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The greatest manhunt in the Southwest

Editor’s note: Part 1 of this article was published in The Journal on Feb. 1. Portions of this article were found in the issues of the Montezuma Valley Journal and from article written by Anna Florence Robison.By June Head

It was July 15, 1935, when Montezuma County Sheriff Wesley Dunlap and his deputy stopped their car at the side of the San Miguel River about 4 miles downstream from Placerville.

The sheriff and his deputy, Lem Duncan, were bringing Otis and Herbert McDaniel back from Glenwood Springs for the trial in the death of James Westfall on April 25, 1935. The brothers had bound and gagged Mr. Westfall after robbing him of $20, a pistol, a shotgun and an ax. He died of starvation and exhaustion in the two weeks before he was found on May 5.

Downriver from Placerville, they saw what looked like a car wreck so they stopped the automobile. Dunlap got out and walked toward the wreckage while Duncan sat in the car, leaning out of the door to check the tires.

Otis and Herbert McDaniel, handcuffed together, quickly reached over the front seat and grabbed the sheriff’s gun, then ordered Duncan away while shouting for Dunlap to return.

As Dunlap walked toward them, telling them it was no use shooting, Otis fired twice. The sheriff was mortally wounded.

Duncan was able to get to Placerville and with help went back to retrieve the sheriff and transport the wounded man to medical help. Dunlap died before he got to the Telluride hospital.

In the meantime, as far as is known, the McDaniel brothers drove the car down the highway at high speed. At a point about 4 miles below the scene of the shooting, they turned the car around and off the highway and drove it into the oak brush and rocks near the side of the river. It was almost invisible for the road and wasn’t found until several hours later. This occasioned the report to all towns in the Southwest that they were escaping in the black Dodge sedan with all the guns Dunlap and Duncan were carrying on themselves and in the car.

On their way to their father, Milton and Wesley (Pete) Dunlap were the first to see the car. They saw it from the highway but were afraid of an ambush and didn’t go near it. Instead, they drove into Placerville, and it was not until later that it was discovered that the car had been abandoned by the murderers.

Tracks from the car led to the river, and it was from this point that the search was begun. The shotgun was found where the car left the road. Duncan’s revolver was found under the blanket that covered the front seat. A rifle that had been lying on the floor in front of the driver’s seat was missing; apparently the men were armed with this rifle and the sheriff’s pistol when they left the car.

Greatest Manhunt in Southwest Has Met With Little Success

By Dwight F. Brown, editor of Montezuma Valley Journal, July 1935

Ninety-six hours have passed since the fatal shooting of Sheriff W.W. Dunlap, and although the greatest manhunt probably ever made in the Southwest has been going on, the McDaniel brothers, Otis and Herbert, are still at large.

The most promising lead at the present moment lies with the pair of bloodhounds that were sent by airplane at the request of District Attorney James Noland and are now on a trail near Dunton. With Deputy Warden Angel of the Colorado Penitentiary in charge of the dogs, a set of tracks gave off the scent that set the bloodhounds baying yesterday afternoon. The posse of eight men who know that country made slow progress through the densely wooded Coal Creek section on a rain-soaked trail that took the general direction of Priest Gulch on the Dolores River.

The belief of those who took part in getting the dogs on the trail is that the desperados are making their way out of that section toward the Red Mesa area, their criminal hangout, with a long start ahead of the searchers. But the July 25 Journal could only report “a cold trail.”

As the funeral services were being conducted, reports continued to come in. Someone reported seeing the McDaniel brothers at Ridgway. At the same time, someone else saw suspicious-looking strangers at the Menefee Switch east of Mancos.

Hundreds Gather to Mourn Passing of Sheriff Dunlap

Excerpts from Journal, July 25, 1935

Hundreds Gather to Mourn Passing of Sheriff DunlapThe funeral services held last Friday were attended by hundreds of people, some of whom were unable to find a place in the huge high school auditorium. The Elks conducted the funeral services, and Rev. C.L. Flanders rendered words of comfort to his family. J.E. Barrett, an old-time friend of the family’s, read the obituary.

William Wesley Dunlap was born in Pearidges, Arkansas, Sept 1, 1871, and came with his family to Colorado in 1875 and to Animas City during the year 1876. Wes attended public school at Animas City, then two years at Notre Dame College. He went to Disappointment Creek in 1894, where he engaged in the cattle business, first in the employee of Robinson and Pearce, at which time he rode the range of San Juan County, N.M., and Southwest Colorado.

He was always known as an expert stockman, hard worker and honest in all of his dealings. Wes became one of the largest cattle owners in the San Juan Basin. In 1905, he was married to Leota Thompson, of one of the pioneer families of the San Juan Basin. To this union were born five children: Milton, Wesley (Pete); Velma, Peggy and Helen, who survive him.

Search Continues Fully 300 men have joined in the search, covering a broad area from Slickrock to Rico, with the entire Four Corners Country on alert. The search, briefly summarized, has been as follows: Blockades were established throughout Southwest Colorado, eastern Utah, Northern New Mexico and Arizona immediately after the murder. An airplane was sent by Gov. Edwin Johnson to assist. Ranches and camps in the region were checked to learn if provisions had been stolen or the slayers sighted. An airplane delivered Deputy Warden Angel and his dogs to Mancos, and by that afternoon they were on the scene to locate the hunted men. After striking a trail, the dogs followed it out to the top of a ridge south of Dunton, but it was felt more good could be done in Priest Gulch. The trail was then lost. Two months were filled with a grim manhunt through the high mountain country. On Aug. 6, Carey, Colorado, Rancher James Rowe spotted the pair and thought he recognized them. Two days later, he notified Colorado State Penitentiary Warden Roy Best, who organized a posse. The pair was caught by the posse near Carey, scarcely 20 miles from the state prison.

The trial was set for Sept. 9 in Cortez, but a change of venue to Durango was approved by District Judge J.B. O’Rourke. The Sept. 11 verdict by the jury left law officials unhappy. Instead of a death penalty decision for the brothers, the jury decided on life sentences in the Westfall case. Not satisfied, District Attorney Noland sought and got a trial in Telluride for the death of Sheriff Dunlap.

Herbie and Otis Guests of State on Another Trip

Montezuma Valley Journal, Sept. 19, 1935

Herbie and Otis Guests of State on Another TripOtis and Herbert McDaniel, convicted slayers of James Westfall, answered not guilty to the change of murdering Sheriff Wes Dunlap when arraigned this week in Telluride. The brothers are nearing the end of their lurid crime that has occupied the interest of Southwestern Colorado since last spring.

Undoubtedly a mileage record for any Colorado criminal, the great part of the travels of the McDaniel brothers has been financed by the State. The pair have been from Canon City to Grand Junction, to Durango, to Canon City to Durango, to Grand Junction, to Telluride, to Grand Junction with another trip coming before their long due trip to the little round house atop the hill to the state prison yard.

The trial began Oct. 7. In a special blue-colored sheet of paper dated Oct. 18, which was attached to the Oct. 17 issue of the Journal, it was reported the jury had given the death penalty to Otis McDaniel and a life sentence to Herbert McDaniel.

Otis McDaniel died in the gas chamber on Friday, Feb. 14, 1936, and Herbert McDaniel later died of natural causes.

June Head, Historian, Montezuma County Historical Society may be contacted at 970-565-3880. Sheriff Dunlap and wife are buried in Greenmount Cemetery in Durango.

Sep 28, 2021
The ignoble death of Sheriff Wesley Dunlap