Sheriff’s Office Orchestrates Wild Night
● By J. Chambless
Chester County Sheriff Carolyn “Bunny” Welsh poses with some of the deputies who make the event happen.
For the Chester County
Sheriff’s Office, “game on” conveys a message that extends
beyond the phrase’s familiar use: It marks the annual culmination
of a crowd-pleasing fundraiser that transforms the likes of llama,
moose, and deer into haute cuisine.
On Saturday, March 4, more
than 300 gathered at the former Westside Entertainment Center in West
Chester, now owned by Providence Church, for the sold-out event.
Sheriff Lt. Harry McKinney, the lead organizer, said that he made
calls in the fall to the 36 people who each reserved one or two
tables in 2016 to see if they wanted to return for the Eighth Annual
Wild Game Dinner.
Only three tables ended up
being available, McKinney said, and those spots went fast, marking
the sixth straight sellout. Attendees said the convivial atmosphere,
creative food, and inventive raffles, coupled with the knowledge that
the proceeds benefit a worthy cause, make reservations so coveted.
The event supports the K-9
Unit of the Sheriff’s Office. McKinney said the $16,500 netted from
the 2016 event paid for the acquisition and training of another
narcotics dog. “The bills haven’t been paid yet, but I expect
this year to surpass last year,” McKinney said.
The K-9 Unit,
which now has 10 dogs, responds to several calls each week, according
to Chester County Sheriff Carolyn “Bunny”
Welsh. The most frequent
involve searches by teams trained to detect narcotics or explosives.
However, Melody, the office’s comfort dog, is equally in demand for
defusing stress, particularly in cases involving children.
Addressing the audience,
Welsh expressed thanks to the dozens of volunteers, most from the
Sheriff’s Office, who make the event happen. Later, she labeled
McKinney “the ringmaster,” whose team included Cpl. Brad DeSando,
who oversaw the set-up, Sgt. Janis Pickell, who supervised the
kitchen, and Lee DiMattia, who coordinated the volunteers.
“The event gets better
each year,” said Welsh. “It’s like a big family dinner.
Everyone is very friendly; many are from the hunting and sporting
Welsh said the event has
come a long way from a challenging start. The office revved into high
gear for the first dinner, a buffet held at the Knights of Columbus
that attracted only 68 people, generating “way too many leftovers.”
The situation reversed the next year when the office ran out of food.
Welsh said 150 advance reservations were made, and she went on the
radio the day before to promote it.
“We filled the room, but
we didn’t have enough of everything,” Welsh said. “People
loaded up their plates, decided they didn’t like something, and
sadly it was wasted.”
That experience led to the
family-style approach to serving that has been utilized ever since,
enabling diners to sample everything and take more of what they like.
The dinner constitutes a
fun, family outing for reservation-holders as well as volunteers.
Several tables boasted multiple generations, and even the kitchen had
a key collaboration of kin: Deputy Sheriff Cpl. Chris Rongaus and his
father, Kenny Rongaus, the proprietor of Tony’s Meat Market &
Deli, a beloved West Chester institution that closed in 2011.
The pair was among dozen
of deputies who spent the better part of two days preparing dishes
such as venison braciole, pheasant pot pie, fried alligator nuggets,
and shiitake mushrooms stuffed with bear sausage.
Doug Castaldi, a state
constable from Downingtown, applauded the menu. “The venison was
especially wonderful,” he said. “Nothing was overcooked, which is
hard to do.”
Norm MacQueen, Chester
County’s controller, agreed. “Whoever was cooking definitely knew
what they were doing,” he said. “Everything was delicious.”
Welsh said the cooks, who
were blessed with an impressive bounty of ingredients, spent many
hours scouring recipes to come up with a menu that differed from the
previous year’s. Sheriffs from around the country donated items
ranging from bear to alligator while many local residents contributed
the fruits of their hunting expeditions. Desserts came from Cakes &
Candies by Maryellen, a West Chester business run by Maryellen
In addition to the food,
the event featured a variety of games of chance, silent auctions, and
opportunities to win prizes running the gamut from hunting
accoutrements to baskets of dog treats. This year marked the debut
of K-9 wine, an ongoing initiative through a partnership with Weston
Wineries in Wyoming.
David B. Terry, the
company’s East Coast retail coordinator, attended the event with
samples of both red and white wines that feature the Chester County
Sheriff’s top dogs on the labels. The company will donate 10
percent of sales to the K-9 program. McKinney said he expects
friendly competition to develop as each K-9 team vies to sell the
most bottles. To purchase the wine, visit
Debbie Abel, who runs Abel
Brothers Towing and Automotive, Inc., with her husband, John, said
they started reserving a table six years ago and quickly realized
that they needed two to accommodate all the people they wanted to
“It’s just a great
atmosphere,” Abel said. “I love the fact that it attracts
salt-of-the-earth people and isn’t political at all. Raising money
for such a great cause is something everyone can get behind.”
Abel said the event
represents a tremendous amount of work and is always done well.
“We’re happy to support the Sheriff’s Office,” she added.
“They’re just great people who do a fabulous job.”
John Hoadly and his wife,
Veronica, have also reserved a table for the past six years, and
during four of those years, John Hoadly managed to walk away with the
event’s featured puppy. In fact, one of those dogs, Peggy Sue,
who’s now 5, turned into a birding champion, he said.
This year, Hoadly, like
many others, formed an immediate bond with Mickey, a mellow, black
Labrador pup that spent the evening charming the crowd. Hoadly said
his wife had insisted that they did not need another dog, but he
disagreed. “It’s my birthday so I get to do whatever I want,”
he explained. “Otherwise, I’d be in the doghouse.”
wife got her wish. Fierce competition resulted in the grand prize’s
going to Cpl. Chris Rongaus. Mickey had spent the preceding week in
the Sheriff’s Office, where Rongaus was smitten. “I was a nervous
wreck all day,” he said. “I really didn’t want to go home
without that dog.”
Kristen Youndt, the
sister-in-law of Deputy Sheriff Mike Sarro, one of the K-9 handlers,
attended for the first time. She and Sarro feigned shock that his
wife, Kelly, enjoyed Italian wedding soup with bison and llama after
repeatedly reading “Llama, Llama Red Pajama,” a popular
Kelly Sarro took the
teasing in stride. “It’s been a lot of fun,” she said. And part
of the entertainment stemmed from a discovery by Youndt. “I took
second place in the shooting contest,” Youndt said, shaking her
head. “I had no idea.”
Jose Mestre, a security
officer for the Sheriff’s Office, said he looks forward to
volunteering each year. “It makes me proud to see how well we work
together as a team,” he said. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s
so worth it.”
For several years, Welsh
has said she would like to accommodate more diners; however, finding
a venue that offers more seating as well as kitchen facilities that
her deputies can commandeer poses a challenge. But expansion may
occur next year at the same location.
McKinney said the office
is considering the possibility of using another floor. He said the
games and auctions could be handled there, leaving room for six to
eight more tables on the main floor.
“I’ll know within 30
days,” said McKinney, who is already beginning to work on next
year’s event. “I can’t say enough about how much we appreciate
the support of the community, our sponsors, and the deputies and
He also has advice for anyone new who wants to be included in next year’s festivities: “They should call me and get on the waiting list.”