1945: The shooting death of Sheriff Marion Bliss
Editor"s Note: This is one of a series of articles about the history of the Sun Advocate and the county it covers as a newspaper. These articles are being prepared in commemoration of the 120th anniversary of the newspaper"s birth in 1891.
There is hardly anyone in Carbon County, that has not lived here any real length of time, that has not heard of Carbon County Sheriff Marion Bliss. His name comes up in conversations periodically for a couple of reasons. For one, before the election of county commissioner Jae Potter last fall, he was the last Republican voted into county wide office since the 1940s. But secondly, because of his tragic death while holding the sheriff"s office in 1945.
The events that led up to Bliss"s death in April of that year have been well documented, yet questions still remain about what actually happened, despite an investigation that was conducted immediately after his demise that termed the death as an accidental shooting.
This is not the story of only a tragedy for one man, but for three and their families who had to endure the events of what happened those two days for years after.
The end of World War II in Europe was imminent as the allies pushed into Germany and only a few days before Adolf Hitler would take his own life Verdell Pace left his home to herd some cattle northeast of Price toward Kenilworth. Pace, who was a lineman for the telephone company, had only been married a few years, had a three-year-old son and his wife was also pregnant. Reportedly well liked and respected, he had been given some cows by his uncle who owned a farm nearby. That morning of April 22 he got up early to herd the animals. He was supposed to return early that afternoon, but when he didn"t come back family members began looking for him because they feared he may have fallen off his horse. News reports vary as to who found Pace"s horse, but according to some reports his uncle Ivan found the horse and backtracked it to the body of his nephew who had been shot.
"Ivan backtracked the the horse right to the spot where the body lay,"said Deputy Warren Peacock later in a news report. "He returned to Price and Sheriff Bliss and doctors returned with the body about 10 p.m. the same night."
Immediately the authorities thoughts turned to Angus Robb, the owner of the ranch near where Pace was shot and killed. Robb had been released from the Utah State Hospital in Provo about three years earlier, where he had been treated for mental problems. Robb had been committed to the hospital after years of mental instability during which he had reportedly attacked a local man named Rex Mathis. In the week before the incident some people had reported that if they came close to his property he would ride out with his horse, rifle in hand, and threaten them. Once it had been reported that he even shot at someone.
Early Monday morning Highway Patrolman Jack Sullivan approached the Robb farmhouse to talk with Robb about the shooting.
"Robb appeared near the house and the officer told him he wanted to talk to him,"reported the Sun Advocate on April 26. "Robb"s answer was several shots fired at the man. Robb then retreated into the brush and willows north of the house, an area which is traversed by several ditches and a dry canal."
Soon other patrolmen and sheriff deputies arrived along with their command structure. They used a railroad embankment as a defense against Robb"s bullets. Several hours went by as they organized and determined what to do. At the same time the word about the manhunt spread around town and people began to arrive in their cars to watch the action.
Some eye witnesses reported that people were nearly in the mix with the authorities who were looking for Robb and that when the gun fire began a lot of people were actually within range of the bullets.
According the paper, shortly before 4 p.m. a group consisting of Bliss, Dr. J.C. Hubbard, Sullivan, Joe Arnold, other state patrolmen and a rancher approached what they thought was Robb"s position from the southeast along a stand of willows. Based on where they were approaching Robb could obviously see them. About 150 yards from the suspects position, shots rang out. It was then that Bliss was hit. Dr. Hubbard tried to help him but he was fatally wounded.
The group continued to press on to Robb"s position, even using tear gas, but a strong wind blew much of the gas away. Robb fired several times at the authorities as they tried to close in on him.
About an hour after Bliss was killed Walter Westbrook (a special officer for the Rio Grande Western Railroad) along with patrolman Lyle Hyatt, came upon Robb and more shots were fired. According to the Sun Advocate, officers later found Robb lying in the ditch with multiple wounds.
The aftermath of the events over the two days was long reaching. Questions about how two of the three men died were rampant. Some said that Robb committed suicide rather than be taken by authorities. As for Bliss, initial reports said that he was killed by shots from Robb"s gun, but later rumors had it that he was killed by someone in his own posse, possibly on purpose.
During an inquest into the deaths it was determined that Pace was murdered by Robb, Robb died of wounds inflicted by lawmen who were pursuing him and finally that Bliss" shooting was accidental.
Based on reports from the inquest, the fatal shot probably came during a march by lawmen through some willows where there was apparently some confusion as to Robb"s location.
Apparently friendly fire had ended the life of the sheriff who had served in that capacity for 18 years.