Duane Freeman has dedicated the past nine years of his life to compiling a history of the sheriffs of Delta County. His extensive research also unearthed related stories that were so compelling he has woven them into a newly published book titled "Sheriffs of Delta County, Colorado, And Related Stories."
Freeman has always been interested in local history and shared his knowledge with his co-worker, Fred McKee, who was undersheriff at the time. As he was preparing to retire as emergency manager for Delta County, he began expressing interest in sheriffs past and present. McKee asked him to write a brief tribute to Delta County sheriffs, which was framed and hung in the sheriff's department lobby. The tribute was also published in the County Sheriffs of Colorado magazine.
"It was about this time I started pestering Duane to write a book," said McKee, who was elected sheriff in 2002. "It has been 10 years but with his wife's encouragement and my nagging it is complete. It truly is a fun and interesting read."
Freeman's research drew him to the many newspapers covering events in Delta County. "I'd sit at the Delta Museum cranking through those old newspapers on microfiche until I felt I was getting cross-eyed," he said. At times he became engrossed in a story and found himself off on a "rabbit trail" that had little to do with the sheriffs themselves. But that's what made the research fun, hesaid. He also made trips to the libraries in Grand Junction and Denver and searched the Colorado Archives for information on local criminals who were sentenced to the state prisons. Jail records dating from 1903 were mined for information on scofflaws who spent time in the county facility. Minutes from county commissioner meetings confirmed for Freeman the succession of sheriffs through the years.
Charles Andrews was the first sheriff of Delta County. He was appointed by Governor Fredrick W. Pitkin in early 1883, shortly after Delta County was established. A hotel keeper, Andrews served as sheriff until the November 1883 election.
Freeman was not able to discover much about Sheriff Andrews, but he has more information on Ben Gheen, Delta County's first elected sheriff. Gheen served as sheriff until 1890, when he joined his father-in-law in the grocery business in Creede.
The story about law and order in Delta County would not be complete without accounts of some of the more noteworthy crimes that have taken place over the years. These stories are placed in chronological order, juxtaposed with the sheriffs who were in office at the time. With the profile of William Girardet, sheriff from 1890-1894, is an account of Delta's famous bank robbery."Murder! Robbers commit a horrible deed!" the headline cried out in the Sept. 13, 1893, issue of the Delta Independent.
Freeman also interviewed as many descendants of the sheriffs as he was able to locate. Many were able to produce photos, scrapbooks, newspaper clippings and other artifacts. More recent sheriffs are still living and were able to provide biographies, as well as accounts of the dramatic cases that highlighted their careers.
For Bill Blair (1989-2002), one such story is titled "Murder on the Mountain." The victim was Bruce Dodson, who was fatally shot on the Uncompahgre Plateau during a hunting trip. It was quickly determined the shooting was no accident, but it took three years for investigators to compile enough evidence to arrest Bruce's wife Janice. After a lengthy trial in Grand Junction, Janice was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
The chapter is not complete on Fred McKee, who is currently serving as Delta County sheriff, nor on Undersheriff Mark Taylor, who also has his own chapter. But as Freeman says, "I had to stop somewhere."
Information is scant on a couple of the earlier sheriffs, but they're all covered in the book. And thanks to former Sheriff Richard Miklich (1979-1989) there are photos of all the sheriffs, except Charles Andrews. Miklich made a concerted effort to gather up photos of the sheriffs and put them on display in the lobby of the sheriff's office. Those photos are reproduced in Freeman's book, along with pictures of some of the more notorious criminals and interesting characters who left their mark on Delta County.
Miklich was one of the sheriffs Freeman was able to interview, and one of three sheriffs Freeman worked under as emergency manager.
Freeman was previously employed as a U.S. Forest Service ranger so he's no stranger to the challenges facing law enforcement officers. He found the accounts of the sheriffs' careers to be of great interest.
Not all the county's sheriffs had law enforcement backgrounds, but once elected sheriff committed their efforts full time to the office. Some were Democrats, some were Republicans. Early sheriffs held office for two years; now the term of office is four years and there is no limit to the number of times a sheriff can be re-elected.
"I would say all the sheriffs were men of integrity," Freeman said. A few deputy sheriffs got into trouble now and then, and some of those stories are in the book, but Freeman said he could find no accounts of less-than-stellar conduct by the sheriffs themselves. "I think that says something for Delta County," he said.
The most colorful sheriff, Freeman says, was Clarence Vanaken, a blacksmith by trade who stood over six feet tall. After losing his bid for re-election to Ray Lockhart, Vanaken served as chief of police in Cedaredge. Freeman says Vanaken was well-liked, even by those he arrested.
Just one sheriff was killed in the line of duty. Willis Davis, an auctioneer by trade, assumed office as sheriff in January 1923. In October 1924, he attempted to arrest a man he'd known since he was a boy. Wildene Allentharp was suspected of theft of a set of harness. He shot Davis with a .45 caliber handgun and was convicted of murder in 1925. He was paroled after fewer than five years in prison.
The front cover of Freeman's book features a 1913 photo of Willis Davis and his family provided by the Delta County Historical Society.
Freeman says some of the stories went together easily; others required several rewrites. "I hope they are all accurate," he said. "I tried to use reliable sources wherever I could."
Most of the stories were vetted by good friends in his writers' group, "Writers of the Purple Page." They critiqued his writing, offered suggestions and always provided encouragement, which Freeman valued. His wife also reviewed his work and lent a hand with the research.
Carol McDermott, a member of Freeman's writing group and the book's editor, provided these comments for the book jacket: "Duane Freeman's vignettes of the sheriff of Delta County, Colorado, showcase the pioneer spirit of settlers in the late 1880s, as well as the lawlessness of individuals who preyed upon them. This book is dutifully annotated with chapter and notes that will satisfy historians generations hence, yet is not a dry historical tome. More than 'just the facts, ma'am,' the text is alive with anecdotes that tell the story behind the culprits and their encounters with Delta County sheriffs. A bonus feature is Freeman's explanations of how he acquired his information — often times from descendants who knew only part of the story."
Wyatt Angelo, former district attorney, also provided an endorsement as well as the foreward.
The book is self-published by Grand Mesa Graphics, a Grand Junction printer Freeman found very helpful. That firm designed the cover which features the original badge of office as well as the photo of Willis Davis, who Freeman believes was a precinct constable at the time.
A limited number of copies "Sheriffs of Delta County, Colorado, and Related Stories" is available from Freeman or at the Delta Museum at the corner of 3rd and Main.
Sheriffs of Delta County
Charles L. Andrews 1883-1883
Ben S. Gheen 1883-1890
William Girardet 1890-1894
C.E. Mower 1894-1898
George S. Smith 1898-1902
William Hunt 1902-1904
Chapman S. Gibbs 1905-1908
Inelda H. Williams 1909-1912
C.C. Sampson 1912-1914
Charles S. Blanchard 1914-1914
Mack Davis 1915-1918
R.B. Wilson 1918-1922
Willis A. Davis 1923-1924
R.B. Vanocker 1924-1925
Clarence E. Vanaken 1925-1932
R. Ray Lockhart 1932-1946
Leonard L. Wilcox 1947-1962
John Doyle 1962-1972
Fred Pace 1972-1978
George B. Hayden 1979-1979
Richard A. Miklich 1979-1989
William B. Blair 1989-2002
Fred McKee 2003-Present
Excerpted from "Sheriffs of Delta County and Related Stories"