My adventures as a deputy sheriff in New Mexico

By Ed Gold

While most of my good friends believe I am straight-forward and honest, one of my claims to fame has always been met with raised eyebrows or disbelieving chuckles:

That in mid-century, in the then fairly Wild West, I was a deputy sheriff. I know it’s hard to accept that a middle-class boy from the Bronx, with two degrees from Columbia, would wind up in Gallup, N.M., the biggest “city,” with a population of about 11,000, in sparsely settled McKinley County, and become a county lawman. My role as lawman was very unorthodox since at the same time I was the star reporter — the only reporter — for the daily newspaper, The Gallup Independent. The setting is important. The legal niceties we take for granted in New York hadn’t fully registered in New Mexico, the 47th state in the union, and less than two generations into statehood.

At the time, New Mexico was a state in which the legislature met for six weeks every two years, and where most of the legislators, some literally illiterate, were openly sponsored by lobbyists.

Gallup’s assemblyman was a full-time high school janitor who never knew what was in the bills he filed in Santa Fe, the capital. He was owned by the railroad union, which dressed him in a new suit and paid his bills during the six-week term. New Mexico was a state in which the alleged discovery of two “known Communists” by the F.B.I. warranted a banner headline on the state’s largest circulation newspaper.

So, in the spring of 1949, during my daily visit to the sheriff’s office, I found a usually genial Mickey Mollica, a former police officer from Pittsburgh, and the only legitimate professional in the county, highly agitated. He was furious with his girlfriend, who was sweet, accommodating and had secretarial skills but was conspicuously weak in English. She periodically accompanied the sheriff on interrogations and took notes that were often unsatisfactory.

“Ed,” he said to me, “I can’t tell whether this guy confessed or not. I gotta find someone who can write English.”

There was a brief pause, after which he turned to me with an instruction: “Raise your right hand and repeat after me.” I took the oath and he swore me in as deputy sheriff. No doubt my dual role as journalist and lawman violated both the spirit and letter of the law. But this, after all, was New Mexico more than 50 years ago and the sheriff felt I would serve a useful purpose.

For remaining doubters, I still have the documentation, which reads: “Notice is given that Ed Gold, on the 12th day of May, 1949, is by me duly appointed Deputy Sheriff of McKinley County,” signed “M.I. Mollica.”

Here’s what Mollica had in mind. On offbeat cases, when the language issue was problematical, I would accompany him and take notes. I would type my notes and keep a carbon copy for my story. So my notes became the official record of the investigation. That’s why he made me a deputy. It also helped me with crime stories. A bit of synergy.

The biggest challenge was getting easily understandable statements on the Navajo reservation, where many residents had a difficult time with English. I tried to write everything as simply as possible and hoped nothing would sound Ivy League.

The case I worked on that stands out in my mind involved sex, religious conflict and revenge. It began in our local courthouse when a Navajo in his early 20s was put on trial for statutory rape. The young buck had married a recently widowed squaw, probably in her early 40s, a not uncommon event on the Navajo reservation. The problem developed when the squaw’s 16-year-old daughter became pregnant. There then developed a clash of cultures. In the Navajo culture, as practiced in mid-century, a woman’s second husband had access to her oldest daughter. But several of the squaw’s relatives had become Christians. They found the practice abhorrent and had the husband arrested.

The defendant, the pregnant girl and his wife fully acknowledged and accepted the arrangement. A mistrial was declared, however, when it was determined that conception had occurred outside of McKinley County.

It was not the end of the tale. Several months later, in the middle of the night, I was awakened by my landlady. “The sheriff is here and he wants you to get dressed and come downtstairs,” she said. I rushed downstairs, jumped into Mollica’s car and we headed into the heart of the Navajo reservation.

“You remember that statutory rape case that was thrown out because the incident took place in another county,” Mollica began. “Well, I just received a call that the young man was badly beaten and is back in his parent’s home. That’s where we’re going. Do the best you can in writing what he says.”

We arrived at the Navajo hogan — not much more than a sparsely furnished, primitive hut — and found a badly battered and frightened young man.

He spoke in whispers and through an interpreter he told his story:

He had been working about 20 miles east of Gallup when he was set upon by a group of his wife’s relatives. They said he had committed a sin and was going to pay for it. They whipped and punched him until he was barely conscious. Then they tied his hands and feet and dragged him onto the Santa Fe railroad tracks where they left him. The suspicion was that they hoped a train would hit him. He lay there for hours.

Fortunately for him, other Navajo workers in the area heard his cries for help, cut his bonds and delivered him to his mother’s home. Back in Gallup that night, I typed my notes and early next morning delivered them to the sheriff. I did the complete story about the trial, the beating and his rescue, and my editor approved.

The sheriff had him taken to the Gallup hospital where he recuperated after several weeks. He refused, however, to press charges against his wife’s family, or name his attackers, and he moved back with his wife and her children. In effect he would be both father and grandfather to the new child.

Mollica hated these cultural squabbles that frequently led to violence. He warned the young man that if he fooled around again he would not be so lucky next time. The rape law, after all, was on the side of the converts. Or his attackers might be even more brutal if he persisted in following Navajo tradition. He also sent word to the squaw’s relatives that he would personally hold them responsible for any further acts of violence.

During my stay in Gallup, there were no further incidents in this case. And, in fact, while I remained deputy sheriff, Mollica seemed to get along much better with his girlfriend.