Most children in Montgomery County don’t realize they’ve been adopted by an investigator at the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department.
But when they’re subjected to any form of abuse, they can expect to meet William Gilston, a man with more than four decades of experience going after criminals who hurt kids.
Gilston, 64, was recognized recently by the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors for 40 years of service to the county.
Though he’s in his 41st year working for the department, Gilston has no plans to retire until he’s confident the investigator who replaces him will be capable of taking care of the youth he considers his children.
“One reason I’ve stayed as long as I have is that really, you’ve got to have the heart for this. It’s very frustrating to work with a case, especially when it involves a child … and still not have enough [evidence] and a criminal walks away,” Gilston said.
“To this day, I’d rather have my arms cut off instead of them walking away from a crime,” Gilston said.
Gilston is responsible for monitoring sex offenders in Montgomery County and serves as lead investigator on child abuse cases.
The difficult part about abuse cases, Gilston said, is police often have only the word of the victim to use in their investigations.
“[The victims] in a lot of these cases are under the age of 10. On their testimony alone, you can’t arrest or convict anybody, so you have to really do it right,” Gilston said.
Convictions in abuse cases often depend on confessions that Gilston is able to draw out of perpetrators, Montgomery County District Attorney James “Jed” Conboy said.
“He has been very aggressive and very successful in putting together solid cases against people who commit sex acts against children,” Conboy said.
“He has an ability to communicate with both the victim and the perpetrator in a way that gains their trust and allows them to open up,” Conboy said.
“So on the one hand the victim is comfortable enough with him to give him all the details of the offense, and on the other hand he has this uncanny ability to get perpetrators to admit to having committed these despicable acts,” Conboy said.
Conboy said Gilston’s experience is evident in his work.
“Experience is something you can’t teach. You learn things over the years and I think it’s this way in any job. You learn things over the years that there’s just no way you could know them unless you put the time in,” Conboy said.
“With Bill Gilston, he has dealt with so many different kinds of people and handled so many different kinds of cases, I doubt very much if there’s anything that is truly unique to him or that would take him by surprise,” Conboy said.
Over the course of his career, Gilston has seen his share of death.
He’s either assisted in or made an arrest in 10 murder cases. He was a member of the Sara Wood abduction task force and he was standing in Sacred Heart Church in 1987 when the New York State Thruway bridge collapsed into the Schoharie Creek.
An entire week passed by from the time he heard an “awful rumble” during a sermon until he saw home again.
“We recovered probably one of the first bodies. I never got home until seven days later,” Gilston said.
The flood in 2006 that inundated Mohawk Valley communities was another situation that called for long hours — Gilston was working to help others despite his own situation.
“I lost my place of living, I lost all my property in that one,” Gilston said.
There was a blizzard in the early 1970s and officials got a call to help stranded motorists.
Gilston and then-Sheriff Ronald Emery walked through the blizzard from Nelliston to St. Johnsville to help. They found a tractor-trailer full of cattle that didn’t survive.
“It was nine days later before I could get home. I think it was 1972,” Gilston said.
Despite its impact on his own family, Gilston said the job has taken precedence over vacation time. He got a call one year reporting “something” found off of Fort Hunter Road authorities thought could represent the work of Satanists, and he decided to go investigate despite plans to leave for a vacation in the Jersey Shore.
The next closest investigator with experience and training in the occult was in Utica.
“I said geez, there’s nobody around other than me, so I says OK, all right,” Gilston said.
Through a variety of training programs, Gilston has become the “go-to” investigator for some cases.
He’s certified to investigate allegations of Satanism and the occult and trained to prosecute outlaw biker gangs.
When New York state implemented a sex offender registry, Gilston made what he believes is one of the first arrests in the state for sex offenders not reporting their whereabouts to authorities.
As a father and grandfather, Gilston said he works child abuse cases as if the victims are his family members.
“I call child victims or potential victims my kids because I try to treat them as my kids,” Gilston said. “I could have retired after 25 years on the force, but right now I love what I do.”
Busting child abusers, Gilston said, requires the ability to resist the urge to get violent upon learning about what a perpetrator did to a child.
“Some guys will sit down and you’ve got an investigator who wants to kill them. If you can’t get rid of that feeling, don’t take the case,” Gilston said, recalling one case where he made the third and final arrest of a sex offender.
Gilston said he assumed the convicted pedophile wouldn’t say a word when he got to him because he had just been released from a prison term for child sexual abuse.
But after a half-hour meeting, Gilston said it turned out differently than he expected.
“I found him in the woods. I read him his rights and really said to myself he is not going to say anything this time,” Gilston said.
Gilston said after he read the man his rights, he explained what evidence he had.
“The first sentence out of his mouth was ‘I’ll be an old man when I get out of jail, won’t I,’ ” Gilston said.
“I don’t try to judge. You need to get inside their heads,” Gilston said.
Gilston went to St. Mary’s Institute in Amsterdam and spent his first three years of high school at Bishop Gibbons in Schenectady.
He joined the Air Force and, serving as an air policeman, went to Vietnam with an air combat unit.
When he returned, Gilston said he started attending criminal justice courses at Monroe Community College before taking a part-time job as a dispatcher with the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department.
An offer for full-time work ended his studies, and Gilston said he never looked back.
“Joking around, they’ll say ‘you’re gonna try for another 40 [years]? I say right now, it all depends if I can get somebody trained in a couple of these things I’ve really adopted for myself. Today, kids are victims every time they turn around,” Gilston said.
Despite all the autopsies and unattended deaths he’s seen, the one case Gilston said still gives him chills when he thinks about it doesn’t even involve a human victim.
He got a call from the Kateri Tekakwitha shrine reporting their statue of the venerated Native American woman was stolen. After an exhaustive search, Gilston said he was ready to give up.
“We looked high and low. We’d pretty much given up on it,” Gilston said.
One day, he got a phone call from a Gloversville landlord wondering if they were looking for the statue.
He went to meet the landlord, opened a closet door and there was the statue.
“We thought if we ever did find it, it would be broken in hundreds of pieces. When I opened that door, it gave me the willies, I’m looking at her looking at me and here I am taking her home,” Gilston recalled.
He got help to lug the statue downstairs and they put it in his truck.
That very day was the anniversary date of Pope John Paul’s declaration that Kateri Tekakwitha was “blessed,” a precursor to possible canonization as a saint.
“The father said to me, it’s gotta be a miracle. I said ‘I’m a Catholic, father, but I don’t think it’s a miracle. We were lucky,’ ” Gilston said.
“To this day, when I talk about that case, it still sends chills,” Gilston said.