BeBee trial stretched Wild Bunch legend a little farther- The Demise of the Wild Bunch
(Editors note: This is a continuation of a series started in March about Robbers Roost and the Wild Bunch. Since that series appeared many more stories have been reported to the Sun Advocate concerning outlaws who comprised those gangs. This series will be intermittent as we explore the demise of the gangs and what their ultimate fates were.)
While it generally considered by historians that the Wild Bunch and Robbers Roost gangs were pretty much gone by 1910, stories abound about characters from that period pressing on in various ways up through the middle of the 20th century.
Almost everyone knows about Matt Warner, who rode with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, went to prison and eventually became an honored lawman. He died in 1937. In fact, his grave is in the Price Cemetery.
Many in the gangs went on to anonymity. Others only live on in legends, where it is hard to tell truth from fiction.
One such person was Harry Longabaugh, better known as the Sundance Kid. At one time facts seem to tell us that he and Butch Cassidy died in a shootout in Bolivia with police and military personnel after the two robbed a bank. Everything else, including numerous sitings of each over the years around the United States, was just considered legend.
However in the last 20 years or so, many have accepted the fact that things are just the reverse of what was thought; the shootout in Bolivia becoming the legend, while the fact the pair returned (but never united again for crime or even a get together) to the United States and lived out their lives in different ways.
While there are dozens of stories about Butch Cassidy returning to the U.S. from South America (many well documented) the sightings of the Sundance Kid are many fewer. In a book written in the 1980's called "The Rise and the Fall of the Sundance Kid," author Edward M. Kirby maintains that Sundance returned to the west and eventually ended up in the Utah State Prison for murder. However by then he taken the name Hiram BeBee. BeBee died at what was
at the time the new Point of the Mountain facility in Draper in 1955.
True or not, Kirby's rendition of The Sundance Kid's later life and end touched Carbon County in a way no one would ever expect and at least one person in the county recalls very well what went on during that time.
Boyd Bunnell, former private lawyer, county attorney and eventually a district judge in the Seventh Judicial Court was home for the summer of 1947 in Price, taking a break from the rigors of law school at the University of Utah. He was working at his father's business (the Bunnell Garage) when the Carbon County Sheriff Joe Dudler approached him about being on a trial jury for a man accused of murder.
"In those days when they ran short of jurors sometimes the Sheriff would just go out and recruit people off the street," said Bunnell in an interview on Tuesday. "I said yes."
Bunnell saw this as an opportunity to get his feet wet in the side of the law he had not been familiar with; sitting on the jury itself.
As it turned out the case proved to be a famous one, and one that holds mystery well beyond the murder itself.
On trial was BeBee. It was his second trial for the same murder, because a change of venue for a new trial was ordered by the Utah Supreme Court.
BeBee was accused of the murder (and had been convicted once for it) of Lon Larsen, a marshal in Mount Pleasant. On the day of Oct. 15, 1945 BeBee, his common law wife and a friend had traveled to Provo to do some shopping from their home in Spring City. On the way back they stopped in Mount Pleasant, only a few miles from home, to get something to drink and for his wife Glame to buy a magazine. BeBee entered a tavern there and bought a beer and started roaming around the place. He apparently spotted a pretty young lady and made some remarks to her. Apparently what he said didn't sit well with Larsen who was in the establishment. They had some words and Larsen grabbed BeBee by the collar and the trousers and pushed him out the door. BeBee, the much older of the two, resisted some and they fell to the floor. Larsen, who was much younger than the 80 something BeBee picked him up and escorted him out to his truck. He pushed him into his truck and as he did that BeBee picked up a revolver he had in the cab. By some stories BeBee fired directly into Larsen's chest and then shot him again while he was on the ground, He also threatened some others with the gun and then sped off after the other two got into the cab.
The stories of what actually happened vary a bit. Some said he shot Larsen first through the arm and when the officer turned around he then shot him through the chest. Bunnell said during the trial it was ascertained that the second shot came while Larsen was on the ground.
After BeBee got home a mob arrived at his house, but law officers were finally able to arrest all three and haul them off to the Sanpete County Jail in Manti.
BeBee was put in the Salt Lake County Jail because of threats of lynchings in Manti. Larsen had been well respected in his community and people were very mad. Based on the story in the book and in the Sanpete newspapers at the time it appeared that the BeBee and Larsen confrontation was a first time thing. But Bunnell said it came out in court that it wasn't.
"BeBee had been harassed by that same marshal before," said Bunnell. "He had been in that tavern a number of times and been thrown out by the same officer for making trouble."
While a lot happened before the trial in Sanpete County actually began, one of the main things BeBee's lawyer, E. LeRoy Shields, protested was the trial being held in Sanpete County. He wanted a change of venue. The court denied the motion. During the first trial BeBee claimed self defense because he said he felt threatened by the off-duty marshal. On Feb. 16, 1946 he was convicted of first degree murder. Because of his age the jury recommended life in prison. However Judge John Hougaard sentenced BeBee to execution, giving BeBee his choice of hanging or being shot. BeBee selected the later according to the Manti Messenger in an article on Feb. 22, 1946 saying that he "didn't want a blindfold because he wanted to see the gunplay."
His lawyer asked for a new trial saying that the jury was tainted by the extreme prejudice in the county against BeBee. Looking back to a large extent that was true.
BeBee had wandered into the county a few years before and had at first set up housekeeping in Fountain Green, but when his ideas and ways didn't agree with the neighbors he had moved to Spring City where he felt more comfortable. He also had started a kind of self styled religion, which didn't sit well with others either.
Another appeal was filed for a new trial. Meanwhile BeBee spent a year in the Utah State Prison without being executed as the appeal worked its way to the Utah Supreme Court.
When the Supreme Court ordered a retrial, Judge Hougaard ordered that the trial be moved to Carbon County with Judge Fred Keller presiding. That is when Bunnell got involved.
"He was very quiet during the trial," said Bunnell.
During deliberations Bunnell said the jury talked back and forth. One Greek business owner who was on the jury went around the room and when he came to Bunnell he said, "I tell you boy I think the SOB is guilty 98 percent. But two percent I don't know."
The jury found him guilty, but asked for leniency and to give him life because of his age.
"The jury can make a recommendation, but the judge can still do what he wants," said Bunnell.
And in this case Keller sentenced him to death.
More appeals followed, finally the board of pardons commuted the death sentence and instead instituted life in prison instead. Bunnell said he went to some of those hearings.
A stretch in height?
But by what stretch did Curtis tie BeBee, a 5 foot 5 inch, 90 year old man who was born about the same time as Longabaugh in Philadelphia, Pa. to the Kid who was reported to be between 5'9' and 5'11" tall?
The book uses anecdotal information to tie the two together. Much of it comes from reports from other people who knew BeBee and listen to what he said and what he did. Prison and jail guards reported hearing him talk about the Sundance Kid's exploits to other prisoners. He was also reported to be a crack shot, and could do the very same things with a six shooter that the Sundance Kid could do even at an old age (such as throw a can in the air, blast it before it hit the ground and then keep it bouncing along the ground with the remaining rounds in the guns). BeBee had no background, and was open with no one about it.
The book painted BeBee (and Longabaugh) as sympathetic characters, but both had terrible tempers which could go out of control at times. The Kid never was involved in a direct murder himself that anyone knew of, although he rode with gangs that had killed people. BeBee did commit the murder of Larsen.
Curtis in his book details many things that could lead one to believe that BeBee was the Sundance Kid, and even explains the height difference between the two by showing age shrinkage and diseases that could bring the size of an older human being down by four or five inches.
The book may have been a stretch to some, but the theory is still interesting.
And again, in another way, the Wild Bunch and its associated legends touched people in Carbon County.