History of the Carter County Sheriff’s Office
Carter County Missouri encompasses an area of approximately five-hundred square miles and about 321,000 acres. The majority, all except approximately 20,000 acres, are wooded with forest like terrain. Carter County is located on the Ozark Plateau, lying in the south-central and western Missouri, northern Arkansas, eastern Oklahoma and Kansas region. The county is an area filled with rolling hills and gleaming streams abundant with wildlife. Many natural springs are found within the confines of the county boundaries including Big Spring, which was made a state park in 1924.
The areas geographic offerings have historically drawn sportsman of every type including early Indian tribes and early French explorers who utilized the areas resources as hunting grounds. Early settlers began staking claim to the area in the early nineteenth century. Early records identify Issac E. Kelley as the areas first known settler into the area in 1817. Historically, Carter County’s first known commerce consisted of trading and shipping furs, venison, and wild pigeons. In 1887, with the inclusion of the railroads, the timber industry became the leading industry. Presently, the timber industry remains a driving force within Carter County but has been overtaken as the leading industry by tourist visiting the areas many attractions including Big Spring, and the Current River.
Carter County’s office of the Sheriff, not unlike the rest of the county, has been riddled with a vast and extraordinary history. The civil war commenced a short two (2) years after the county was organized. At that time there was no permanent court house structure. Early records revealed that the county court met in July of 1861 at the Colman Hotel. The court did not meet again in Carter County until May of 1866. The time between court operations proved disastrous for the area. During that period disorder prevailed and the county government was for the most part non-existent. Historic accounts described that the county fell into a mode of lawlessness where much property and many lives were destroyed due to lawless actions and plunder.
Much of the lawlessness and trouble within Carter County were caused by bands of outlaws commonly called jayhawkers or bushwhackers. These groups were described as outlaws bent on robbing, murdering, and plundering for their own gain. The groups of outlaws had historic significance in Carter County. Their interaction with the local law enforcement has been widely reported including their interaction with the first known sheriff of Carter County, Thomas Gardner.
The first elected sheriff of Carter County, Thomas Gardner, was killed by some of these described outlaws near Ellsinore Missouri. Sheriff Gardner and another man were traveling to a citizen’s residence near the Carr farm when they were approached by the group of outlaws. The outlaws shot Gardner down and abused his traveling partner. Although the exact date remains unknown, the account is widely known.
The Office of Sheriff in Carter County, not unlike the Sheriff Gardner murder, has over the years consisted of several instances where the law and groups of outlaws have intersected. In 1958, Sheriff Snowden Dell was conducting his routine duties in Van Buren when he and Missouri State Highway Patrol Trooper Bill Little began investigating a suspicious vehicle. The investigation lead to the discovery of a sawed off shotgun but before the officers could react, the two males inside the vehicle were able to get the drop on them and they were forced inside a service station where the occupants and officers were taken hostage. The incident continued as Trooper Little convinced the two outlaws to take him rather than a local woman inside the station, hostage. The outlaws agreed and began a multiple state crime spree which resulted in the eventual release of Trooper Little and the conviction and sentence to Alcatraz for both suspects.
Another historic account of the interaction between outlaws and Carter County Law Enforcement has been noted in the Bank of Grandin robbery and murders in 1973. The incident stemmed from a small group of three (3) outlaws, taking the Bank President, his wife and seventeen year old daughter hostage. Following forcing The Bank President to retrieve $11,000.00 in cash from the bank the band of outlaws took the family, tied them to trees and executed each of them. Carter County Sheriff Buford Westbrook took part in the investigation with the Sheriff of Ripley County and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. and located evidence leading to their conviction.
Carter County has progressed into a modern age of community and proactive police services. In 2006 the County purchased a building adjacent to the county court house and following remodeling the modern Carter County Jail was established. The Jail was equipped with three (3) cells which had the ability to house six (6) prisoners. The purchase of the building cost the county approximately $40,000.00. In 2010, the county expanded their facility and added three (3) additional jail cells, bringing the total to six cells. Additionally, the facility now comprises of a vehicle sally port / garage, state of the art evidence room, kitchen and laundry. The total cost of the latest facility remodel was approximately $500,000.00.
Since the Counties inception and following the establishment of the office of the Sheriff, dedicated Peace Officers have strived to bring law and order to Carter County. The Men who have served as sheriff in Carter County have comprised of men who were business men, truck drivers, career law men, barbers, and even a former Navy Captain. The community has openly supported the Sheriff’s Office through the passage of a Law Enforcement Sales Tax in 2014. The office of the Sheriff looks forward to continuing a professional service with positive outcomes to the residents of Carter County. Our history has been memorable, yet our commitment remains the same.