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Oops! The light side of lawmen

by Nancy Christofferson
HUERFANO — Huerfano County has had mixed success with the hiring of law enforcement officers throughout its history. There’ve been the good, the mediocre, and the really bad. You can be the judge of which category the following fit into.
La Veta started off on the wrong foot by hiring one W.M. McOmber on Nov. 22, 1876 as its very first marshal. He lasted less than three months before being removed from office for public drunkenness. The town, the City of Walsenburg, and the county itself have all had mixed luck ever since.
Huerfano County’s first sheriff was Donald McKeith, elected in March 1862. By June, Albert W. Archibald was serving and McKeith was operating a grocery store from his home. It is unclear whether he ever even fulfilled his duties.
Early lawmen in Walsenburg were unsung, but a few instances explain why. In 1893, for instance, there’s an item that reads “The marshal made a mistake and put a man somewhat under the influence through the window of Wycoff Brothers drug store instead of in the cooler.” Oops!
The 1895 “Italian massacre”, during which several Italian coal miners of Rouse were shot and killed during transportation to and incarceration in jail, soured the reputations of the lawmen involved. Both the marshal and sheriff lost their jobs within the year.
In 1896 Ed Farr was elected sheriff. Farr would lose his life in 1899 to bank robbers, and is considered one of Huerfano’s early heroes. On the other hand, in 1890, when he was a deputy, Ed dropped his pistol and shot himself in the knee. Oops! In 1898, he proved himself when a man “claimed no man could arrest” him and then cocked his gun. Farr shot him dead but was exonerated since it was clearly self defense.
John Caviness became Walsenburg’s marshal in 1897. Caviness was a stockman, livery stable owner and saloon owner, and proved to be an excellent officer. Unfortunately, his two sons were not. His son Curtis, known as Jack, became a deputy but demanded, at gunpoint, whiskey at several pool halls until a more sober or level-headed peace officer caught up with him. On another, later, occasion, he threatened to shoot a man and found himself sentenced to the penitentiary for assault with intent. He evidently got out of his trouble because he soon moved his family to Steamboat Springs and ended up burning to death in California. The other Caviness son, Charles, died in a saloon shootout in 1912.
After Caviness died in 1900, a series of marshals served with little distinction. One of these actually told railroad crews he would start fining engineers who blocked the street crossing for more than five minutes! He lost some of his integrity when he challenged a little girl to a foot race, but fell down and lost the bet. He soon found himself running the roller skating rink and then went into real estate.
Then there was the officer who was wrestling with his girlfriend, “a denizen of the demi-monde”, as the newspaper delicately called her. They were, alas, fighting over a pistol, which went off and, oops!, she’d shot him in the jaw.
In December 1903, there was Marshal Pharis. Of him we know of an occasion when he answered a call about a “drunken Jap” who was shooting up the town. He subdued him by shooting back, wounding him in the arm. The 1923 Chief of Police was quick on the draw as well. Seeing a motorist speed down Main Street “at not less than 40 miles per hour”, he shot at him – three times. On Main Street! Two years later the marshal ran off some vagrants by shooting at them. That’ll do it! And in 1936 police stopped a thief with “a volley of bullets” when he tried to steal some chickens from the Benedictine Sisters home. In 1949 three night patrolmen “with the aid of 11 bullets, felled a white-stripped varmint which upon occasion effects an offensive scent.” In other words, they killed a skunk with 11 shots on Kansas Avenue.
1958 was a Keystone Kops sort of year for Walsenburg. The (notice it’s “The”) police car caught on fire in February so there was no transportation. They got a new car but in August one of the patrolmen hit a station wagon that was making a left turn. In November an officer fell asleep at the wheel and struck a parked vehicle. On the good side was that the men not only got new four-color shoulder patches with silhouettes of the Spanish Peaks but also six riot guns that year.
The accidents could have been worse. In 1969 a patrol car was stolen and wrecked. And in 1970 the department fleet was composed of Plymouth Furies. At least no one stole them.
The Oops! prize in the Walsenburg police department, however, goes to the officer who hit the new police chief with his patrol car.
The sheriff’s department had its share of mistakes. Consider the deputy who shot and killed “a fine specimen of American eagle with a .45 calibre revolver” in 1903. Oops!
Then there was the ad in the local paper in 1918 reading, “The party who found a pair of handcuffs had better return them to the sheriff’s office.” There’s got to be more to that story! The same year one of the deputies shot himself in the leg when he dropped his gun.
One sheriff and one undersheriff received serious injuries when their horses fell on them.
In 1935, the janitor at the courthouse was startled to hear nearby shots. He made his careful way up to the third floor, where the sheriff’s office was located at the time, and found the sheriff and undersheriff “engaged in target practice.” Indoors! Oops!
Despite a few oops! moments, local law enforcement officers really don’t need assistance. Someone thought he was helping, perhaps, in December 1931 when “A .38 special bullet crashed in the West First Street home of County Clerk Damasio Vigil last night, fired by,” well, a well known citizen who shot “at two men trying to steal his car.” Mr. Vigil no doubt wished the car were stolen and his house undamaged, though he was too polite to say it.