William Stowell stays open about his past.

Botetourt County sheriff’s deputies arrested him in 2015 for third-offense driving under the influence. He pleaded guilty, spent three months in jail, and decided to turn his life around when he was released.

This experience — seeing jail from the inside, struggling with addiction, living as a convicted felon — is why Stowell, 37, believes he’s fit to become Botetourt County’s next sheriff. He announced his run as an independent in February on his YouTube channel, Fincastle Underground.

“My position is that in America, you should be able to do and be whatever you want as long as you’re not hurting anyone else,” he said to his more than 17,000 subscribers from all over the world. The video drew more than 2,000 views and 80 comments — all praising Stowell.

“I have been hoping you would eventually make this announcement,” one commenter wrote. “I would love to be a citizen in your county someday.”

“I wish I lived in Virginia just so I could give you my vote.”

“I am so proud of you ... i wish I could vote for you 1000 times ... but then I would be a democrat”.

Sheriff Ronnie Sprinkle, a Republican, announced he wouldn’t seek reelection early this year after serving almost 20 years at the department’s helm. His father, Norman Sprinkle, served as sheriff for more than 30 years before him.

The sheriff’s office is the primary local law enforcement agency for Botetourt County, providing patrol, investigative, emergency dispatch and animal control operations. It also provides courtroom security, civil processing and runs the jail in Fincastle in collaboration with Craig County.

Soon after Sprinkle’s announcement, three men — Matt Ward, Mike Vineyard and Jeff Stritesky — announced they would seek the Republican nomination for sheriff. Republican voters will select their candidate in a primary election June 11. Ward and Stritesky both work in the sheriff’s office. Vineyard worked for 25 years in the Roanoke Police Department.

The three Republican candidates will appear in a forum at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Mill Creek Baptist Church.

Botetourt County voters typically favor Republican candidates based on past election results. Moreover, local races rarely draw Democratic challengers, and no Democrat filed to run for sheriff by last week’s deadline. The June primary effectively would have decided the election, until Stowell entered the race. Now, voters will choose between Stowell and his Republican challenger on the November ballot, though there is still time for other independent candidates to file.

“The other candidates don’t understand how much the world has changed,” Stowell said. “These guys are campaigning to a version of Botetourt that doesn’t exist anymore.”

Stowell said he’s more in touch with what’s happening in the world and Botetourt County. People buy illegal substances on the dark web. Marijuana was legalized a few hundred miles away from the county. And people have become accustomed to constant surveillance, he said.

Stowell opposes having sheriff’s deputies in every school. He wants to keep schools safe, but through other security measures, not law enforcement.

“I don’t think it’s normal for kids to be groomed to think they should be monitored by police all the time,” he said. “Big Brother’s been creeping in for a while and I want to make sure I turn that back a little.”

He advocates for jail reform. He wants to create a drug treatment program instead of jailing people for minor drug offenses. He wants to set inmates up for success — a place to live, assistance filling out Medicaid or job applications, or connections to local organizations that can help once inmates are released.

Stowell said he took classes three days a week while he was in jail. He’s now only three classes away from completing his master’s degree. He runs a small business called Stowell ATMs where he purchases ATM machines and sets them up at events or permanent locations around the region.

He started the business in 2015 and ran it from a telephone booth at a Veterans Administration rehab facility where he underwent treatment. He entered the Air Force in 2000 and also served as a military police officer.

He started his YouTube channel to cover the 2016 elections as a Donald Trump supporter. He recorded more than two dozen videos discussing ideas from QAnon, a group that posts on internet forums about a supposed “deep state” conspiracy against the president and his supporters.

More recently, Stowell records commentary on national and state news and sometimes streams local events.

He said other felons don’t have the same opportunities, and once they’re released from jail, they’ll go right back to what they know.

“The guys running for sheriff now have no criminal record and have been in the system for years,” he said. “They have a real top-down view of justice. It’s hard to say how things should be if you don’t have that experience.”

Former Gov. Terry McAuliffe restored Stowell’s voting rights in January 2017, which allows Stowell to run for public office. Stowell said he knows some people won’t vote for him because of his criminal record, but that he’s confident he will be the next sheriff of Botetourt County.

He plans to launch his campaign in earnest once the Republican candidate is selected in June, but he said he’s gotten support from local residents and even some deputies. He wouldn’t name the deputies offering support.

“The people who are going to vote for me is anyone who’s been chewed up and spit out by the system,” he said. “The only difference between me and the other guys is that my skeletons are already out of the closet.”

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Alison Graham covers Roanoke County and Salem news. She’s originally from Indianapolis and a graduate of Indiana University.

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