Murder on Tennessee Pass
November 21, 2007
EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado ” It was a crime that riveted the community 70 years ago.
Red Cliff resident Jim Sherbondy was only 17 years old when he shot and killed Eagle County Undersheriff Oscar Meyer. The murder touched off a nationwide manhunt, a highly publicized arrest and a closely-followed trial.
Sherbondy was convicted of second degree murder and he celebrated his 18th birthday by reporting to the state penitentiary to begin serving a life sentence.
But that wasn’t the last the public heard of him.
Although he would pass 31 of his 49 years behind bars, Sherbondy periodically popped up in the headlines. He participated in a prison break in 1947 that inspired a Hollywood movie. He met his end in 1969 in a bloody gunfight with the police outside of the Denver Post newspaper office.
His life has been portrayed in film and in print, including many newspaper accounts, magazine articles, and a book, “The Gray Walls of Hell.”
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It all started on an autumn day 70 years ago this month.
“One of the most dastardly and cowardly crimes in the history of the county was committed last Tuesday afternoon about 3 o’clock when Oscar W. Meyer of Red Cliff was shot down in cold blood and killed by Jim Sherbondy on the state highway one mile east of Tennessee Pass when Meyer attempted to arrest the young bandit.”
” Eagle Valley Enterprise,
Nov. 6, 1937
Jim Sherbondy was born in Kremmling on Christmas Eve, 1919, the middle child in a family of four boys.
The Great Depression was the backdrop for his early years. His father was a hard rock miner who traveled the mine circuit from Colorado to Idaho. When the mines were closed, he would try his hand at farming.
Sherbondy’s mother suffered from painful rheumatism, which was exacerbated at high altitude. James wasn’t really raised in Red Cliff, but he spent a few more years there than in several other mining towns where the family eked out a living.
Sherbondy quit school when he was 15, which brought him into contact with Oscar Meyer, who was not only the undersheriff but also the county’s truant officer and the local undertaker. Meyer had a reputation as a tough lawman who managed to keep the peace in the rough and tumble mining town of Red Cliff.
“Oscar Meyer was a fearless law officer. He had kept the peace at Red Cliff for years where others failed. He was rarely armed, never carried a gun, but would wade into a pack of drunken fighting men armed with knives and clubs barehanded and straighten out the trouble.”
” Obituary, Eagle Valley Enterprise, Nov. 6 1937
Art Davenport, 86, of Gypsum recalls Meyer as a big, tall man who would travel to Gypsum for paupers’ funerals where the county “poor farm” was located. The late George Carlow of Eagle once described him as “A fearless man … big and tough as a boot.”
Wayne Trujillo of Denver is Meyer’s great-great nephew. While Meyer was killed years before he was even born, Trujillo recalls family members talking about his fallen relative. Trujillo acknowledges there may have been a running feud between Meyer and Sherbondy.
“Some people tried to blame Oscar for what happened. It’s likely he was hard on the kid, but there were stories that he tried to help him, too,” says Trujillo.
These days, Jim Sherbondy would be called a troubled youth. In his book “The Gray Walls of Hell,” author John Harvey Williamson details how the young man once hopped a boxcar and made it all the way to California, drifting around the state for weeks before being arrested for vagrancy.
After he returned home, Sherbondy enlisted in the army, but deserted after just 20 days. Eventually Sherbondy made his way to Chicago where he was involved in an armed robbery.
His co-conspirator had been arrested and given Sherbondy’s name to the police. An arrest warrant was issued, and the 17-year-old fled to Red Cliff, bringing the gun he used in the crime with him.
Meanwhile, the Sherbondy family had decided to quit Red Cliff, sell their home and buy a farm in Missouri. The timing was good for Jim, who wanted to leave town before news of the warrant reached local authorities.
On Tuesday, Nov. 2 Nannie Sherbondy loaded up three of her sons (one boy was away at college) and the family belongings in a Ford pickup and drove out of town. As they were leaving, however, a high school girl spotted Jim and told Meyer.
At Sherbondy’s trial, Meyer’s wife, Ollie Graham Meyer, testified that her husband hurriedly left the house in his “laboring clothes” without a coat. Both of his guns were left in a dresser drawer.
Newspaper accounts say Meyer quickly overtook the Sherbondy vehicle on the west side of the Tennessee Pass. Stepping out of his car, Meyer told James he was under arrest and ordered him to surrender. Sherbondy stepped out with a gun and fired, hitting Meyer twice in the chest.
Sherbondy jumped in Meyer’s car and fled the scene, leaving his family and the bleeding man behind. A few minutes later, passing motorist W.W. Morris stopped to help. When he bent over the dying man, Meyer identified James Sherbondy as his killer.
“That was the last word he said. We opened his shirt and found he had been shot on the right breast … He was dead before we reached Red Cliff,” Morris told the Enterprise.
A crowd of nearly 600 people attended Meyer’s funeral in a swirling blizzard five days later.
Jim Sherbondy, the young hoodlum charged with Meyer’s murder, is still a large. He completely disappeared following the shooting on Tennessee Pass a week ago and the most intense search by the law has failed to reveal the least clue to his whereabouts.
” Eagle Valley Enterprise, Nov. 12, 1937
County residents reacted to the killing with anger. Posses were organized. The Eagle County Board of Commissioners posted a $500 reward for Sherbondy’s capture. The Enterprise reported that if Sherbondy had been found the night following the murder “his treatment would have been anything but gentle.”
Sherbondy remained at large for three weeks. He abandoned Meyer’s car quickly after the shooting and spent a week making his way to Wolcott. From there he headed north to State Bridge where he hopped a Denver-bound freight train.
He was eventually arrested in Hastings, Neb. where he had brazenly approached the local sheriff and asked for a night’s lodging in the jail. After he left the jail, officers received the police bulletin with Sherbondy’s photo and description. They tracked him to the rail station and arrested him as he attempted to hop a westbound train.
Once in jail, Sherbondy admitted to shooting Meyer. His statement to police was published on the front page of both the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News.
“I killed Meyer just like they say. I’m not sorry. I knew Meyer a long time and I didn’t like him; never did like him. But I was a fool to kill him,” Sherbondy told the press.
Eagle County Sheriff Murray Wilson brought Sherbondy back to jail. In an interview with the Enterprise, Wilson described Sherbondy as “cold-blooded and heartless.”
“Granddad said Sherbondy was just a mean kid and that was all there was to it,” said Eagle resident Shirley Shelton, Wilson’s granddaughter. “Sherbondy never said he was sorry.”
The timing of his arrest and his trial was a major concern. Colorado law at that time ruled out the death penalty if the accused was younger than 18 years old at the time of trial. Knowing this statute, Sherbondy pleaded guilty and his trial was set for Dec. 20. The trial was to determine the degree of murder and the sentence.
Shelton says local school kids were let out of school to attend the trial. Witnesses testified for two days. When he took the stand, Sherbondy denied any premeditation in the killing. He testified that he was so scared and excited he did not know what he was doing.
The jury returned a verdict of first degree murder with a sentence of life in prison. Judge John R. Clark of Meeker imposed the sentence with a scathing statement.
“You are now presented here as a depraved and wicked killer and like a wild and vicious animal, you must be put under lock and key to prevent you from associating among decent people.”
Dec. 24, 1937 was Sherbondy’s first day at the Colorado State Penitentiary in Canon City. That Christmas Eve also marked his 18th birthday.
Sherbondy’s first 10 years in prison passed without incident. According to author Williamson, Sherbondy was convinced he would be released after 10 years in consideration of his age and his good record. But the governor turned down his petition for early release; and the warden did not recommend him for parole.
On New Year’s Eve 1947, Sherbondy was one of a dozen inmates to escape the state prison. Back in Eagle County, people feared he would exact revenge on the witnesses, judge and jury who sent him to prison.
“There was this one gal in Red Cliff who was really scared when he got away,” says Davenport.
But Sherbondy didn’t head to the High Country. He made his way to a nearby farm, where he held a family hostage. However, when one of the hostages ” a 7-year-old boy ” developed appendicitis, Sherbondy surrendered quietly so the boy could be treated.
Hollywood eventually made a movie called “Canon City” based on the incident. The main character was modeled after Sherbondy ” a tough killer who wouldn’t let a kid die.
When he returned to prison, Sherbondy spent months in solitary confinement. He reportedly described solitary as living “like a bunch of mad dogs.” That statement earned him a nickname ” Mad Dog Sherbondy.
Sherbondy attempted another escape in 1952. He also tried to commit suicide during his time in prison but eventually became a model prisoner who tutored kids at the state reformatory in Buena Vista.
In 1962 at the age of 43, Sherbondy was paroled to Eagle County. That freedom was short-lived. After only 10 months he was sent back to prison for a parole violation ” armed robbery and possession of explosives.
Sherbondy again assumed the role of model prisoner and was eventually assigned to a prison honor camp at Buckley Air National Guard Center near Denver. In late October, 1969, he walked away from the camp, and remained at large for six weeks.
James Sherbondy, convicted killer of an Eagle County deputy sheriff 32 years ago, was shot down on a Denver street.
” Eagle Valley Enterprise, Dec. 4, 1969
Sherbondy’s violent life came to a violent end Nov. 28, 1969. After hiding out with friends following his escape from honor camp, Sherbondy was spotted in Denver by a police officer. After a car chase, Sherbondy jumped from his vehicle and attempted to run away. Police caught up with him in front of the downtown Denver Post newspaper office.
Sherbondy pulled a pistol and fired, wounding a Denver cop. The police returned fire. Sherbondy died on the sidewalk. Afterwards, police found he had been carrying two homemade pipe bombs and 27 bullets.
Sherbondy’s brother, a minister in Buena Vista, collected his body for burial in Denver. To this date, the Sherbondy family is reticent to talk about the case, saying the subject of Jim Sherbondy remains a sensitive one for them.
In March of 2000, a final chapter in the saga was written when Oscar Meyer’s name was added to a memorial in Golden that commemorates lawmen who died in the line of duty.