LAW ENFORCEMENT MUSEUM WILL RECAPTURE THE WILD WEST
RUSTLERS, THIEVES AND KILLERS COME BACK TO LIFE IN A TRIBUTE TO HEROIC DEEDS BY SANPETE'S FINESTOn a sunny September afternoon in 1894 at Riddley's Ridge high on Manti Mountain, Sanpete County Sheriff James Burns was riding a sure-footed mule. He was accompanied by Scott Bruno - too young for help in a crisis but good for company on the long ride. They rode into the sheep camp of two teenage herders and accused them of rustling sheep.
An argument ensued. The sheriff pulled his revolver to arrest the pair. Moen Kofford, one of the herders, pulled his. Burns fired first, so the account goes, but the bullet glanced off Kofford's gun and hit Jim Michel, the other herder, in the thigh.Other shots were fired, and Burns fell from his saddle, mortally wounded. Kofford and Michel told Bruno to take off and he headed for town. Then they removed the sheriff's belt and handgun, gathered some provisions and took off, too, into Castle Valley, where a doctor removed the bullet from Michel's leg. They then vanished into the Robbers' Roost country, outlaw country.
If they ever returned to Sanpete, it was on the sly. Burns, in contrast, would never leave. He was buried in the Mt. Pleasant Cemetery.
J. Milton Burns, the sheriff's son, also became a lawman and gave himself a special goal: to track down his father's killers. He never succeeded. For a time he was an officer in Sanpete and then became a Carbon County deputy sheriff.
At dusk on the evening of June 15, 1925, Milt Burns was on patrol in Castle Gate, a Carbon County mining town. He was approached by Robert Marshall, a miner he knew. Marshall, who was black, was carrying a paper bag in his hand.
Marshall - who, testimony later brought out, had good reason for the grievances he evidently harbored against "whities" - pulled a pistol from the bag and shot Burns several times.
Milt Burns died in a hospital 24 hours later, the second Burns and the second Sanpete County lawman to die in the line of duty. A few days later, he joined his father in the Mt. Pleasant Cemetery.
A manuscript titled "The Lynching of Robert Marshall - The Last Lynching in the West" tells the rest of the story. Three days later Marshall, too, was dead, taken by a mob from the custody of Carbon County officers and hanged from a cottonwood tree between Price and Wellington as a hundred or so spectators watched.
The state of Utah brought charges against several alleged members of the mob. After a 13-day hearing, the charges were dropped for lack of evidence. No one would talk.
In his summation of the trial, district attorney Fred W. Keller called its outcome "a mockery of the law and order . . . May God have pity on you."
The third Sanpete County lawman to die in the line of duty, Mt. Pleasant marshal Lon Theodore Larsen, was also buried in the Mt. Pleasant Cemetery.
He died on Oct. 15, 1945, in front of a Mt. Pleasant beer hall, minutes after being shot twice by Hiram BeBee, an aged eccentric with a long, white beard. BeBee, who told stories of having been in South America and had a habit of referring to the teachings of Aristotle and Socrates, had moved to Spring City only days before. A drifter, people called him, a man to avoid.
On the day of his death, Larsen had been called to the beer hall to quell a disturbance. He had removed BeBee with force, according to some accounts, placed him beside Glame BeBee, his wife, on the seat of their red truck - and turned away.
At that moment, BeBee fired a Colt revolver from the truck, striking Larsen. Then, stepping from the cab, he fired again into Larsen's chest as he lay in the street.
BeBee, after a second trial, was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death, but the sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment. He died in the Utah State Prison at age 85.
But BeBee continues to live in legend - legend based partly on somewhat dubious evidence, partly on rumor, partly on the numerous stories that have been written about him in magazines and newspapers claiming that BeBee was, in truth, the Sundance Kid.
In a glass case in the Sanpete County sheriff's offices are leg irons, hand cuffs, an ancient watchman's clock, an early fingerprinting kit, the first radar gun, a rusted, muzzle-loading musket, a whitened skull and other relics of more than 100 years of law enforcement in Sanpete County.
Deputy Sheriff Ross Nordell is now trying to obtain the Colt revolver BeBee used to kill Larsen and add it to the collection.
On a wall in the offices is a plaque honoring Sheriff James Burns. Two other plaques will soon join it in memory of Milt Burns and Larsen. On another wall is a picture of Nelson Higgins, captain of the Manti militia. Higgins was appointed Sanpete County's first sheriff by Governor Brigham Young in 1852.
On the walls are law enforcement badges from 40 states and several foreign countries.
The guns, the pictures, the plaques, the copies of court documents, the newspaper clippings and the old court dockets are all items in a law enforcement museum that the sheriff's department is developing.
Nordell is spearheading the project, with full support of Sheriff Wallace Buchanan.
A self-admitted local history buff, Nordell spends his on-duty hours serving warrants and patrolling county roads. Many of his off-duty hours are spent gathering the items to go into the museum, talking to women's clubs about Sanpete law enforcement history and showing Boy Scout troops the artifacts that have already been assembled.
He's now preparing scrapbooks that will become a part of the museum. They'll contain photographs, copies of letters, minutes, articles, records, even his own ballad, "The Shooting of Sheriff Burns."
They'll also contain excerpts from court records dating back to the day when George Peacock, on the recommendation of the settlers, was appointed the first judge of the Sanpete County Court by Brigham Young, governor of the Territory of Utah, in February 1852.
One excerpt Nordell has selected that illustrates the swiftness of justice 100 years ago concerns the appearance of John Stewart before Peacock for sentencing. Stewart had been convicted of first-degree murder in the death of his Indian sweetheart.
In accordance with the law, the judge had given Stewart his choice of death by shooting, hanging or beheading. Stewart had chosen shooting.
In the docket for June 10, 1872, court clerk William T. Reid recorded the sentence in a fine if now somewhat faded handwriting:
"You are now sentenced to go back into the custody of the sheriff and be placed within the confines of the county prison, there to remain till on Monday the 11th day of July of the present year, from whence you are to be taken by the sheriff to some place within the limits of this Sanpete County by him prepared and then and there . . . on the 11th day of July A.D. 1870 between the hours of 9 o'clock a.m. and 4 o'clock p.m. be shot and your blood to flow until you are dead! dead!! dead!!!"
Can something be learned from history? Nordell thinks so. The Sanpete Sheriff's Department museum has much to say about brave men and embittered men, the search for justice and the meaning of law and order.