The happy grin he’d flash at having told another dumb joke would fall to a scowl at mention of his work.
It wasn’t that Donn Witt didn’t like his work, he loved it. But after 11 years with the Sheriff’s Department, he spoke more critically of the criminal justice system which seemed to frustrate his efforts to put crooks in jail.
Witt, 35, recovered from more serious diseases than most people every face – hepatitis, cirrhosis of the liver, ulcer, peritonitis, cancer of the colon. He could have retired any time, but instead always returned to his cluttered desk in the detective division at the Vista Sheriff’s Station.
“He was a dedicated cop,” was the phrase most often used by deputies trying to find the right words to say about Witt, who died Sept. 25, at Mercy Hospital from liver failure and chronic hepatitis. The deputies also remembered Witt’s endless repertoire of bad jokes and John Wayne – hero worship.
Witt was the driving force behind many major criminal investigations in Vista and San Marcos, recalled one of his former partners. Witt received a Distinguished Service Award for his work in closing 150 area burglaries and arresting 18 suspects in a two-month period of 1980.
He also received five exemplary performance citations, a plaque from the City of San Marcos in appreciation for his work there, and he was rated “above standard” in every annual work evaluation.
“He did more than what was required in the performance of his job,” said sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. Sam Miranda. “His last performance evaluation indicated he had an 89.4 percent rate of closing workable cases. That’s high – it means he was out there working hard.”
From 1972-75, Witt was assigned to patrol duties in Vista. In 1974 he contracted hepatitis from handling a prisoner who had the disease. Mrs. Witt said he was never told he should get a shot to prevent infection, and the county has accepted all responsibility for his subsequent medical bills.
Witt had taken a formal permanent injury leave from the department on Sept. 5, but one deputy who had been a close friend for years said if Witt had recovered from his last struggle, he probably would have postponed retirement once more.
Mrs. Witt reflected that she had wanted him to quit, but knew it would do no good to say so. “There is a lot of camaraderie in the detective division. They’re very close, like family,” she said. “It would have been hard on Donn to lose that.
“Donn could have retired, gone off and taken care of himself. But he wouldn’t have been happy. He enjoyed helping people. He thought if he didn’t care, no one would; it had to start with someone.”