Editors note: This is the second of a two-part series about the 1907 death near Hesperus of Secret Service agent Joseph Walker and his great-granddaughters quest to see that his deeds dont go unrecognized. The first part appeared Oct. 25.
HESPERUS When we last left U.S. Secret Service agent Joseph Walker, he was about to encounter trouble.
While his three co-investigators dropped down an air shaft and discovered what appeared to be an illegal coal-mining operation near Porter Fuel Co.s Hesperus Mine, Walker soon found he wasnt alone.
Two men who approached on horseback, William R. Billy Mason and Joseph Vanderweide, were not at all welcoming. Mason, the superintendent for Porter, owned the land. Vanderweide, his neighbor and a Porter miner, carried a double-barreled shotgun.
If you think folks around here are edgy about government intrusion into their business in the 21st century, well, it was certainly no different in the early 20th.
The Secret Service men were in the area in November 1907 to determine whether Porter Fuel was stealing government-owned coal from under homesteaded land. It was part of an investigation spanning several states in the West. Several prominent Durangoans had come under indictment from a federal grand jury, among them, John A. Porter, president of Porter Fuel Co.
And this was still the Wild West, after all. In January 1906, on Main Avenue in Durango, Sheriff William Thompson had died in a shootout with the acting city marshal.
It was a wide-open time, historian and author Duane Smith says, but adds: It wasnt as violent as people think. It wasnt typical. Thats what people like to read about.
We have only one side of what truly happened next. From Walkers perspective, we can assume the mens presence made him uncomfortable. Mason testified at trial that he dismounted, unarmed, to investigate the intruder. He got within 15 feet when Walker told him to stop. Walker pulled out his .38-caliber revolver and fired a shot.
The bullet whistled by my head, Mason testified at trial.
As Walker prepared to fire again, Vanderweide blasted him with both barrels of his shotgun, likely killing him almost instantly.
That was Mason and Vanderweides story, anyway. Its easy to believe there was a plot to murder Walker.
Mason, a 53-year-old native of Wales and the mine foreman for 14 years, claimed he did not recognize Walker as a federal agent. But others, including Walkers boss, said Mason and Walker were well-acquainted. Yes, Walkers pistol had one empty shell, but his wife and friends said he always carried his pistol that way for safety. Perhaps most damaging to Mason and Vanderweides story: The coroner determined Walker was shot from behind.
At the very least, knowing about the land fraud investigation, Mason had to have suspected that he had encountered a government agent. And does this sound cold-blooded? Vanderweide testified at trial that neither he nor Mason bothered to check the body after the shooting to determine whether Walker was still alive.
Assistant District Attorney George Lane told the jury, You would give your neighbors dog more consideration than Mason gave Walker after he shot him.
b b b
Meanwhile, the three men underground saw their easy route to the surface the rope and iron pulley theyd used to descend the air shaft piled at their feet. Mason had tossed it down.
Secret Service agent Thomas Callaghan, geologist John Chapson and miner Tom Harper were so worried for their well-being that they quickly wrote reports and pinned them to their undershirts. Their options were limited. They could exit out the mines main entrance, but was that just walking into a trap? Harper, the miner hired by Walker, started climbing freehand up the air shaft.
He fell back a couple of times but kept at it and somehow scaled 65 feet up the rounded logs that framed the shaft. Harper said at the trial that he saw Walkers body, ran his hand down under the vest and found no heartbeat. He reset the rope, and the two others joined him. The three inspected Walker and discovered multiple wounds, one in his neck, which no doubt killed him.
All in all, theyd been underground for about 75 minutes.
Callaghan mounted Walkers horse and headed toward Durango. On the way, he overtook Mason and Vanderweide in a buggy, noticed a shotgun with them and brought them to Durango, where the sheriff arrested them.
b b b
Denverites and Durangoans were fixated on the trial, which began at 9 a.m. April 25, 1908, in Durango.
Wrote Durango Democrat editor David Day, The coal and timber steal in this county has been felonious, shameless, deplorable, villainous, criminal and repulsive. This man (Walker) knew neither fear or neglect of duty, he stood by his oath and by all that savors of honesty in and out of public life.
No less than President Theodore Roosevelt spoke out about the murder of Walker in a letter to the attorney general and secretary of the Interior: I trust every effort will be exerted ... to prosecute vigorously every violation of the land laws which Walker was investigating.
The prosecution caused a sensation when it unveiled a life-sized wax figure resembling Walker.
The figure was dressed in the same clothes Walker had on when he was killed, and the bullet holes were easily discernible, said one newspaper account.
Santiago Gardunio, who was in the county jail near Mason and Vanderweide on the night of the killing, said the two plotted to assert their innocence. He testified that he overhead Mason tell Vanderweide:
The only way out of it is to say my life was in danger and you shot Walker to save me.
Another possible scenario, less sexy but perhaps just as likely: Walker, nervous with Mason quickly approaching, shot in the air as a warning and Vanderweide overreacted.
Mason and Vanderweide faced verdicts ranging from the death penalty to involuntary manslaughter to not guilty. If the jury had judged the case based only on headlines in the Democrat, there would have been a hanging. But in the end, the jury found the prosecutions case inconclusive and acquitted the two men on May 2.
The federal government didnt give up easily. A deputy U.S. marshal arrested Mason and Vanderweide as they left the Durango courtroom, serving them with federal warrants for conspiracy to murder.
After a federal judge ruled the men could not be tried twice on the same charge known as double jeopardy the U.S. district attorney appealed to the Supreme Court. The appeal was denied.
And ultimately, despite Roosevelts plea, 1,400 indictments were dismissed and nobody in Southwest Colorado ever was prosecuted for land fraud.
b b b
So did Walker die in vain?
Perhaps not. A couple of federal laws were inspired fully or in part by Walkers death. Congress made it a federal offense to kill a U.S. officer, allowing future such cases to be tried in the federal system. Also, a new law created a pension for families of U.S. agents killed on the job.
To investigate cases such as land fraud, the Justice Department, under Roosevelts executive authority, took several Secret Service agents and created the FBI in 1908.
b b b
On Oct. 17 of this year, two Denver-area sisters, Sharon Stackhouse and Robynn Thomas, drove and hiked into the area where their great-grandfather was killed. Since May, along with sisters Barbara Bratton of Leander, Texas, and Susan Walker-Maule of New Zealand, theyve been on the case. Theyve taken notes, shot video and compiled reams of information about their ancestor. Denvers KMGH-TV news featured them in a 2½-minute segment.
Most important, they granted their 89-year-old father Robert Walkers wish to find Joseph Walkers burial site. And they went a step further, contacting the Association of Former Agents of the U.S. Secret Service, which offered to pay for a marker at the site where Joseph Walkers cremated ashes had been buried without a headstone at Fairmount Cemetery in Denver.
A grave marker dedication, with family, friends and Secret Service agents past and present, will be held Wednesday the 103rd anniversary of Walkers death at Fairmount.
The marker, on Colorado rose granite, features an engraved Secret Service brass star, dedicated to Joseph Walkers ultimate sacrifice. Robert Walker is thrilled.
It was something he really wanted to do in his lifetime, Stackhouse said. I know hes gonna cry when he sees the marker.