The Prohibition Agency’s First Case:
Official Zeal, Mistaken Identity and Murder in Wyoming, 1919
By Phil Roberts
(Published in Western Legal History 11 (Summer/Fall 1998)
On a cool September evening in 1919, 33-year-old Frank Jennings was returning home to his family ranch, 20 miles north of Laramie. The son of former legislator, Isaac N. Jennings, the young man had driven to Laramie earlier in the day to take his girlfriend, Viola Boughton, to the movies. Boughton, who worked as a stenographer at the University of Wyoming, remembered watching young Jennings pull his black Franklin touring car away from the curb in front of the apartment house where he had dropped her off. He clamped a cigar he had recently purchased at Cordiner's Drugstore firmly in his mouth and drove away.
The next afternoon, the Rev. F. S. Delo, pastor of the Trinity Evangelical Church and another man were returning from Rock River when they saw the car off the side of the Lincoln Highway some 3 1/2 miles north of Laramie. As they passed, the pastor noticed a raised knee barely visible over the dashboard. When they stopped to take a closer look, inside they found Jennings' body lying across the front seat. He had been shot at least three times in the head. One-third of a cigar was found in his lap. Apparently, he had been dead for hours.
The discovery led to a massive manhunt that ended with a surprise. The case was to call into question, almost from the beginning, the desirability of a state law enforcement agency being given broad powers to investigate Prohibition cases and bring actions anywhere in the state. Young Jennings had been murdered. The killers worked for Wyoming’s newest agency charged with enforcing the Prohibition laws.
With the exception of federal officers with statewide jurisdiction, Wyoming's law enforcement before 1919 consisted of county sheriffs, local constables and an assortment of other municipal officers. With the exception of the U. S. Marshal, a federal post, no centralized law enforcement existed in the state. Nonetheless, it was clear to supporters of Prohibition that uniform enforcement would not be possible relying on conventional agencies. It was widely known that many sheriffs and town officials either opposed Prohibition in principal or dismissed it as “unenforceable.” With such local resistance toward the new law, the Prohibition supporters demanded creation of a specific agency charged with that duty.
Members of the Anti-Saloon League had been very active in passage of the Prohibition act in Wyoming. When it came time for the legislature to pass enabling bills to enforce the law, Gov. Robert Carey turned to members of the league for help in drawing up the bill. Soon after the governor's message, which also included comments about Prohibition, the State Senate president appointed a "Prohibition Committee" to consider measures to enforce Prohibition. The Anti-Saloon League, already on record supporting centralized enforcement, was heavily represented. In fact, at least one of Carey’s advisors claimed that the league’s state president, Fred L. Crabbe, actually selected the committee from their various chapters to write the law. Crabbe himself took a leading role in the committee’s deliberations.
The Republicans held the overwhelming majority in both houses of the legislature and some of the leadership reportedly were unhappy with what they saw as Gov. Carey’s abdication of the issue to a non-elected group. Their unhappiness turned to anger when Crabbe’s committee, without consulting with the party leaders, had a legislator, State Rep. William E. Harden from Fremont County, introduce the bill. As one leading Republican put it years later, “Crabbe had evidently gathered pieces of prohibition bills from all the states of the Union and had tried to put them together, all the time having in mind that the bill was being built around a Prohibition Commissioner instead of the matter of first formulating a scheme for the practical operation of the law.” His motive, according to the writer, was the expectation that he would be named Prohibition Commissioner.
Gov. Carey had not seen the bill until after it was introduced. He, too, was shocked at the sloppy draftmanship and, apparently, worried about the wide-range of authority the law would place in the hands of the director. But Carey, aware of the political sensitivity of the issue, asked a close advisor, Cheyenne lawyer T. Blake Kennedy, to work with Crabbe and Harlan to come up with a cleaner proposal. During the meeting between the three men, Kennedy pointed out the deficiencies. After an hour, Harlan gave up and told Kennedy to take care of it. Both Kennedy and Crabbe were lawyers. After a short time, Kennedy was left to use his best judgment, Harlan
still insisting that the bill retain as closely as possible the framework of his original creation.
It took Kennedy much of the night to rewrite it to satisfy some of the major concerns. Nonetheless, the centralized agency was still included. The next morning, he walked it into the governor’s office where Carey read the revised draft and asked that Kennedy have it introduced as a substitute for the earlier bill. Kennedy urged that the Anti-Saloon League committee have a look at it first. The group concurred with the new language, including a provision allowing for sale of “two percent beer.”
When the measure finally reached the legislature, telegrams started pouring in from around the state. The object of their wrath was not the proposed statewide enforcement mechanism the law would institute. Angry temperance constituents insisted that the “two percent beer” provision be stricken from the bill. Kennedy, who had fashioned the new law with the approval of the Anti-Saloon League, told the governor the provision would not be withdrawn unless the league committee agreed to the change.
A few Prohibition supporters in the legislature started backing away from the entire bill on the basis of other portions. Rumors were circulating that Crabbe had drafted the law for his own purposes and there was talk that he might be “playing both ends of the game as far as intoxicating liquor was concerned.” Several legislators believed the office of the state enforcement commissioner would be best eliminated. Not only would that solve what county sheriffs viewed as a possible encroachment on their authority, it would eliminate the possibility of Crabbe serving in that capacity.
The governor thought otherwise, however. In his view, Crabbe’s Anti-Saloon League made the act possible. They should be able to determine how it should be fashioned. Further, as later events proved out, Carey did not trust local officials to enforce the act’s provisions. It had to be enforced statewide if the law were to function well, Carey believed. After all, in his message to the legislature in 1919, he had included with his call for a Prohibition agency a request to grant the organization broad authority to launch investigations.
When the bill finally passed, just three legislators voted against it. All three were confirmed opponents of Prohibition in any form. The legislature passed House Bill No. 1 on Feb. 15, 1919 to take effect June 30, 1919. The first statewide law enforcement agency was born and Gov. Carey appointed Crabbe the first State Prohibition Enforcement Commissioner.
Crabbe received numerous applications from individuals interested in serving as his deputy. While some had law enforcement experience, none had dealt directly with enforcement of Prohibition. He settled on Earl M. Daniels who became his deputy director in the summer of 1919.
Without an experienced staff and with no personal experience in prohibition enforcement, Crabbe relied heavily on advice from fellow members of the Anti-Saloon League in neighboring states. Sometime during the summer of 1919, a few days after the Prohibition Act took effect on July 1, Crabbe asked Robert J. Finch, president of the Colorado Anti-Saloon League, for advice about how to proceed against law breakers. Finch recommended that Crabbe hire 32-year-old John Cordillo, a deputy state prohibition officer in Colorado. By leading an investigation in Wyoming, Cordillo would be able to demonstrate to new agency employees how the work should be done.
The 5’4”, 129-pound Cordillo, a former Denver police officer, accepted the temporary job. Not wishing to move from Denver where his wife and two grade-school aged daughters lived, Cordillo stayed at the Plains Hotel in Cheyenne during the week, planning to return most weekends to his Colorado home. Accepting an assignment to join him were his brother Pete, also a former lawman, and Walter Newell, a new employee of Crabbe’s agency. Pete was to receive $100 for his services. The other two were salaried workers.
One of Crabbe’s new employees went to Laramie and on Aug. 26, began an undercover investigation of bootlegging activity along Front Street. A few days later, Crabbe and his deputy Daniels, accompanied by the Cordillos and Newell set up a raid in cooperation with local lawmen. The Tuesday night operation was a spectacular success in which six establishments were raided, five men and one woman arrested and 400 gallons of illegal booze, worth an estimated $22,000, was seized. The local newspaper congratulated the effort: “The manner in which the workers ‘got the goods’ on the bootleggers is deserving of special mention,” the Boomerang report noted. Crabbe and Daniels were praised by name while the other three who took part were mentioned only as employees of the agency.
Two days later, a Boomerang article showed how much Crabbe appreciated the attention. The page 5 story was headlined: “Boomerang Thanked by Crabbe for Its Excellent Write-up on Bootleg Raid.”Three days later, the tragic murder of a popular local ranchman pushed the spectacular successes of Crabbe’s “bootleg squad” out of the front pages.
Frank Jennings’ body, discovered in the car along Highway 30 north of Laramie, had been found and brought into town for an autopsy. The afternoon newspaper described the crime scene, noting that the authorities had found "very little evidence." Nonetheless, the article pointed out that robbery was the probable motive although the victim's watch and loose change were not taken. As the local paper noted, “not in years, has the city of Laramie been so wrought up over a murder.”
Two days later, authorities still had no break in the case. "Mystery Still Cloaks Murder of Frank Jennings," the Boomerang reported. For the first time, the press noted that "three men from the State Prohibition Department's bootleg squad" were being examined "as much for the purpose of exonerating the men in the public mind if innocent as it is to prosecute them if guilty." The paper confidently concluded: "It seems probable that they can clear themselves and as yet no charges have been filed."
But the county attorney was less willing to accept their stories. Their testimony before the coroner’s jury apparently contained too many suspicious elements.
All three maintained they had spent from 9 p.m. on Sunday night until 4 a.m. the next morning in the vicinity of Red Buttes, south of Laramie, in the direction exactly opposite from where the crime occurred. They claimed that two northbound passenger trains passed through about 9:30 p.m., that evening. They also asserted that two southbound trains roared past where they were parked at about 12:30 a.m. In both cases, their testimony was deficient. Logs showed both Union Pacific northbound trains had arrived in town by 8:20 p.m. Even worse, the two southbound passenger trains never passed through Red Buttes station, but took a different route through the Hermosa tunnel and east.
They had stopped along the highway south of Laramie, they claimed, in order to spot suspicious vehicles which might contain contraband. All three admitted stopping two cars during the evening in attempts to uncover illegal booze. In both cases, however, the incidents occurred much later than the times the men told authorities.
When questioned individually, all three were asked to describe their route out of town that evening. One claimed they backed out of the courthouse yard, went south on Sixth Street, then west to the Lincoln Highway and out of town to the south. Another said they came up Thornburg (now Ivinson) and drove straight out on Second Street (Lincoln Highway).
At the end of three days of testimony, the coroner’s jury evaluated evidence and concluded with nothing definite except that “the death was caused by gunshot wounds, inflicted on the head by person or persons unknown.”Nonetheless, the finger of suspicion already was pointing toward the state officers.
On September 11, Jennings’ brother Roy filed a complaint with County Attorney George Patterson alleging that his brother had been killed by the three agents. The three men were arrested and the county attorney announced he planned to hold a preliminary hearing. “Feeling, justifiably bitter and revengeful, has arisen,” the Daily Boomerang reported, “until there has even been talk of a lynching.” The paper cautioned readers: “Though the men held may be the guilty parties, it is hoped that violence will be withheld. If found guilty of such a dastardly, fiendish crime as the one committed, surely it is hoped that no mercy will be shown them in court.” The paper added, “But for the sake of fair play, it should be remembered that a person is ‘considered innocent until proved guilty.’”
Less than a week later, the paper was to carry news that would shatter the prohibition office's reputation. After an all-night interrogation conducted by a former Denver police chief, Pete Cordillo confessed to the murder, implicating his brother and another man. Cordillo, while being taken to the county jail in Wheatland some 80 miles from Laramie in order to avoid the possibility of a lynching, told his former employer that Jennings’ death had happened as a result of some minor errors. The member of the "bootleg squad on loan" to Wyoming's new prohibition enforcement agency then agreed to repeat the confession and sign a statement when he reached the Wheatland jail. In the statement, he accused Newell of shooting Jennings with a rifle. He claimed he witnessed the killing but he had planned to turn Newell in later that night. It was accidental, he contended, the sort of thing that can happen when investigators make a couple of minor mistakes. With cheers of resounding success ringing in their ears, the prohibition agents had misread evidence, trailed the wrong vehicle and, in their zeal, ended up killing an innocent man.
Justice of the Peace M. C. Brown set the preliminary hearing for January 5, but later postponed it until March 19. Laramie attorney Hugo Donzelman represented the Cordillos and Newell. Oddly, F. L. Crabbe, who had resigned under fire as prohibition commissioner soon after the incident, signed on as assistant defense counsel. County attorney George Patterson would lead the prosecution team. The Jennings family retained C. P. Arnold to represent the family and serve as special prosecutor.
At some point during the next five weeks, Donzelman was replaced by a well-known Denver trial lawyer, C. A. Irwin. Crabbe became a trial “spectator,” throughout the hearings and in the trial, often sitting beside Finch, the Colorado Anti-Saloon League leader who had recommended that he hire the Cordillos. After the defense prevailed at a change of venue hearing in March, the trial was set to begin April 20 in the new Laramie County Courthouse in Cheyenne, the state capital some 48 miles east of Laramie.
Meanwhile, an unrelated incident interrupted county attorney Patterson’s concentration on the trial. On April 3, while Patterson’s office was closed for lunch, 18-year-old Gladys McArthur Bergstrom climbed the steps to his second-floor downtown office, planning to ask Patterson to represent her in a divorce action. Her husband had been stalking her. He followed her up the stairs and, in a rage, shot her twice at close range with a .38 special. She died on the steps just outside Patterson’s door. Ironically, the couple had married the day before Jennings’ last ill-fated ride.
In Cheyenne, carpenters had finished the interior of the courtroom, but the furnishings had not arrived even by the time the preliminary motions were heard in mid-April. In fact, a make-shift jury box was thrown together from rough pine planks for the trial. The ornate rail separating spectators from court officers had not arrived.During the course of the delays, W. A. Newell sat in his cell in Cheyenne, playing songs on the mandolin. News accounts mention two of his favorites: “Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here” and “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles.”
Snow started falling the night before the scheduled trial date of April 20. By the next morning, the spring storm had caused area roads to be impassable. The judge postponed the trial for a week because two items of evidence were still in Laramie--the two cars that would be exhibits in the case.
The trial of all three men finally opened April 27, 1920, in the Cheyenne courtroom of Judge William C. Mentzer. During jury selection, defense attorney Irwin asked potential jurors how they felt about enforcement of the Prohibition law, suggesting that the prosecutors were negligent about their duty to enforce the law. Charles E. Lane, Laramie County prosecutor who examined the potential jurors for the state, asked each one whether or not he was a member of the Anti-Saloon League and whether he had contributed to the defense fund the organization had set up for the Cordillos and Newell. George Patterson rejected Irwin’s insinuation that prosecutors were attacking the League or the Prohibition legislation. “The case is about murder, not Prohibition,” he told prospective jurors. Despite the denials, many observers saw it, if not as a referendum on prohibition, at least as a time to reconsider the law enforcement mechanisms designed to enforce it.
Twelve jurors, all men, were impaneled by late the first day. On the jury were four farmers, a prominent stockman, two machinists, a civil engineer, a barber, a painter and a janitor. The occupation of one juror was not specified.
During opening statements, Irwin suggested that Jennings had been murder by unknown parties who mistook his Franklin touring car with a similar one driven by Albany County Sheriff George Trabing. According to the defense counsel, Trabing had made “powerful enemies” among the liquor interests for his strong support for Prohibition enforcement. “Might enemies of the sheriff have done the deed?” he asked. Prosecutors scoffed at Irwin’s supposition. “We are here, not to discuss the Prohibition question, but to either convict or acquit this man,” special prosecutor Arnold told the jury. Mistaken identity seemed a slim reed to lean on.
The prosecution opened with the two men who had found Jennings’ body, the coroner, and Jennings’ girlfriend who was the last person to see him alive. Testimony indicated that Jennings was struck by five bullets, four of which were potentially fatal, and all apparently coming through the back of the car, striking the victim in the head and exiting out the windshield. Jennings’ stenographer girlfriend told the court that the victim had taken her to the Empress Theatre that night. After the film ended at about 9 p.m., Jennings bought a cigar at Cordiner’s Drugstore just prior to dropping her off in the street in front of her apartment about 20 minutes later. She remembered he had just lighted the cigar as he was driving away.
Even though John Cordillo had confessed, implicating both his brother and Newell, the confession was badly handled by authorities. Mike Delaney, the Denver detective who had first elicited the confession in the car enroute to Wheatland, had “sold it” to Jennings’ family for $2,500. Prosecutors, sensing that feeling was running high against him for taking the money of the victim’s family, opted not to put him on the stand. They had to rely on the testimony of the second man in the car, a deputy sheriff from Laramie who was ill and bed-ridden when the trial began. The man did not appear and the prosecutors were reduced to entering the statement by deposition from the ill man.
In his confession, according to the defense offered when it was thought the only other option was lynching, he explained that he had been driving the unmarked dark-colored Buick roadster on the fatal night. His brother was in the front passenger seat while Newell sat in the back. As they approached the car, thinking it belonged to a couple of known bootleggers enroute to Medicine Bow, they pulled around it and motioned the driver to halt. When he didn’t, they gave chase. They came upon the car as it veered off the road and, almost instantly, Newell was standing on the running board with a rifle in his hand. Before Cordillo could say anything, according to his testimony, Newell opened fire. He could not explain his actions after the incident, however, or why he had not reported the incident to higher authorities.
Perhaps the most damaging testimony came from Cordillo himself, not from testifying in court but from the statements he had made to the coroner’s jury. The prosecution picked apart contradictions in the statements. Patterson called witnesses who disputed Cordillo’s assertion that he was at Red Buttes because he was wrong about the trains passing that night. Well-known auto mechanic Elmer Lovejoy, the builder of the first automobile in Wyoming, testified about how distinctive Cordillo’s car was while another man testified that he had passed that car on the highway just north of town on the fateful night.
The defense put several character witnesses on the stand including George Carlson, the former governor of Colorado; the head of the juvenile justice program for the City of Denver Police Department; and Finch, the Anti-Saloon League official from Colorado. Cordillo’s wife testified, followed by Earl M. Daniels, who as Crabbe’s deputy had supervised Cordillo’s “strike force.” In all cases, Cordillo was portrayed as a model police officer who always had done his duty conscientiously.
A. S. Roach, who had been county sheriff in Platte County at the time of Cordillo’s confession, testified in the trial. Ironically, from shortly after the incident, Roach had been serving as the new State Prohibition Commissioner, appointed by Gov. Carey to replace F. L. Crabbe.
The case went to the jury on a Saturday afternoon. After deliberating most of the day, taking the evening off and returning on Sunday, the verdict came in at 2 p.m. that afternoon. Cordillo was found guilty of manslaughter and, on May 20, he was sentenced to 15-20 years in prison. The other two men received similar sentences.
In the aftermath of the case, County Attorney George Patterson called for state reimbursement to Albany County for $8,623, the cost of prosecuting the case. Patterson pointed out that “inasmuch as the crime was committed on a state highway, and inasmuch as the perpetrators of the crime were employees of a state agent appointed by Gov. Carey, that the state should bear the burden of the expense.”
The agency had other difficulties overcoming its reputation after the Cordillo case. As the first full year of the agency’s existence came to an end, director Roach submitted his annual report to the legislature. In it, he summarized the condition of Prohibition enforcement in each county. For Albany County, he wrote that “The County and Prosecuting Attorney reports that the Prohibition Law is being enforced very well.” He noted that the county attorney reported “no open bootlegging, and but very little drinking.” He concluded: “I find the city of Laramie to be in good condition, excepting for prostitution, but Rock River and Medicine Bow have several stills and several bootlegging joints.”
Roach was harsh on some county sheriffs and attorneys. In Carbon County, for instance, he wrote: “I have not had any special work done in this county as the sheriff and prosecuting attorney seemed to desire to enforce the law themselves, neither have many complaints been filed with this office.” In Laramie County, “bootlegging cases were dismissed by the county and prosecuting attorney. In Sweetwater County, “all laws are openly and flagrantly violated.” He gave similar reports for Lincoln, Uinta and Fremont where “gambling, bootlegging and prostitution are unchecked by the authorities.” In Niobrara, Natrona and Converse counties, conditions were bad. “No effort, seemingly, on the part of the authorities to enforce the laws” was the situation in Weston County.
It was a gloomy report. Roach concluded with several recommendations. “I would respectfully recommend that the office of Prohibition Commissioner be discontinued,” he wrote. “and that the Legislature create a department of General Law Enforcement, composed of a commissioner and a number of deputies sufficient to handle the enforcement of all criminal laws.” He argued that with such authority, all crimes could be handled at the same time “without any more expense to the State.”
Even though his agency was suffering from adverse public attitudes resulting from the Cordillo case, more than half of his comments were critical of local authorities. “Under the present Prohibition Law, without authority to make arrests, the evidence has to be turned over to the local authorities, and by the time that they are able to get to the scene, the evidence in many cases has been destroyed and there is no case,” he complained. But he added that there was willful wrong-doing as well. “At other times dilatory methods are pursued by the local officers; sometimes even arrests are refused, and evidence gained at expense of time and money of investigators, is useless. In other cases, as on record in Laramie County, two charges each against four men, were dismissed by the Prosecuting Attorney for what he termed ‘lack of evidence.’”
The Cordillo case and the publicity surrounding it set the Wyoming Prohibition Department off on a rocky beginning. To many observers, reform obviously was needed. Less than a year after the verdict in the Cordillo case, Gov. Carey, in his message to open the 1921 session, announced he wanted to have the two-year-old department restructured. No longer would the agency be charged simply with enforcing the Prohibition laws. Like Roach, Carey had a broader vision for the agency.
The governor, too, had become increasingly dissatisfied with what he considered the ineffectual enforcement of Prohibition on the part of sheriffs and county attorneys in Wyoming. In his address, he expressed his frustration with city and county officials who he believed were disregarding many of the laws. "Our laws apply to the whole state and neither county or city officials have any right to decide whether or not a particular law be enforced in any community," he said. He challenged lawmakers: "If we want gambling, it is better to have open gambling; if we want houses of prostitution, legalize them; if we must have saloons, repeal the prohibition law." He quickly added that neither he nor most of the people wanted such things legalized, but "I think it better to legalize them than not provide means whereby those whose duty it is to enforce the law may be either compelled to do their duty or others be authorized to do for them what they themselves refuse to do."
Gov. Carey emphasized that most local officials were honest and efficient and, all being equal, their authority should be respected by the state. He pointed out that "during the past two years any number of crimes have been committed where County Attorneys for one reason or another have failed to prosecute." He pointed to one example involving the Workmen's Compensation Department head who complained of more than 60 employers not complying with the law. Yet, only two were prosecuted. He pointed to examples of fraudulent bounty claims for wolf pelts, inheritance tax evasion, and state loss of $50,000 annually from willful failure to tag autos. "During a County Fair last fall I counted thirteen cars without license tags parked around a quarter of a mile track," Carey said. "I do not know of an arrest made by any sheriff in the State for the violation of the game laws within the last two years. As for the prohibition law, in some counties open saloons are being permitted," Carey noted.
Carey recommended that the legislature rectify the problems by establishing a "State Department of Law Enforcement with authority to enforce any and all laws of the State, and to both act in cases where local authorities are indifferent and to co-operate when called upon." He emphasized that with just the revenues exacted from auto license tags, the department would be self-supporting.  He asked that the new Department of Law Enforcement also be given primary responsibility over Prohibition. Nonetheless, as Gov. Carey envisioned it, the agency would be strong with the powers to enforce all laws.
The legislature responded by passing Senate File 46, introduced January 26 by Sen. J. G. Hartwell, a Lusk Republican. The Republicans dominated both houses. Just two Democrats served in the State Senate while in the House, State Rep. Thurman Arnold of Laramie was the only Democratic member. When the bill came up for third reading on Feb. 1, it passed 17-4 with four members absent. Three of the four voting against were Republicans: J. W. Johnson, Casper; Louis Kabell, Jr., Evanston; and Pete J. Shingzy, Rock Springs. They were joined by one of the two Democrats, W. S. Green of Worland.In the House, the bill had equal success, passing on third reading the day after passage in the Senate by a vote of 44-2 with eight members absent. The only two "no" votes were cast by Casper Republicans.
In an act that for the first time injected the governor into local law enforcement, the legislature passed a wide-ranging law giving him the authority to remove officers who was guilty of intoxication or drunkenness. Even more significant, the governor could remove any officer who willfully failed, neglected or refused to perform any duties imposed on him by the Prohibition law. Through Prohibition enforcement, a huge step would be taken toward a state police force.
Governor Carey was destined not to be able to use the law’s provisions. He lost in the primary election in 1922 to a relatively unknown Rock Springs banker who then promptly lost to Cheyenne attorney William Ross in the general election. Before Ross, a dedicated prohibitionist like Carey, could apply some of the laws provisions to what he viewed as recalcitrant officials in northern counties of the state, he died suddenly in the middle of his term. A month after his death, his widow, Nellie Tayloe Ross, was elected governor to serve out his term. The first woman governor in the United States, Mrs. Ross also became Wyoming’s first governor to use the extraordinary powers granted by the 1921 legislature of removal of county officers who were not vigorously prosecuting Prohibition cases. Some observers blamed her narrow defeat two years later, at least partially, on her tough Prohibition stance and removal of popular local officials in Natrona, Park and Hot Springs counties.
Her successor, Frank Emerson, suffered similar disappointments with the Department of Law Enforcement. Soon after his election, Emerson received numerous letters recommending individuals for the position of State Law Enforcement Commissioner. One letter from an influential Casper group recommended Will Irving, the police chief in the Carbon County town of Parco, now Sinclair. The organization, the Women's Christian Temperance Union, urged Irving's appointment because of his exemplary record against "liquor interests."
Irving had applied for the position in a letter to Emerson on Nov. 27. He listed his credentials as two years as undersheriff of Natrona County, one year as "state auto inspector," and two years as Parco police chief. He also noted that he had "always been a staunch Republican."
In the following two weeks, Emerson received endorsements for Irving from a variety of influential sources. Both the Francis Willard Division and the Ana Gordon Division of the WCTU in Casper endorsed him; Rock Springs police chief Dominick Berta; Uinta County Sheriff Thomas Whittaker; H. B. Schultheis, the Rawlins Presbyterian minister; Casper Grace English Lutheran Church pastor J. M. Cromer; and Carbon County Sheriff George C. Austin. It was a formidable list of references. Apparently, Emerson based his decision on them and on the day before Christmas, 1926, he announced his choice for the top law enforcement position was to be Irving. The decision was to have disastrous consequences for the agency’s image and cause further disenchantment with trying to eliminate liquor through means of legislation. Within months Emerson was warned that his Prohibition director was accepting bribes from known bootleggers. The governor dismissed Irving from the post from which the Prohibition chief had taken a brief vacation to California. When he returned, he was arrested, brought to trial and convicted of accepting bribes in exchange for law enforcement favors. He was sentenced to prison in 1927.
Even though Emerson’s next director was honest, the agency, still suffering from the stigma from the Cordillo case and Mrs. Ross’ purges of “wet” county officials, had become a public embarrassment after the corruption scandal.
Thousands of arrests and a scandal later, the new agency, too, was eliminated. The 14-year experiment in law enforcement had failed to stamp out illegal alcohol. Worse, it eroded public confidence in the abilities of law officers to effectively enforce the laws.
The agency's history provides evidence of how Prohibition, even in the least populated state, was a legal failure. Attempts to make it work brought creation of a centralized police force controlled by the governor, that ultimately, could have posed as much danger to the public good as open violation of Prohibition, had it not brought about its own demise by scandal and incompetence.
But there was another legacy the agency provided. It took the form of increasing public suspicion of law and law officers. What was once labeled the "Noble Experiment" brought widespread disregard for law and organized efforts to actively flaunt it. Otherwise law-abiding citizens became bootleggers or their customers while nearly everyone watched law enforcement officers either try in vain to stamp out the activity or join in by accepting payoffs. Perhaps, in no state did the effort begin and end so badly as in Wyoming.
The story is drawn from the testimony in the case of State v. Cordillo, from the district court file held in the Wyoming State Archives.
A. C. Fonda, a Guernsey Republican, was named chairman. Other members were Archie Allison, Cheyenne; Clarence Gardner, Afton; and C. D. Oviatt, Jelm. The only Democrat appointed was Charles Myers of Knight, Uinta County. Senate Journal, 1919, p. 27. The Republicans held a 54-11 majority in the House.
T. Blake Kennedy, p. 410.
T. Blake Kennedy, p. 409.
Senate Journal, 1919, p. 24.
Prohibition of Liquor Traffic, Chapter 209, sections 3398-3439. Wyoming Compiled Statutes, 1920.
The position of prohibition commissioner was established: "The governor by and with the consent of the senate is hereby authorized to appoint a prohibition commissioner whose duty it shall be to supervise the enforcement of the law providing for the prohibition of the liquor traffic. Such commissioner of prohibition shall hold office during the pleasure of the governor and shall be provided with an office at the state capitol and suitable furniture, stationery, and other facilities for transacting the business of his office.
Section 3432 allowed for appointment of a deputy to be appointed by the commissioner "with the consent of the governor," and such clerical assistance as needed.
Section 3433 set the salary of the commissioner at $3,000 annually and deputy at $1,800. "together with actual necessary expenses incurred in the performance of their official duties which, together with the necessary expenses of conducting said office shall be paid in the manner now provided for the payment of the salary and expenses of other state officers.”
Sec. 3434 contained the oath.
Sec. 3435: “Commissioner shall assist attorneys” and “in the event of the failure of any prosecuting attorney to prosecute violations of this chapter said commissioner or deputy may institute proceedings according to law for such enforcement.”
Sec. 3436 samples to state chemist.
Sec. 3437 annual report required. The commissioner shall make an annual report to the governor on or before the first day of August each year and it shall be printed and published on or before the first day of Sept. next thereafter, which report shall cover the doings of his office for the preceding fiscal year and it shall among other things, show the number of places inspected, by whom, the number of specimens analyzed, number of complaints against persons for violation of this chapter, the number of convictions had, the no of sentences imposed and the number and amount of fines imposed and collected and such other information as he deems valuable in securing the enforcement of the chapter, together with such recommendations relative to the statutes in force as his experience may justify and the prosecuting attorneys within the several counties hall upon demand furnish the commissioner with the date covering the prosecution and enforcement of this chapter within their several counties."
Sec. 3438 If vacancy, office devolves to the dairy, food and oil commissioner of this state, without extra compensation.
Carey letter to Noblitt, March 25, 1919, Governor’s Papers, Wyoming State Archives.
"$22,000 in Booze Seized in Laramie," Laramie Daily Boomerang, Sept. 3, 1919, p. 1.
State v. Cordillo, trial transcript, p. 363.
State v. Cordillo, trial transcript, p. 410.
Laramie Daily Boomerang, Sept. 20, 1919, p. 1, c. 3.
Laramie Daily Boomerang, Sept. 3, 1919, p. 1.
Laramie Daily Boomerang, Sept. 5, 1919, p. 5.
"Ranchman, with Bullet Hole in Head, Found Dead," Laramie Daily Boomerang, Sept. 8, 1919, p. 1.
Laramie Daily Boomerang, Sept. 11, 1919, p. 1.
"Mystery Still Cloaks Murder of Frank Jennings," Laramie Daily Boomerang, Sept. 10, 1919, p. 5.
Coroner’s Jury Report, Sept. 11, 1919, cited in Laramie Daily Boomerang, Sept. 11, 1919, p. 1.
Laramie Daily Boomerang, Sept. 11, 1919, p. 1.
Laramie Daily Boomerang, Jan. 5, 1920, p. 1. Veteran Laramie lawyer N. E. Corthell was set to assist Patterson for the state. Arnold’s role as “special prosecutor” representing the family is noted in the Laramie Daily Boomerang, April 9, 1920, p. 4.
Laramie Daily Boomerang, March 12, 1920, p. 8. The delay was not tactical. It resulted from the fact that the new courtroom in Cheyenne was not yet finished.
The Laramie Daily Boomerang headlined the story, “Bold Murder Stuns City.” The assailant was subdued four hours after the incident and confessed to the murder. Laramie Daily Boomerang, April 3, 1920, p. 1.
Laramie Republican, April 27, 1920, p. 1. It was the first case heard in the new Laramie County Courthouse.
Laramie Daily Boomerang, April 17, 1920, p. 8.
Laramie Republican, April 20, 1920, p. 8.
Laramie Republican, April 27, 1920, p. 1.
Names, addresses and occupations of the jurors were published in both Laramie papers. Laramie Republican, April 28, 1920, p. 1; Laramie Daily Boomerang, April 28, 1920, p. 1, 5.
The opening statements are summarized in the Laramie Republican, April 28, 1920, p. 1, in an article written by Wyoming State Tribune editor John Charles Thompson, who had covered other famous Wyoming trials including the Tom Horn case in 1903. In that case, he attended Horn’s execution as the only member of press to receive an invitation from the condemned man. Thompson served as Tribune editor until shortly before his death in 1953.
Testimony of Viola Boughton, State v. Cordillo trial transcript.
Laramie Republican, April 27, 1920, p. 1.
For Lovejoy’s role as first auto builder, see “Lovejoy’s Toy: Wyoming’s First Car,” in Phil Roberts, ed. Buffalo Bones: Stories from Wyoming’s Past. (Cheyenne: Wyoming State Archives and Historical Department, 1979).
Of particular note is Finch’s testimony that he had raised $1,000 for the defense. Trial transcript, p. 363.
Trial transcript, pp. 379-409.
Roach testimony is in the trial transcript, pp. 301-312.
Cordillo’s sentence was commuted after he had served more than seven years. He was paroled on Sept. 27, 1927, and soon after, his voting rights were restored. Wyoming State Archives, Wyoming State Penitentiary Records, Log of Prisoners.
Laramie Boomerang, Jan. 4, 1921, p. 8.
A. S. Roach, Report of the State Prohibition Commissioner for the Year 1920, unpaginated, typewritten report, Wyoming State Archives.
Gov. Robert Carey, Message to the Legislature, 1921, in House Journal (1921), pp. 27-28.
Governor's Message, Senate Journal, 1921, pp. 27-28.
Senate Journal, 1921.
Senate Journal, 1921, p. 211.
 The governor shall have power after notice and hearing to remove from office any officer in the state who shall willfully fail, neglect or refuse to perform any of the duties imposed upon him by this article or who shall be guilty of intoxication or drunkenness. Proceedings for the removal of any such officer may be commenced either by the governor on his own motion or on written complaint of any citizen of the state, filed with governor. Written notice of the time and place for the hearing of such charges together with a statement or copy of the charges filed against him shall be personally served upon such officer at least ten days before the day set for such hearing. (Laws, 1921, c. 117, sec. 36). Senate File 102, Approved Feb. 22, 1921. Bill introduced by Committee on Prohibition. Wyoming Revised Statutes, 1931. Sec. 59-136. ...
Nellie Tayloe Ross appointed N. C. Wachtel as State Commissioner of Law Enforcement on March 31, 1923. References to her reputation in Prohibition enforcement are from newspaper clippings, many undated and unidentified in Ross file, Wyoming State Archives.
Letter, Dec. 7, 1926, Mrs. Clara G. Wilkinson and Mrs. L. R. Bundy to Gov.-elect Emerson.
Irving to Emerson, Nov. 27, 1926, Emerson gubernatorial papers, appointments file, Wyoming State Archives.
Letters, Emerson Papers, appointment files, Wyoming State Archives.
It should not be inferred that the agency failed to conduct investigations in the months following Irving’s dismissal. The Law Enforcement Department reported 341 arrests in 1927 from which 230 convictions were obtained, 19 defendants sent to prison and seven to reform school. Report of the State Prohibition Commissioner for the Year 1927, unpaginated, typewritten report, Wyoming State Archives. To the final years of the agency’s existence, charges were brought against numerous Prohibition law violators, including city officials in Rock Springs and city and county officers in Casper and Thermopolis. For a brief listing, see Roberts, et al, Wyoming Almanac 4th ed. (Laramie: 1998), p. 222.