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The ignoble death of Sheriff Wesley Dunlap

Editor’s note: Part 2 of this article will appear in the March 1 issue. 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.

Moments later, two shots rang out, and the sheriff was mortally wounded.

It launched one of the biggest and the last posses ever conducted in this area. Hundreds of men swept the western part of Southwest Colorado and into the other Four Corners states.

Today, a plaque in Dunlap’s honor stands in a niche in the wall of the older part of the Montezuma County Courthouse, a structure built in 1937, two years after the sheriff’s death.

It started the night of April 25, 1935, when Otis McDaniel, 39, and his brother Herbert, 20, bound and gagged 77-year-old James Westfall in the elderly sheepherder’s home near Lewis. They had been invited in out of a storm by the kindly Westfall, it was later reported.

The brothers robbed Westfall of $20, a pistol, a shotgun and an ax, then left him bound and gagged on the floor. He died of starvation and exhaustion in the two weeks before he was found on May 5 by a couple from Lewis who were friends of the old man.

At the coroner’s jury, the couple told of their acquaintance with Westfall, who had befriended the family when they came to this country. Their anxiety was aroused when neighbors told of having not seen the old man in a while and that his dog had been locked in the house for a number of days.

James Westfall was a cowboy and sheepherder until his death. He lived through the stirring days of the West and was fond of telling his experiences during the cattle-sheep wars of Wyoming. Given to rough talk, he often adopted a threatening mien that was discounted by friends who knew he was generous to the extreme, according to his obituary.

A week later, Herbert McDaniel was arrested at his home in the La Plata County community of Red Mesa. Herbert McDaniel confessed, saying that the brothers had stolen an automobile after robbing Westfall. They drove the car back to Red Mesa, and over the next few days dismantled it and burned what they could of it.

Otis McDaniel gave himself up within the next week and confessed.

District Attorney James Noland had the brothers housed in the Durango jail, since Montezuma County’s wasn’t adequate. Then fearing that reprisals might be launched against the McDaniels, he had them taken to the jail in Glenwood Springs.

It was on July 15, 1935, that Sheriff Dunlap and his deputy, Lem Duncan, were bringing Otis and Herbert McDaniel back from Glenwood Springs for trial in the Westfall killing, the July 18 issue of The Montezuma Journal reported.

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

With speed that can scarcely be imagined of a pair who were handcuffed and shackled together, the brothers leaned over the front seat and seized the sheriff’s gun from the compartment on the dash. The commotion was heard by Duncan, but he came up facing the pistol in the hands of Otis McDaniel.

They ordered him out of the car and across the road to the bank. They shouted to Dunlap to hurry back to the car. As he came, the pair backed to the car to secure the shotgun. Instead of going toward Duncan as he had been told to do, Sheriff Dunlap walked toward the men, telling them that it was no use for them to kill anyone, that he would release them since they had the upper hand.

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

With that the older brother, Otis, shouted to Duncan to get out of there, indicating that he should cross the road and get into the willows at river’s edge. Soon as he had done so, the sheriff’s killers jumped in the car and started down the road. Duncan was on the other side of the road, and the sheriff was lying wounded.

Duncan went onto the road to where Dunlap was lying, but believed him dead so he started toward Placerville. A car was coming up the road that he believed might be the McDaniels, so he dodged back into the bushes. It turned out to be a woman driving the car, however, and after learning this, Duncan went back to the road and was taken to Placerville. Duncan got back to Placerville, and a man and woman went back with him to retrieve the sheriff and transport the wounded man to medical help. Dunlap died before he got to the Telluride hospital.

Meanwhile, the McDaniel brothers drove farther down the San Miguel River road about 4 miles before abandoning the car in the brush. It was found several hours later.

The plaque in the courthouse on Main Street has been moved to the Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office, 730 E. Driscoll in Cortez, where it may be viewed together with a photo of Sheriff Wesley Dunlap.

June Head, historian of Montezuma County Historical Society, may be reached at 970-565-3880 for questions.

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