Boone County Sheriff
Boone County Sheriff's Department and Jail
2121 County Dr.
Columbia, MO 65201
Office (573) 875-1111
Fax (573) 874-8953
By Detective Tom O'Sullivan
Although it happened almost 140 years ago, the incident on a dirt road in rural Boone County on a cool, crisp November day ominously reflects the reality of the contemporary deputy sheriff.
Today, the serene, placid beauty of Rocheport stands in stark contrast to the days when it was a bustling commercial, political and industrial community on the banks of the Missouri River. The matter of law and order often was decided by social status or proficiency with a pistol.
It was a typical fall day in 1866 with Rocheport's shopkeepers displaying wares in their windows, the noisy clank of the blacksmith's iron and the horse drawn carriages hauling livestock and produce to the docked riverboats for destinations around the world. For reasons that are not particularly clear, anything from whiskey to simple treachery, a quartet of ruffians had spent a good part of the day riding horse-back through Rocheport shooting dogs, pigs, cats and anything else on four legs.
The three Adams brothers, John, James and Addison along with Frances Hornsinger were able to evade capture by Rocheport constables and fled Rocheport by way of the road to Columbia. As the four headed toward John Adams' home east of Rocheport they were met by Deputy Sheriff James Gillaspy, who had been in the area on other business and was completely unaware of the mayhem the group caused.
As Deputy Gillaspy rode past the outlaws, James Adams shouted "halt." When Gillaspy ignored his command, Adams drew his pistol and rode up alongside Gillaspy demanding in a furious tone that the lawman stop. Gillaspy paused and told Adams he had no time for such nonsense. An enraged Adams then fired one shot which barely missed Gillaspy. Gillaspy was able to return fire and wound James Adams in the shoulder. Both men were thrown from their horses and the fall caused Gillaspy to accidentally discharge his second and final round.
Gillaspy scurried on foot to the safety of Marion Cochran's farmhouse and borrowed another pistol, a navy revolver. Gillaspy returned to the scene of the shooting to find the four still present. Addison Adams is reported to have told his brother James, "There comes the damn son of a b----! Go and kill him!"
With just a few feet separating them, Adams and Gillaspy exchanged shots shattering the country calm. When the smoke cleared, James Adams lie mortally wounded next to his horse which had also been killed in the exchange.
Gillaspy, who would later become Sheriff of Boone County, was cleared of any charges by a grand jury in the shooting of James Adams, who died the following day. Addison Adams and Hornsinger were jailed on charges of intending to kill Gillaspy.
An incident some 67 years later had a much more tragic ending. Although horse and carriage had given way to the automobile and the candlestick and gas light deferred to a marvelous invention called electricity, a similar series of events unfolded with lawmen unaware the subjects they had encountered were extremely violent.
June 14, 1933 was an unusually mild summer day in Columbia. Missouri Highway Patrol Sgt. Ben Booth called Sheriff Roger Wilson for assistance locating two suspects wanted for a bank robbery in Mexico, Mo. Sheriff's deputies today are reminded every time they travel to the department on Roger I. Wilson Drive of the events which unfolded that day near the intersection of present day Business Loop 70 and Rangeline Street.
Sheriff Wilson and Sgt. Booth set up a checkpoint near that intersection hoping to catch the robbers who were reported traveling south from Mexico. Both officers had been present only a few minutes when a black Model A Ford coupe with two men inside rolled into the intersection.
Sgt. Booth stepped into the roadway holding his hand out signaling the vehicle to stop. Booth walked to the passenger side of the vehicle, which was apparently the norm in those days, and asked the driver of the vehicle, 21-year-old Francis McNeily, the basic questions—name, address, destination. The inside of the vehicle contained a cache of weapons. Although McNeily and his brother-in-law, convicted felon George McKeever were not the suspects in the Mexico bank robbery they were extremely dangerous men.
Although it is pure speculation, Sgt. Booth must have seen one of the many weapons in the car. He quickly reached through the passenger's window and opened the door which had been locked from the outside. As Booth pulled open the door McKeever shot Booth in the left leg with a Colt .45 semi-automatic pistol.
Sheriff Wilson, standing in front of the car, heard the shot and drew his weapon. But it was too late. McNeily fired two shots from a .38-caliber revolver striking Sheriff Wilson twice in the head killing him instantly. Although wounded, Sgt. Booth was able to pull his assailant from the car and a fierce struggle ensued over the Colt. The battle ended when McNeily exited the vehicle and shot Sgt. Booth in the back. As the fallen trooper lay motionless on the ground, McKeever stood up, retrieved the .45 and tried to shoot Booth again but the weapon jammed.
"You didn't kill him," McKeever was reported to have screamed as he took McNeily's .38-caliber revolver and fired another round into Sgt. Booth's heart. McKeever, according to witnesses, dusted his clothes off, brushed back his hair and the two returned to the vehicle and sped east. The owner of a nearby service station missed with two rifle shots as the getaway car passed.
Sheriff Wilson, two days past his 43rd birthday, died at the scene. Sgt. Booth, 37, a husband and father of two small children, died on the way to Boone County Hospital. The events which took place that sunny Wednesday afternoon and spanned the next three years were such the county had never seen before.
Roadblocks dotted the countryside and National Guard airplanes buzzed the clear blue skies like hawks in search of two cold-blooded killers. Orders were given to shoot at any vehicle not stopping at a roadblock.
Large posses of farmers, merchants, professional people and students fanned out through the county. A reward of $2,300 was offered for the killers capture. So incensed was the posse over the killings one newspaper reported the next morning that had the killers been caught "their being brought to the police station alive was highly unlikely."
All city and county offices were closed on Friday, June 16 in honor of Sheriff Wilson and Sgt. Booth. As both men lay in state at the Boone County Courthouse the manhunt continued, fueled by false rumors infamous gangster "Pretty Boy" Floyd and his accomplice, Adam "Dago" Richetti were the killers. The basis for the rumor was recent sightings of the two in Iowa and Floyd was known to shoot victims as they lay helpless. Bolstering this theory was witness accounts of one of the suspects primping and preening a bit after the final shot, another apparent Floyd trademark. Further adding to the Floyd/Richetti theory was the Kansas City Massacre at Union Station to which Richetti was linked and happened the day after the killings of Sheriff Wilson and Sgt. Booth.
The break in the case came in October, 1934 when police and Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Lewis Means arrested McNeily at a farm in Allerton, Iowa. McNeily had been in a shootout the day before with sheriff's deputies and his description matched that of one of killers of Sheriff Wilson and Sgt. Booth.
McNeily confessed to the killing and implicated McKeever, who at this time was serving a bank robbery sentence in the North Dakota State Penitentiary. McKeever was brought back to Columbia and charged with the murder of Sgt. Booth. In exchange for turning state's evidence against McKeever, McNeily was given a life sentence for the murder of Sheriff Wilson.
At the trial, which was moved to Fulton in Callaway County on a change of venue, McKeever was found guilty and sentenced to death. In what was the last legal hanging in the state of Missouri on December 18, 1936, McKeever was executed after asking "forgiveness for all those I have injured." McNeily was paroled in 1947 and led, by all accounts, a trouble free life until his death in 1991.
The first report of a Boone County Sheriff involved in a shooting dates back to October 1, 1865. Sheriff John F. Baker, armed with an Audrain County warrant for the arrest of a notorious murderer, John West, headed north of Columbia on horseback with a posse of four men.
The posse, which included U.S. Army Lt. William McClintock and Henry Bryan, received information West was holed up at his father-in-law's farm. As the posse surrounded the small, wooden farmhouse, Sheriff Baker knocked loudly and announced the warrant.
The knock on the door was answered by gunshots presumably fired by West. Lt. McClintock received a serious wound the abdomen and Bryan took a slight wound to the leg. West was able to keep Sheriff Baker pinned down long enough to make his escape.
Boone County today is one of the most progressive communities in the state and still retains much of its rich history. Beautiful, lush, rolling hills were scenes of some of the most intense fighting of the Civil War. The Missouri River bottoms which Lewis and Clark passed more than two hundred years ago have remained relatively unchanged.
George McKeever, involved in the murders of Sheriff Roger I. Wilson and Highway Patrol Sgt. Ben Boothe, was the last man hanged for a Boone County murder. The first man to swing from the hangman's noose was Samuel Earls for the revenge killing of Charles B. Rouse in 1831. The actual murder of Rouse took place in Ralls County but was moved to Columbia on a change of venue.
According to accounts of the day, Sheriff Thomas C.Maupin ordered his slave to bring the oxen driven cart from his farm on the Two Mile Prairie to the jail and pick up the condemned man. From the jail, Sheriff Maupin drove to the gallows which today is near the site of Columbia College.
As Earls sat on top of his coffin in the rear of the cart professing his innocence a noose was placed around his neck. After a brief moment Sheriff Maupin drove off in the cart and Earls was hanged. He was later buried on the site.
Boone County was granted its charter in 1821 but did not have a reported homicide until March 20, 1843 under the tenure of Sheriff F.A. Hamilton. Hiram Beasley was beaten and shot to death by his slaves at his farm on the road from Providence to Columbia. Slave husband and wife, Henry and America, claimed at their trial to have been mistreated and were provoked by the victim.
The jury, consisting of twelve white men, wasn't swayed and Henry and America were hanged two months later. Their sons pleaded guilty to second-degree murder for their involvement and were given 39 lashes each.
A similar fate befell slave owner James T. Points on his farm in the Mt. Zion area on November 13, 1857. Apparently his 18-year-old slave, Joe, fearing retaliation from Points for shoddy work, struck the victim in the head with a blunt object. No records could be found detailing Joe's subsequent fate which was most likely the same as Henry and America's, either at the hands of the civil authorities or an angry mob consisting of the victim's friends and relatives.
Boone County Sheriffs investigated numerous instances where slaves allegedly killed their masters. In most instances, as in the case of Hiram Beasley, "justice" was meted out in a relatively short period of time.
Since Overton Harris was appointed the first Sheriff of Boone County in 1821 a primary function of the department has always been the maintenance of the jail and securing the welfare of its prisoners. An incident in August, 1853, harkens back to the days when people often took justice into their own hands with speculation and conjecture as their justification.
Fifteen-year-old Nancy Hubbard was traveling the road to Jefferson City when she reported that shortly before dusk a slave named Hiram had jumped from behind some brush totally naked. She told Sheriff J.B. Douglass that Hiram pulled her from the carriage and tried to rape her.
Hiram was arrested and given a cell in the first Boone County Jail, located at the site of the new Government Center. Hiram vehemently denied any involvement in the incident and a trial date was set. The town was so outraged at the accusations made by Miss Hubbard the mentality could be best summed up by a desire to get the trial over with so the hanging could take place.
That rationale spilled over to the trial. A mob, apparently enraged over the slow proceedings of the trial caused by, among other things, defense attorneys maneuvering, decided to exact vengeance on its own. The horde stormed the jail and removed Hiram, taking him to Flat Branch Creek, where he was hanged.
The men who have proudly served as Boone County Sheriff for almost two centuries come from backgrounds as wide and varied as the county itself. Businessmen, farmers, Confederate officers, Union soldiers and riverboat pilots have all worn the seven-point gold star. These brave law enforcement professionals and their deputies have always placed the safety and welfare of Boone County citizens above their own.
Although the Boone County Sheriff has replaced horses with specially equipped patrol cars and the single shot revolver was supplanted by a high capacity semi-automatic pistol the task is as daunting today as it was in 1821. But the commitment is the same—Quality law enforcement providing service and protection.