Kirby: Remembering the worst day in Utah law enforcement
Friday marks the 100th anniversary of the worst law enforcement disaster in Utah history. Over the course of a week, five police officers were murdered by a man never apprehended for the crime.
In his flight from justice, the killer probably passed within 100 yards of my front porch in Herriman. The mine where it all began is visible from my kitchen window.
In 1913, Bingham Canyon was still reeling from a violent strike against Utah Copper the year before. The strike was broken in part by hundreds of guards and "scabs" shipped in by the company.
Although referred to as "deputies," the guards were actually little more than armed thugs. Real Salt Lake County deputies arrested a number of them for assault and drunkenness. Unfortunately, local miners didn't distinguish between the two.
The disaster began with a commonplace murder in the Sap Gap district of Highland Boy, an upper reach of Bingham Canyon. Shortly before midnight on Nov. 21, Rafael Lopez shot and killed another man with whom he had a dispute.
Salt Lake County sheriff's deputy Julius Sorensen had arrested Lopez before. Knowing Sorensen would be after him, Lopez retrieved a rifle and climbed over the mountain into Butterfield Canyon. Slogging through snow on foot, he managed to stay ahead of a mounted posse down through the Narrows of the Jordan River and along the western shore of Utah Lake.
The four-man posse, including Sorensen, caught up with Lopez at a ranch house near Saratoga Springs later that day. Seeing the officers approach, Lopez slipped out of the cabin and into the brush. When they rode up, he began firing with a lever-action rifle.
Ironically, Lopez managed to murder everyone except the man he really wanted to kill: Sorensen. The deputy, 58, survived because his horse threw him. Within seconds, Salt Lake County deputies Otto Witbeck and Nephi Jensen, and Bingham City police chief William Grant were dead or dying.
What was already an epic flight to avoid apprehension became news overnight. Hundreds of law enforcement officers swarmed to the scene on horseback and in cars.
Still on foot, Lopez fled. When he tried to cross over the Lake Mountain into Cedar Valley, he had a gunfight with another posse. During the night, he managed to slip away.
What happened next would astonish everyone. As posses frantically tried to pick up his trail, Lopez did the unthinkable. He returned to Bingham Canyon.
Late on Nov. 26, an exhausted Lopez tapped on the bedroom window of a friend in Highland Boy. The man gave Lopez supplies and helped him into the mine. His secret was kept until the following day when officers learned where he was. Bulkheads were built and guards posted, closing off as many entrances as possible.
On Nov. 29, authorities believed they knew where Lopez was hiding. Four men were sent in to start a fire they hoped would drive the killer out. Before the fire could be set, Lopez ambushed them, killing Salt Lake County Deputy Douglas Hulsey and posse member Vaso Mandarich.
Authorities continued pumping the mine full of smoke made from crude oil, sulfur and hay. Cautious searches produced nothing. However, miners who ventured in alone reported encountering Lopez on various levels.
On Dec. 9, Gov. William Spry offered a $1,000 reward to anyone who could bring in Lopez "dead or alive." The notice merely served to attract the worst kind of manhunters to Highland Boy. The problem was further compounded when citizens began a "dead pool," wagering on the day Lopez would be found.
He never was. The last search of the mine was conducted in January 1914 and revealed Lopez had slipped away. While researching a book on Utah's murdered police officers, I spent years trying to find out what happened to him.
Over the years, claims of Lopez sightings came in from all parts of the country. Such reports gradually declined until all that remained of Lopez were occasional claims that his ghost haunted the old Highland Boy works. It would take another 90 years before Lopez came back from the darkness.
Ultimately, it was another Salt Lake County deputy who tracked down Lopez. Working alone, Deputy Randy Lish spent thousands of his own hours and dollars tracking down a claim that Lopez had been killed in 1921 by Texas Rangers led by the legendary Frank Hamer.
"There was never any doubt to anyone in Texas that this was the same Lopez from Utah," Lish said in 2003. "The chronology, the physical description, everything points to it being Rafael Lopez. I couldn't find anything that proved that it wasn't.
Lish submitted his case to then Salt Lake County District Attorney David C. Yocom, and on Jan. 24, 2003, Yocom signed a memorandum formally closing the worst event in Utah law enforcement history.
Robert Kirby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or facebook.com/stillnotpatbagley.
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