For more than 15 years, Larry Dever was sheriff of Cochise County. His corner of Arizona was once known for a wild gunfight at Tombstone, but became increasingly known for violence associated with human and drug smuggling.
Dever was brought up in the county, in the no-stoplight town of St. David. In spirit and mostly in fact, he always remained in rural Arizona.
His death in a single-vehicle crash brought out responses at every level Wednesday — in the small towns of southeastern Arizona’s border county, and in the halls of power in Phoenix and Washington.
The rural sheriff had achieved national prominence as an opponent of illegal immigration. His deep, calm voice sometimes contrasted with the shrill shouting on cable TV. Dever was passionate about his aims, but kept his emotions in check, and his trademark cowboy hat ever-present on his head.
The demeanor was genuine, those who knew him said.
“That wasn’t an act,” said Cochise County Supervisor Pat Call, “That was Larry. Absolutely.”
Dever died at age 60 on Tuesday night, when his pickup truck crashed on a rural road just south of Williams in northern Arizona, where he had apparently headed to join one of his sons for a hunting trip.
The death left political leaders scrambling to determine how to handle the next election: Dever, running for a fifth term, was unopposed.
As his hometown mourned, some also mourned a voice they saw as firm but realistic in a larger political debate that had become overheated long ago.
A lawman’s career
At St. David’s unified elementary and high schools on Wednesday, the flag was at half-staff. A digital sign outside read: “We will miss you Sheriff Dever. Our thoughts and prayers are with you and your family.”
The crossing guard outside the school knew Dever. So did everyone in a sampling of parents picking up their children from school.
A counselor at the high school, Susan Pollock, 51, a close friend of the Devers, said there was a heavy mood everywhere she went on Wednesday. “It’s like a huge black cloud,” she said. “There’s such heavy hearts in our county.”
Dever lived just up the street from the high school where he was a star baseball player. It’s a home he and his wife moved into just as he was beginning his career as a deputy in the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office.
Dever met his wife while they were students at Brigham Young University, said Pollock, who was acting as family spokesman Wednesday.
“She’s a California girl that was swept away by this country cowboy with impeccable manners,” Pollock said.
The two raised six boys. Three became police officers, one a firefighter and one joined the Army. The youngest is in pilot-training school in Cochise County.
Friends describe Dever as a doting father who often took his sons on hunting and fishing trips.
By 1982, Dever had risen to command the SWAT team for the Sheriff’s Office. Years before, members of the Christ Miracle Healing Center and Church, an all-African-American congregation from Chicago, had settled in Miracle Valley, a community west of Sierra Vista and south of Benson.
Tensions had risen between members of the fundamentalist church and community members. So had perceived threats of violence. On an October morning, 30 heavily armed deputies approached the church’s compound. Their announced aim was to serve traffic warrants. In the gunfire that followed, two church members were fatally shot. Several church members and deputies were injured. Dever took shrapnel to the head.
After the incident, Dever went to his friend, an emergency-room physician named Glen Kartchner, to see about removing the pellet. “He was that good of a friend that he could come over and say, ‘Hey, could you look at it?’ ” Kartchner said Wednesday. The pellet was too deep to remove and wasn’t a danger, so Kartchner said he suggested Dever keep it lodged there.
The incident would haunt Dever and the other members of the Sheriff’s Office who took part, said William R. Daniel, who wrote a book about the events called “Shootout at Miracle Valley.” They felt second-guessed as state and national leaders criticized their actions, he said.
Dever ran for sheriff in 1996, seemingly because it was the next logical step, said Call, who served as county supervisor alongside Dever for the past 11 years.
Dever originally saw illegal immigration as a federal issue. As illegal immigrants increasingly trekked through the remote deserts of Cochise County, the terrain saw increased signs of a smuggling route.
“He saw how illegal immigration issues were affecting his county,” Call said, “and in his mind … the federal government wasn’t being really serious about solving it.”
Dever began speaking out about what was happening.
“Twenty to 25 years ago, we would intercept smugglers right on the border fence,” Dever wrote in prepared remarks for a congressional hearing in 2006. “It wasn’t unusual to have some just give up. Today, the expected response to an attempted interdiction is a fight. … The stakes are extremely high.”
By 2006, his state profile increased by being asked to be part of a re-election ad for U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl.
In it, Dever and a series of other Arizona sheriffs were shown in quick shots, blasting Kyl’s opponent, Jim Pederson, saying he “supported amnesty.”
Kyl said Wednesday it was “probably (the) most memorable ad of the campaign.”
By 2010, Dever had secured a federal grant that he was using to try to pay deputies overtime to increase patrols along a remote trail used by smugglers, Daniel said.
The corridor ran through his county, including the area of a ranch run by a friend of Dever’s.
That is why he took the rancher’s death so personally.
“He was crushed when Rob Krentz was murdered,” Daniel said.
In March 2010, Krentz was found shot to death on his ranch. Investigators later said they followed foot tracks from the scene miles south, to the Mexican border.
The rancher’s death, which has not been solved, made national news and Dever and his cowboy hat became ever-present on national cable news shows. Doing those shows required an hours-long drive to Phoenix or Tucson, putting Dever on the road early in the morning or keeping him there late at night.
Dever didn’t seem to mind.
Call said that when he started as supervisor he bemoaned having to trek to the cities. He could spend four hours on the road for a one-hour meeting.
But Dever told him it sometimes meant your voice was the one heard. He called them “trips to the flagpole.”
“That’s something Larry showed me early on,” Call said. “It’s worthwhile making those trips to the flagpole to participate.”
Dever’s endorsement was highly sought after by political figures. Reaction to his death came from many of those same politicians.
Kyl remembered taking tours of the borderlands with Dever. “He had the knack of knowing how to get a lot of disparate groups working together on things,” Kyl said, “especially as they related to the border.”
U.S. Rep. Jeff Flake said he would remember Dever as “the rugged sheriff, straight-talking, tough and fair, the consummate lawman.” Former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona called Dever a dedicated public servant.
Carmona and Flake are running for the open Senate seat created by Kyl’s retirement. Both men had sought Dever’s endorsement; Dever endorsed Flake in June.
This month had already been a trying one for the Dever family. Dever’s mother, Annie, died Sept. 4, Cochise County officials said at a Wednesday news conference. One of his six sons was scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan on Wednesday.
Dever was headed to White Horse Lake on Tuesday for a two-day hunting trip with one of his sons. The lake is about a six-hour drive from St. David.
Around 6:40 p.m., after the sun had set, the Coconino County Sheriff’s Office said, Dever ran off the gravel road after a curve on Forest Service Road 109. His three-quarter-ton pickup truck flipped end over end. A witness who had been driving behind Dever saw a cloud of dust, then the pickup, which was again resting on its four wheels. The witness said there appeared to be no signs of life, a sheriff’s spokesman said.
“He lost control,” said Gerry Blair, a sheriff’s spokesman, “but we don’t know why he lost control.”
In St. David, Pollack remembered the mark Dever left on others in town, including her teenage son.
Pollack said that Dever caught her son, Will, shooting a BB gun at road signs. Dever took the boy to his mother and made him explain what he had done and why it was wrong.
A year later, Dever was leading her son’s Boy Scout troop when some of the boys exploded some black powder that caused a fire on a nearby mountain. Dever made the Scouts clean up the damage.
Pollack said Dever saw good in her mischievous son and took the time to teach him right, rather than simply punish him for doing wrong.
Today, Pollock said, her son is in training to fly Black Hawk helicopters with the U.S. Army after graduating from high school with honors and completing a two-year church mission.
“He could have turned (Will) into a juvenile delinquent,” Pollock said. “Instead of embarrassing him, he taught this son of mine a big lesson.”
Dever’s chief deputy, Rod Rothrock became acting sheriff until the general election, Cochise County officials announced Wednesday. State statute allows a party to place someone’s name on the ballot in event of a death. The deadline for printing ballots for the November general election is Friday, according to the county.
Cochise Republican officials scheduled a meeting for today at noon to decide whose name to put on the ballot. Four candidates, including Rothrock, expressed interest, said Matt Creegan, chair of the county Republican Party.
Dever was running unopposed in the general election.
Call said that months ago, after nomination deadlines passed, he called Dever to congratulate him on his virtually guaranteed fifth term as Cochise County sheriff, the longest anyone had served in that position. Johnny Behan, the first sheriff of Cochise County and sheriff at the time of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, served just 19 months.
Call said it will be hard to find someone who can fill the void in leadership left by Dever. He said that had Dever been around a bit longer, he might have helped push the illegal immigration debate toward a rational end.
“He had the knack to bring it home, to bring the larger issues of illegal immigration down to the level where even people who live inside the Beltway could understand it,” Call said. “He was speaking for us, not just for himself, and that was refreshing.”
Republic reporters Dan Nowicki, Michael Clancy and Megan Thompson contributed to this article.