A twist in the story of California's first Asian American sheriff: meet Timothy Saxon

Marco della Cava, USA TODAY

SAN FRANCISCO — When Paul Miyamoto won election last fall as San Francisco sheriff and again when he was sworn in last month, local and state media headlines echoed his office's description of him as the first Asian American sheriff in state history.

But a subsequent USA TODAY profile of Miyamoto, which posted on Feb. 16, has resulted in an unexpected twist.

While Miyamoto certainly is the first big city California sheriff of Asian heritage, the first in absolute appears to be Sheriff Timothy Saxon of Trinity County, a mostly rural slice of wooded paradise with 13,000 residents. 

"Here in Trinity County, we don't look at race," Saxon, 63, said in a phone interview Tuesday from his offices in Weaverville, California, about 100 miles south of the Oregon border. "When I was running for sheriff in 2018, race was not an issue in the election. And when I was elected, no one said, 'Here's Tim Saxon, the first Asian American sheriff in the state's history.’"

But on Monday, someone in fact did say just that.

Sheriff Tim Saxon of Trinity County, California, is shown at a celebration of local Hmong residents. Saxon was born in Japan and immediately adopted by a U.S. serviceman. Saxon, who was elected sheriff in 2018, is the first Asian American sheriff in the state's history — a discovery that resulted from a recent USA TODAY profile of San Francisco's new sheriff, Paul Miyamoto, whose office believed was the first sheriff in the state of Asian decent.

Saxon has Asian roots along with an interesting life story that began with his birth in Japan and immediate adoption by an Anglo-heritage Air Force official and his wife, who a few years later moved back to the United States.

"Bottom line is, I'm American," says Saxon. "I was raised American, and my parents never treated me as anything but American."

So here are how the events of this tale unfolded.

In preparing the profile of Miyamoto, USA TODAY interviewed the sheriff about the milestone, which was brought to his attention last fall by San Francisco Sheriff’s Department staff.

Also contacted for confirmation of this achievement was the California State Sheriff's Association, which did not respond to a request for comment. On Tuesday, the association said it does not keep track of ethnicity details.

Although many state media sites had noted Miyamoto's Asian American first since his Nov. 6 victory, no one over the ensuing months suggested to the department he might not be the first.

Shortly after USA TODAY ran its story Sunday, the Record Searchlight in Redding — a newspaper just east of Weaverville that is part of the USA Today Network — featured the piece on its website and its Facebook page. 

Within hours, a few messages from Weaverville-area residents appeared on the Record Searchlight's Facebook page, suggesting that Saxon had preceded Miyamoto as the state's first sheriff of Asian ancestry. 

Paul Miyamoto, pictured here in front of San Francisco City Hall, is the first Asian American sheriff of a large county in the state of California.

USA TODAY reached out to Saxon; early Tuesday morning and before calling USA TODAY, Saxon contacted Miyamoto.

"We had a great conversation, and when I told him I was elected a year before him, he said 'I guess you're the first then, but I'm still the first Asian American sheriff in San Francisco's 150-year history,' and I said that you are," Saxon recalled with a laugh.

"My point was not to in any way embarrass Paul and the department, but I wanted to reach out because in life it's always good to have the facts out there," he said.

Miyamoto took the news in stride, and in fact was in some ways pleased to hear it. During his interview with USA TODAY, Miyamoto had said that while he was proud of the achievement, "what I’d really like is for us to never have any more firsts. I’d like us to be on an equal footing."

In a statement, Miyamoto said Tuesday that he had spoken with Saxon and "apologized for our mistake. I’m delighted that I’m not the first Asian American Sheriff in California. It tells me we’re making progress diversifying leadership positions in law enforcement."

Saxon: 'I had more to give'

When asked why he didn't reach out to correct the record months ago, Saxon chuckles.

"I'll be honest, I don't get involved on Facebook, and up here in Trinity County we don't read the downstate papers much," he says. "It was my wife who told me that something was on Facebook about an Asian American sheriff, and that some people were commenting about me. I have good friends and supporters here."

Saxon was born in post-war Japan; he doesn't know anything about his father other than a recent Ancestry.com test revealed that the other half of his heritage is European.

After moving with his parents to the U.S. as an infant, Saxon grew up in Los Angeles, Michigan, Nebraska and Colorado before settling in the Bay Area town of Newark.

Saxon did a few odd jobs after college before signing up with the California Highway Patrol, where he spent the next 28 years in various leadership positions around the state. In 1998, he and his family, which include two adult daughters, moved to Weaverville, where Saxon eventually took a job with the county's Marshal's office. 

Although retirement loomed, Saxon decided to run for sheriff — making him a rare law enforcement official to have worked for three separate branches of California policing. "I realized I wasn't done with law enforcement I guess," he says. "I felt I had more to give."

In contrast to his colleague Miyamoto, who runs a staff of 1,000 to cover 50-square San Francisco miles, Saxon has his hand full. He has only 56 employees policing 3,200 square miles in an area that often has to deal with raging wildfires and drug-cartel marijuana busts.

Saxon says he is certainly proud to wear the mantle of first California sheriff of Asian ancestry, but it's not something that defines him.

"My daughters know they have Japanese history in our family, and they keep wanting me to track down more," he says. "But when I was growing up, this was a non-issue to me. My parents were my parents. Nothing against my birth mother, but this American life has been my life."

Saxon's attitude is perhaps best summed up by the talk he would give potential recruits back when he was in charge of bringing in new officers to the Highway Patrol.

"I would tell these folks, we're all people, no matter what your background, your skin color, your religion," he says. "We just want good people."

Follow USA TODAY national correspondent Marco della Cava: @marcodellacava

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: First Asian American sheriff in California isn't who people thought