Cop slain in 1880 to be remembered
SUMMIT COUNTY – One hundred and 26 years after a local shot Kokomo police officer Michael O’Neal dead in bar brawl, a national law enforcement organization will recognize the fallen cop for sacrificing his life in the line of duty.Summit County Sheriff John Minor received a letter last Wednesday from the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund in Washington, D.C., stating that O’Neal’s name will be engraved on the organization’s memorial this spring.Minor was pleased to hear the news. Yet, he had hoped to share the announcement with someone from O’Neal’s family.”Frankly, we don’t know where he’s buried and we can’t really find next of kin,” Minor said. … “It’s just tough. We would’ve loved to have (the family) there.”
Despite extensive digging into O’Neal’s past on the part of three volunteers, little new information has surfaced about the slain peace officer in the six months since Minor began probing into his background.O’Neal was shot in July 1880 in the old mining town of Kokomo, which was located south of Breckenridge. According to newspaper clippings from the Colorado History Museum, the police officer was walking by Keister’s Saloon in town and noticed a disturbance involving a man named Charles Norton. O’Neal was attempting to calm the noise when Norton pulled out his pistol and shot O’Neal in the abdomen.O’Neal – a former saloon owner who’d only been on the police force for four days – was killed. Norton escaped to Leadville, but was found that night and hanged the next morning in front of 2,000 angry citizens.Last summer, Minor received a letter from Memorial Fund saying it wanted to recognize O’Neal for giving his life as a police officer, but first needed a completed application, including proof that next-of-kin had been notified and coroner and court records.
The onus fell upon Minor to submit the required paperwork because the Kokomo Police Department is no longer in existence.Minor particularly focused on finding O’Neal’s family, although details on his roots were few. He was able to gather that O’Neal was originally from Clinton, N.Y., and that at one time he had a brother living in Leadville and another brother living in Kokomo. Following a story in the Summit Daily News about Minor’s effort, Breckenridge attorney Kent Willis, a private investigator out of Loveland and a Regis University history student all separately approached Minor about attempting to locate O’Neal’s family.Willis said he was attracted to the project because of its historical aspect and because he’d had some practice doing research on his own family.
“I just decided I’d give it a shot. I figured if I didn’t find anything, I’d quit, but I kept finding stuff, then I kind of hit a dead end; that’s when I sent my memo to the sheriff,” Willis said.Willis spent about 40 hours of his free time over a month-long period pouring through U.S. Census records. In his note to the sheriff, Willis said he located a Michael, John and Jerry O’Neal in the 1880 Census. Michael was listed as a 28-year-old saloonkeeper living in Kokomo; John was a 26-year-old miner living in Sheep Mountain, Summit County; and Jerry was a 21-year-old miner living in Kokomo.”Since Michael is not listed with a wife in 1880, I must conclude he did not leave a widow or children,” Willis wrote.Willis was able to trace John through subsequent census records, and found him living in Grand Junction until 1930. He didn’t appear to ever have married or bore any children.
Records on Jerry O’Neal ceased in 1880, although the 1890 Census records burned, so there is a 20-year gap in documentation, Willis said.Further research could include locating O’Neal’s parents, or trying to find evidence of Jerry O’Neal’s death, but that could take years of scouring marriage and death certificates, old newspapers and business directories, he said.Attempts to find O’Neal’s grave were also unsuccessful, Minor said. The Kokomo cemetery was moved to the Valley Brook Cemetery in Breckenridge at some point, but the graveyard doesn’t contain a plot for O’Neal.O’Neal’s name will be read during a May 13 candlelight vigil in the nation’s capital, then it will be etched into the memorial’s marble walls.
Even though a descendent of O’Neal’s won’t be present at the recognition, Minor said he is considering sending a deputy from the sheriff’s office.With the 150th anniversary of the sheriff’s office approaching, Minor would like to get a rubbing off the memorial of two sheriff’s deputies killed in 1898 – Ernest Conrad and Sumner Whitney – to frame in the office.Nicole Formosa can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 13625, or at firstname.lastname@example.org
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