BRECKENRIDGE — The 19th-century murder of Michael O’Neal sounds like a scene taken out of an old Western movie: A police officer is shot during a saloon brawl, and the killer is lynched in front of a mob of 2,000 angry townsfolk.
Regardless of the story’s similarities to a cowboy picture, the murders were very much a reality in late July 1880 in Kokomo — an old mining town south of Breckenridge — where they took place.
O’Neal was a police officer who began his career in law enforcement just four days before he was shot.
Now, 125 years later, his name could be added to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C. — a maze of marble walls engraved with the names of 17,000 peace officers killed in the line of duty.
Before that can happen, Summit County Sheriff John Minor has a duty to fulfill. Because Kokomo is a ghost town and no longer has a police department, Minor must complete the application for O’Neal’s consideration — a task that has proved tough because the form is geared toward modern-day deaths. It asks for documentation such as coroner records, court records and proof that next-of-kin has been notified.
“I called them up and said, ‘Look, we don’t have any of this information,’” Minor said. “I just figured we’d send in what we had. We had an obligation to at least try to find some kind of living distant relative.”
In his spare moments, Minor has been hitting the history books, searching for clues that might lead to O’Neal’s family. He knows that O’Neal was originally from Clinton, N.Y., and that he had a brother in Kokomo and a brother in Leadville.
“We called most of the longtime O’Neal residents in Leadville and kind of struck out there,” Minor said.
He contacted the Summit Historical Society, but so far, nobody has heard of O’Neal’s murder.
O’Neal was shot at about 2 a.m. on a Tuesday when he passed Keister’s Saloon in Kokomo and saw a disturbance inside involving Charles Norton, according to newspaper clippings from the Colorado History Museum. O’Neal tried to calm the noise and warned everyone to behave themselves. Norton drew his pistol and shot O’Neal in the abdomen.
O’Neal staggered against a table and said, “Boys, I am shot.” The killer ran off into woods, but was later captured near Leadville and taken back to jail in Kokomo. Later that morning, a mob of 2,000 led by O’Neal’s brother went to the jail, overtook the guards and marched Norton to the outskirts of town, where he was hung from a beam in a corral.
O’Neal had only recently moved to Kokomo from Leadville to open a saloon. After less than a year in the business, he took a job as a police officer with the Kokomo Police Department.
Local author Mary Ellen Gilliland wrote a short section about the bar brawl in her latest book, “Colorado Rascals, Scoundrels, And No Goods,” but wasn’t aware that a police officer was killed in the scuffle until Minor informed her. She plans to include O’Neal’s story in her 25th anniversary edition of “SUMMIT, A Gold Rush History of Summit County, Colorado,” which she is currently writing.
O’Neal is already listed on Colorado’s law enforcement memorial, along with Summit County Sheriff’s deputies Ernest Conrad and Sumner Whitney, who were shot by Pug Ryan in Kokomo in 1898 after Ryan’s robbery of several gamblers at the Denver Hotel in Breckenridge.
Another officer was shot in the chest in Kokomo in 1881 during a bar fight, but he recovered from his injuries, Gilliland said.
“(Kokomo’s) violence lasted longer than, say, Breckenridge or Montezuma,” said Gilliland. “In the early days, things were very wild up here. People would get drunk in the saloons and start shooting all over the place.”
The National Law Enforcement Memorial works leads from amateur historians or family members of peace officers that could be included in the memorial, then follows up with a letter to the corresponding police department to verify the death, said research associate Carolie Heyliger.
Once the information is returned, it is forwarded to the Names Committee, which meets every January to determine which officers fit the criteria to be added to the wall. Names are engraved onto the memorial every April.
It’s not unusual to add names from deaths that occurred more than 100 years ago, she said. The earliest name on record dates to 1792.