Forty years after his death, Sawyer remembered as ‘gentle giant’
Published: Thursday, June 21st, 2012
It was June 13, 1972, when Jim Sawyer, a big man at 6-4 and 275 pounds, was shot and killed around 4:45 a.m. halfway up Custer Mountain, nearly directly behind the old sheriff’s department. Sawyer had volunteered to work a shift for his brother, Michael, who had recently been married.
Sawyer, 26, noticed the front door of the Gold Pan Saloon had been kicked in and called the bar owner, Jerry Sandland, and told him the door was kicked in. Sawyer was doing downtown business checks, making sure the doors and windows were secure, a nightly routine for officers.
Earlier in the night, three people, including Gary Wood, had burglarized the Gold Pan, taking a saddle that was being raffled by the local Jaycees. After taking the saddle, Wood and his two accomplices left and stored the saddle under a trailer house and dropped Wood off at home.
Wood eventually went back to the bar, however, armed with a .30-30 rifle, to steal money. When he went back to the bar and entered from the rear, he found Sawyer already inside investigating the earlier burglary. Wood raised his rifle at Sawyer, assaulted him and disarmed him. He then put him in his car and drove him to the hill.
Sandland arrived at the Gold Pan at 4:20 a.m., and saw Sawyer’s car parked in front of the building. He went inside and called out to Sawyer, but found no sign of him. After checking the bar, he discovered $30, a hunting knife and the horse saddle were missing. As he stood there contemplating what to do, he heard four gunshots ring out in the night.
Sandland immediately ran to the telephone and called then Custer County Sheriff Ernie Pepin and Custer City Police Chief John Evans. Other off-duty officers were also called in.
Evans said the group determined from the sound of the shots and tire tracks that a car had driven across what were then railroad tracks (now the Mickelson Trail) to the south and just west of the Gold Pan, and made their way up the hillside where the sound had come from. Members of the South Dakota Highway Patrol and the Custer Volunteer Fire Department also converged on the scene, and the group spread out and began a search of the hill.
Halfway up the hill, still in the early morning hours of June 13, Evans saw Sawyer lying face down in a large pool of blood. He had been shot four times—once in the chest, once in the back and twice in the back of the head. All of the bullets had been fired with his service pistol, a .357 magnum.
“He was basically executed,”âï¿½ï¿½Evans said.
Evans took off his jacket and laid it over Sawyer’s body. The fire department later carried his body away. Sawyer was murdered one day before he was to marry Cecilia Hendrickson. A memorial service was held at the local Lutheran church shortly thereafter.
In the aftermath of the shooting, Pepin and Evans investigated the shooting for months, and citizens of Custer pooled $11,831 as a reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Sawyer’s killer. Reward posters were circulated throughout the Black Hills.
A 1974 issue of Detective Files said the case turned in August 1973, when a Custer resident visiting home noticed his acquaintance had a new saddle. It was the same saddle that had been taken in the burglary of the Gold Pan. The man called the DCI, and the case was broken for good after further investigation of the tip led them to those who had committed the burglary, including Wood.
Immediately, Evans and Pepin went to Wood’s home and placed him under arrest. Evans said when they arrived at Wood’s home, he was preparing to leave town.
After initially pleading not guilty, Wood confessed to the slaying of Sawyer. Those who had participated in the burglary also pleaded guilty to burglary charges, but were not found to have taken part in Sawyer’s murder.
At his Jan. 22, 1974 sentencing, Wood pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole. Wood, now 64, remains in custody at the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls. He is inmate No. 17601.
Current Custer County Sheriff Rick Wheeler was a senior in high school at the time of the shooting, and remembers seeing Sawyer the night he was killed. Wheeler and two friends were riding around in Custer and had a conversation with Sawyer earlier that night.
“He was a gentle giant. He was good to us,”âï¿½ï¿½Wheeler said.âï¿½ï¿½“You know how kids are growing up. Teenagers are a handful, at best. He was good about handling things.”
“He was just an all-around good person,”âï¿½ï¿½Evans said.
Forty years after he was murdered serving the citizens of Custer, those who knew Sawyer still describe him the same way.
“He was a fine young man,”âï¿½ï¿½said John Evans, who hired Sawyer in 1970.
“Just a wonderful guy,”âï¿½ï¿½said Jerry Baldwin, who was the attorney for the City of Custer at the time. “He was a very nice young man. Maybe too nice.”
Evans said not long before the shooting, he had discussed with his officers the procedures for entering a building during a possible break-in. They were told not to do so without calling for help. Evans said Sawyer was the type of person who didn’t want to bother someone at that hour.
“Unfortunately, it led to (the shooting),”âï¿½ï¿½he said. “It’s a very sad thing. You wish you could reverse it, but you can’t.”
The shooting rocked the people of Custer, which until that time didn’t believe such a thing could happen in their quiet Southern Black Hills town. Evans said the shooting changed the law enforcement mentality in Custer.
Shortly thereafter, a task force was put together to beef up law enforcement, and the city and county departments were combined. The city’s first dispatch was created, officer salaries were raised and more officers were added. Tighter security on each officer’s comings and going were implemented, and during the evening and night hours, two-man teams were mandated to patrol, instead of just one man.
“That killing and the (AIM Indian) riots kind of changed the community,” Baldwin said.âï¿½ï¿½“It was a peaceful little town up until then. Those two incidents really changed a lot of things. It became imperative to have more law enforcement.”
Although Sawyer is gone, he has not been forgotten. Sawyer’s name is listed on countless websites honoring police officers slain in the line of duty, and his name is listed on panel 17W, line 17 on the National Law Enforcement officers memorial in Washington, D.C. In addition, the new justice center in the Custer County Sheriff’s Department is named in his honor. A plaque with a picture of Sawyer hangs at the justice center in perpetuity.
It was a dark time in Custer, a time that Evans said he tries not to remember too vividly. He chooses to remember Sawyer as the young, polite policeman he hired to protect and serve Custer two years before he would lose his life.
“He made a mistake of some sort. In law enforcement, sometimes if you make a mistake, it’s your last,”âï¿½ï¿½he said.âï¿½ï¿½“He certainly didn’t deserve that.”
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