Robert Kirby: Revisiting the bad old days of law enforcement in rural Utah

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Kirby revisits some of the bad old days of law enforcement in rural Utah.

I drove past Beaver the other day. I always look toward the old highway that entered the town from the north before the freeway came through.

On a Sunday evening in April 1968, Utah Highway Patrol Trooper Joe Benson noticed four “hippies” loitering on the highway that passed through Beaver. He pulled over to investigate. When the hippies claimed to be just passing through, he let them go.

A few minutes later, Beaver City Marshal Gerald Nowers was called to a service station to check out some “hippie types” hanging around. The four asked about a bus schedule.

The marshal offered to let them sleep in the jail, but the four said they had money for a motel, so he gave them a ride in his patrol car to the north edge of town and turned them loose.

Nowers and Benson were just doing their jobs, which was to make sure an unsavory element — in this case, four suspicious hippies — didn’t grow too attached to the area. Nothing good could come of that, they reasoned.

What no one at the time knew — other than the four hippies — was that, just a few hours before, the four had broken out of the Beaver County jail, where they had been locked up for five days awaiting trial on an auto theft charge.

Not only was the county jail unstaffed at night, none of the arrest information had been shared with other law enforcement agencies.

Growing bored and eventually creative, the four used a piece of angle iron removed from one of the bunks to pry off the jail locks. They then broke into the sheriff’s office, recovered their belongings, and fled.

The escape wasn’t discovered until the following morning, when a deputy showed up at the jail to feed the prisoners. Beaver County Sheriff Mel Tait sent out the alarm. The county’s jeep posse scoured the area looking for the escapees.

Breaking out of jail and managing to fool the first two cops they came across must have been a huge laugh for the escapees — until the sun came up.

That’s when two of the four — who were from New Jersey — decided that wandering a patch of earth where liquid in any discernible quantity mainly consisted of jack rabbit urine wasn’t for them.

They were trudging back to Beaver to surrender when the chagrined and annoyed Trooper Benson and Marshal Nowers came upon them just north of town. The other two were discovered a short time later, miserably crouched in the sketchy shade of some brush near Manderfield.

In a story that seems straight out of Mayberry on the “The Andy Griffith Show,” the episode caused a few laughs in the community.

But at least someone got it right. A few days later, an editorial appeared in the The Beaver Press decrying the poor facilities and equipment provided to law enforcement.

According to the editorial, it wasn’t that long ago before this incident that the Beaver marshal wasn’t even equipped with a car.

The mayor gave the marshal a whistle on a string, The Beaver Press reported on April 18, 1968, and told him “when you see one of them speeders comin’, get out there and blow this whistle and he’ll stop and you can take him to the judge.”

But rural law enforcement did its best to keep up. On Feb. 23, 1951, 17 years before the crazy jail break, Beaver marshals and UHP Trooper Tom Semmens were conducting a roadblock north of town, watching for an Orem bank robber.

The jail was even a worse affair than it was 17 years later in 1968, but it managed to hold onto three armed male teenagers who approached the roadblock in a car stolen from another state.

The three boys, escapees from an Indiana boys school, spent their four days quietly in the Beaver County jail, waiting for FBI agents to arrive from Salt Lake City.

The boys weren’t hippies. It was too early for that. But one of them would figure prominently in the free love movement two decades later. His name: Charles M. Manson.

Robert Kirby is The Salt Lake Tribune’s humor columnist. Follow Kirby on Facebook.