Longtime RSF Patrol Chief Wellhouser retires

Rancho Santa Fe Patrol Chief Matt Wellhouser on the job in 1980.

After nearly 41 years of keeping the community of Rancho Santa Fe safe, Rancho Santa Fe Patrol Chief Matt Wellhouser has retired.

At the end of his last shift on July 16, Chief Wellhouser took part in the retiring law enforcement tradition of signing off the radio with the dispatcher on his final “10-7” or “out of service” call.

Retired RSF Patrol Chief Matt Wellhouser
Rancho Santa Fe Patrol Chief Matt Wellhouser

Over the radio, RSF Patrol and North County Dispatch JPA (North Comm) thanked Wellhouser for his dedicated service to the residents of Rancho Santa Fe: “Chief Wellhouser’s leadership, guidance and steadiness will be missed.”

“Thank you North Comm,” Wellhouser responded, a hint of a waiver in his voice. “Thank you for being there for us and watching our backs.”

His wife Dawn recorded a video of the chief’s last call and shared it with friends and family, including Wellhouser’s children Christina and Ryan. Everyone was a bit teary-eyed and emotional.

“It’s a big change,” Wellhouser said of his retirement. “A week into it and I’m still thinking about work. It will take some time to adjust and get into a different mode.”

A North County San Diego local, Wellhouser grew up in Solana Beach and graduated from San Dieguito High School. He was still in college when he started his law enforcement career at the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department as a deputy in the weapons training unit, also working patrol and as a reserve deputy.

With a career in law enforcement, he followed in the footsteps of his grandfather, who was a deputy sheriff in Montana in the late 1800s; and his father Harry Wellhouser, a reserve deputy sheriff for 10 years who helped start the Senior Volunteer Program after he retired from his job as an engineer and nuclear scientist with General Atomics.

Wellhouser worked his first day in Rancho Santa Fe as a 23-year-old officer on Sept. 2, 1980. Five years after he started, he was promoted to sergeant and then took over as chief.

“Rancho Santa Fe has been very well served by Chief Wellhouser. His strong leadership, professionalism and integrity have left positive impressions on members, local law enforcement officers and firefighters,” said RSF Association Manager Christy Whalen in a statement. “We are grateful to the chief and look forward to honoring him at a community celebration in the near future.”

The Patrol is closely tied to the Rancho Santa Fe Fire Protection District, not only having its office space at the El Fuego fire station, but in working together to protect the community.

“Matt was an absolute pleasure to work with over the years — he was always cool, calm and collected and had a great sense of humor,” said RSF Fire Protection District Chief Fred Cox. “Matt was a true professional who really cared about the residents of this community. His contributions have made a big impact to the quality of life here in Rancho Santa Fe.”

Over the last 40 years on the job, Wellhouser said the work has definitely changed. Things were different “back in the horse-drawn era” and “a gazillion years ago” when Wellhouser started. For one thing, none of the homes had addresses—street numbers wouldn’t arrive until 1984, when the 911 system came online in the Ranch. When he started, Wellhouser had to make a special request of the manager for a pager. When paged, he had to find a telephone booth to call into work before the patrol started carrying around one of the colossal and cumbersome early cellular phones.

Back in the 1980s, the patrol was driving a 1983 Crown Victoria, a “tuna boat” that took up three parking spaces. Now the patrol drives Ford Explorers.

He is considered “a walking encyclopedia of Rancho Santa Fe,” he knows all the streets, most of the people, the homes and their histories.

In rural Rancho Santa Fe, he’s learned how to wrangle tortoises, geese, ducks, pot belly pigs, horses, cattle and llamas. He dealt with birds in houses, lizards in the stove, deer and coyote stuck in fences. During the early days of the pandemic lockdown, the patrol was called on to keep rogue golfers off the golf course.

Over the years he has overseen tragic events such as car accidents, homicides and Heaven’s Gate in 1997 when the bodies of 39 members of a religious cult were found after a mass suicide. He managed the crush of national media attention that followed.

He will never forget the terrifying 2007 Witch Creek Fire, the sleepless nights trying to keep everyone safe.

Wellhouser said when he first arrived in 1980, the patrol’s relationship with the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department and California Highway Patrol was a lot different. He said it’s unique for a security patrol to have the kind of relationship they now have, rooted in mutual respect and in constant communication, sharing information and working together to solve problems.

“I’m very proud of that. I worked really hard to build up that very professional relationship,” Wellhouser said.

On multiple occasions, Wellhouser has said that he only intended to stay a couple of years but nearly 41 years later he was still on duty, watching as 20-something year-old faces joined the RSF Fire Department and RSF Patrol. It was a hard decision to retire but one he had been thinking about over the last year.

The job hasn’t fully left his head yet and he said it will likely take some time to turn off that switch. In his retirement, Wellhouser plans to hike and ride his bike as well as spend more time on his hobby of building military miniatures. His wife Dawn also retired last year so they have travel plans and a list of things they would like to do together.

“I want to thank the community for being so supportive of me and my operation, that made the job easier in that respect—not to say that it wasn’t stressful,” Wellhouser said. “When you have the community’s support, it’s a big thing because a lot of places don’t have that.”

Following Wellhouser’s retirement, RSF Patrol Sergeant Mike Scaramella will serve as interim patrol chief. Scaramella has worked with the Association for over 20 years as an investigator and performing employment background checks. The former officer with the Carlsbad and Oceanside Police Departments joined the RSF Patrol in 2016.

“He’s a good guy,” Wellhouser said. “(The RSF Patrol) is in good hands.”