by Nancy Christofferson
HUERFANO — If Huerfano County were to establish a roll of honor of its fallen lawmen, there are at least a half a dozen officers who were killed by violence during their terms of office between the years of 1880 and 1940.
The first lawman to die through another’s hand was Jose Delores Esquibel. Esquibel’s family had moved into Huerfano County in 1867, and he served as sheriff for three terms, or six years. Though he owned a bar himself, he was murdered in Gordon’s saloon in January 1881, leaving a young widow, Eliza. The county commissioners appointed Pedro Garcia to fill out Esquibel’s term. When election time rolled around the following November, Garcia, a Democrat, faced off with Miguel A. Vigil. Garcia was defeated and took the decision so hard he moved to Las Animas County “in disgust”, according to the newspaper, the Huerfano Herald. He may have died there. Eliza, however, returned to Walsenburg and lived to the ripe old age of 96, dying in 1957. Eliza holds the record for being married to two sheriffs.
Esquibel was just 34 years old when he was shot. Several men were implicated in his murder and the county commissioners issued a $500 reward for the capture of one Henry McGin. Another man, Joseph Grant, called Kansas or Topeka, was arrested and faced trial in Pueblo County, where he was acquitted. The fate of McGin is unknown.
Edward Farr, also county sheriff, was murdered July 16, 1899 in New Mexico, where he had gone to assist in the capture of Black Jack Ketchum and his gang who had robbed a train not far from Raton. He left no children. Farr had been elected in 1895, defeating Charles Harriman. If he was born in November 1867, as his biographies note, he was just 32 at the time of his death. Farr had served as deputy under the previous sheriff, Walter O’Malley. In 1896 Harriman became Walsenburg’s marshal. Harriman, coincidentally, was a former partner of the Farr brothers because his sister Lois was married to Jeff Farr, who was appointed to fill the unexpired term of his brother as sheriff.
Ed Farr, in his time, was the only person in Walsenburg to accessorize his cutter with sleigh bells, so must have cut quite a figure during snowstorms, and purchased the first electrical searchlight for his department. After Jeff became sheriff, he attended the trial of William McGinnis in Texas in October 1899. The result of the trial went unrecorded, but in April 1905, Pinkerton agents arrested a J.B. Franks for the same murder. It was thought Franks was an alias for the famous bandit Elzy Lay, who reputedly did not pay for this or any other crime.
E.S Lavender was appointed by Sheriff Jeff Farr as the deputy to serve the Rouse, Lester and Pryor coal camps in the early 1900s. He may have been Huerfano County’s first black officer. He got into a shooting affray with a J.J. Herring (possibly Harris) in the Pryor Saloon in June 1906. Herring killed Lavender, but the officer got off a fatal shot and both died the same day. E.S. was 44 years old, and his wife died at the same age just six months later. The couple had no children. They are buried in Walsenburg Masonic Cemetery.
Jack Rose was hired by Walsenburg City Council as Chief of Police in 1923. It was Rose who received the $75 per month for upkeep of his motorcycle, the council obviously having not yet sprung for a car. Rose and his deputy H.E. Robart were out searching for bootleg whiskey one day in January 1924 when they were shot and killed by an Italian, who then killed himself. Not much is known about either of these officers, but Robart had been a resident of Walsenburg for some years and had operated a lumber and supply company back in the ‘teens. This is the only instance, thankfully, in which more than one officer was murdered.
One of Huerfano’s most tragic murders was that of sheriff’s deputy Fidel Aguirre in May 1938. Gruesomely, this became known as the Fence Post Murder in local lore.
Deputy Aguirre was in the employ of Sheriff Claud Swift and was assigned to watch over a dance being held May 14 in Gardner. The Peralta brothers, called Pete and Paul but actually named Placedes and Pablo, no doubt well lubricated from an evening of libations, attacked Aguirre and brutally beat him with a fence post. He was found by party-goers collapsed outside the building and was rushed to Lamme Hospital in Walsenburg, where he died within hours. In June, the FBI reported Aguirre had also been stabbed.
Fidel Aguirre left a wife, Josephine, and eight children. The Walsenburg World-Independent started a campaign to raise funds for the family, and by May 19 there was $116.50 in it, and by May 24, $233.50. Hopefully, more was raised, but 1938 was not a good year in Huerfano or any other county because of the Great Depression and ongoing drought.
The Peralta brothers escaped the wrath of those at the dance who found Aguirre’s nearly lifeless body, but were soon apprehended. Sheriff Swift took them to Trinidad for incarceration, fearing retribution. The Peraltas were found guilty at trial in October and were sent off to the state penitentiary in Canon City to serve life sentences.
At least one other officer was killed on duty in Huerfano County, though he was not from here. Deputy Warden J.B. Russell in June 1913 followed an escaped convict from Canon City to La Veta. In a shootout in the convict’s mother’s home, both the convict and warden were mortally wounded, and died at the scene.
By the very nature of their work, many law enforcement officers in Huerfano County have put their lives on the line. Many were wounded, and many were forced to injure or kill others. As many as a half a dozen officers who left the area were killed on duty in other cities.
These six, however, who died between 1881 and 1938, are on the roll of honor of the Huerfano County Sheriff’s Department and Walsenburg Police Department.