Favorite stories of 2019: The final chapter for ‘Mad Dog’ Sherbondy
The story behind the story
Editor’s note: For the Vail Daily’s year in review, reporters were tasked with telling the story behind their favorite story of the year. This is the third in a series.
EAGLE — After more than 30 years of writing about James “Mad Dog” Sherbondy I thought I had shared everything I could about one of Eagle County’s most infamous murders.
I was wrong. “The final chapter in the saga of ‘Mad Dog’ Sherbondy” was my favorite story in 2019. It was a tale that’s taken 32 years to tell.
Sherbondy was just 17 when he shot and killed Eagle County Undersheriff Oscar Meyer on Nov. 2, 1937. The murder touched off a nationwide manhunt, a highly publicized arrest and a closely followed trial. I first came across the tale back in 1987 when I was compiling a history column from past editions of the Eagle Valley Enterprise.
Intrigued by the front page murder story, I started researching the Sherbondy story. After shooting the undersheriff, Sherbondy fled the area. He was ultimately arrested in Hastings, Nebraska, where he had brazenly approached the local sheriff and asked for a night’s lodging in the jail. But when the Hastings law officers received a police bulletin that included Sherbondy’s photo, they tracked him to the local train station and arrested him as he attempted to hop a westbound train.
Sherbondy eventually confessed to murder and his young age convinced jurors at his trial to sentence him to life in prison rather than the death penalty. He was transferred to the state penitentiary in Canon City on Christmas Eve, 1937. It was his 18th birthday.
Sherbondy would ultimately spend 31 of his 49 years in prison. He participated in a well-publicized escape and he was the inspiration for one of the main characters in a B-movie called “Canon City.” His violent life came to a violent end on Nov. 28, 1969, when he died in a gun battle with police officers outside the front door of The Denver Post.
I thought that shootout marked the end of the Sherbondy story. But last May I received an email from Denver County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Jim Caruso. He had come across archived copies of my Sherbondy stories asked if I would like to hear the rest of the story. Naturally, I did.
Very cold case
Caruso told me that on that day in 1969, Sherbondy killed another law officer — Denver detective Michael Dowd. But Dowd didn’t actually die until 1997 — 28 years after Sherbondy fired the fatal shot.
“Michael Dowd’s cause of death happened that day (in 1969) because, ultimately, the cause of his death was Type 1 diabetes,” said Caruso. Dowd became a “brittle diabetic” because Sherbondy’s gunshot damaged his pancreas.
Caruso became involved in the Sherbondy investigation at the request of Det. Dowd’s former partner — Det. Steve Metros.
“Mr. Metros said, ‘My partner was shot during this altercation with Sherbondy and he was never the same after that,’” Caruso told me. “He wanted his partner’s name on the Wall of Valor, but you don’t usually think that 28 years after the fact, you can call something a homicide.”
With the help of Metros’ son, who is an internist practicing in Denver, Caruso was able to piece together the story of Dowd’s injuries and ultimately he changed the deceased officer’s official death certificate. Dowd’s cause of death is now officially listed as complications from multiple gunshot wounds. The manner of his death was homicide.
Wall of Valor
In May 2015, Det. Dowd’s name was added to the Colorado Law Enforcement Memorial. It was a special day for retired Det. Metros.
“My father’s last wish, the one thing he wanted to accomplish before he died … was getting his partner on the Wall of Valor,” said Michael Metros.
Det. Metros was very ill at the time, but he attended the presentation. He left the ceremony and checked into the hospital. He died just a few days later.
James Sherbondy was just 17 years old when he committed his first murder. If hadn’t died in that gunfight in 1969, he would have been 95 years old the second time he stood trial.
For a long time, I have written about tragic Saga of “Mad Dog” Sherbondy. But until Dr. Caruso called me this year, I didn’t know how a 17-year-old’s actions rippled on for decades after his death. Ultimately it was a gift to conclude the tale by writing about the steadfast and poignant efforts of Det. Metros.
For downvalley humans, it’s pretty cool when elk decide to hunker down around Eagle for the winter. For the elk, it’s more of a lesser-of-two-evils situation.