a full time Sheriff’s Deputy. For the next 25 years, he worked in local law enforcement. He explained that in small first-responder agencies such as ours, deputies perform the duties of patrol officers and detectives for different tours alternately and sometimes simultaneously. He served as a detective from 1987 to 1989 and then from 1997 to 2001 for the Sheriff’s Office.
Gilbertson worked as a member of every specialty team during those 25 years, including Domestic Violence, SWAT, Dive Team, Bomb Team, Search and Rescue and performed as a Field Officer Trainer. In 1979 the Dive Team had just completed a training that included a simulated water crash of an aircraft in the Monterey Bay. About a month later, an open cockpit bi-plane was performing stunts over the bay when one wing clipped the water and it went under. After two days of searching, his team recovered the plane finding the unfortunate pilot still strapped in his seat. In his career, he has performed dozens of dives to recover evidence and the deceased.
As part of Search and Rescue Gilbertson was trained in man-tracking, a skill that proved useful while assisting with the Trailside Killer Case in the 1980s when David Carpenter began his killing spree. Gilbertson searched trails in the local State Park system for a shoe track that was unique to the case.
District Attorney Inspector
In 2001, Gilbertson knew that his rotation as Sheriff’s Detective was coming to an end and he would be returning to patrol status. At this time the District Attorney’s office offered him a lateral move, to become a full-time DA inspector. He tells us that the investigative process between the two departments is very similar. The patrol officers start the case for the Sheriff and turn it over to the detectives for investigation. When enough evidence is collected to bring charges, the District Attorney can file the case and the suspect is arraigned. In major misdemeanors and all felonies, the Assistant District Attorney who has the case will often need further investigation because in order to get a conviction there must be enough evidence to go beyond a reasonable doubt. That is when DA Inspectors like Gilbertson take over.
In Domestic Violence cases, DA Inspectors might carry dozens of cases simultaneously. In the case of a homicide, they might work one case exclusively, but if they need to go into hazardous situations, they take another DA Inspector with them or an officer from another agency. There’s a lot of teamwork involved.
A memorable case for Inspector Gilbertson was when he was working on a multi-agency task force involved in undercover investigations. He wore his hair quite long so he could blend in to the culture. The Auto Theft Task Force worked in concert with Narcotics and set up a fake auto repair shop where they “bought” stolen cars and methamphetamine from gang members. Over a year they were able to gather enough evidence to yield 58 arrest warrants! In his homicide work, Gilbertson has a 100% conviction rate!
Advice to Aspiring Detectives
Gilbertson says that people hoping for a career in law enforcement first need to get a uniformed officer position, pay your dues, stay motivated, keep learning and seize every opportunity to contribute. After a few years on patrol, apply for a detective position and if fortunate enough to get the assignment, work the cases well and be a team player. If detective work is what you want long-term, consider the DA’s office.
In 1997 while working in the Domestic Violence Division, Gilbertson made the acquaintance of a woman named Patricia who was a DV Advocate with Woman’s Crisis Support. They worked on many cases together. In 1998 the acquaintance became more of a friendship and in 2000 she and Tom Gilbertson were married. Patricia later began running a daycare and every Wednesday she provided her amazing baked goods for the kids’ parents. Soon these wonderful treats were coming to the DA’s office too. Now that Tom is retired, as of May 5, 2017, they will have lots more adventures together and with their children and many grandchildren. Gilbertson also plans to seize opportunities to take his Harley onto the roadways of our beautiful county and state. All the best to you Tom Gilbertson and thank you for 41 years of service!