National Park Service ranger discusses historical shooting

Hours before the county paid tribute to its slain officers, the Garland County Historical Society on Tuesday provided insight into one of the deaths: Hot Springs National Park Ranger James Alexander Cary, the first National Park Service ranger killed while on duty.

Ranger Cary was killed by bootleggers on West Mountain on March 12, 1927. The Historical Society devoted its monthly meeting Tuesday at the Garland County Library to his career and death with a presentation by NPS Ranger Zach Summerlin, which was attended by Ranger Cary's son, James O. Cary.

Summerlin explained that, through his presentation, he hoped to "fill in the gaps" in the story from the perspective of law enforcement. Cary said he was pleased with Summerlin's handling of his father's death.

"It was an excellent presentation," Cary said. "Everything sounded very familiar."

Summerlin gave context to the shooting by pointing out that Raymond Hunt, arguably the most egregious offender in Ranger Cary's death, had been arrested by the park ranger prior to the incident. He said when Ranger Cary arrested Hunt prior to the shooting, Hunt had resisted arrest and later vowed that the park ranger would "never be able to testify" against him.

Through his own actions, Hunt proved himself right -- on March 12, he and four other bootleggers met Ranger Cary on West Mountain and shot him following an altercation.

Summerlin said that prior to the shooting, the five men had been at a residence on Jim Street, which was located on West Mountain off Whittington Avenue. He said they had been hanging out in a residence with a girl named Dotty, and that Hunt had threatened to kill Dotty if she told anyone about the shooting.

Thirty-five suspects were arrested following the shooting. Summerlin said this mass arrest was the result of the loyalty and brotherhood among law enforcement, which has taken on the "thin blue line" mantra popularized in recent years.

"That existed 100 years ago just as it does today," Summerlin said.

Hunt's trial was held in 1929, nearly two years after the shooting. Summerlin said one possible reason was a government conspiracy, which could have been fueled by corruption in Hot Springs' government. He pointed out that 1927 was an election year for Leo McLaughlin, and the trial represented everything that went against his campaign.

"Hot Springs was just a bastion for corruption," Summerlin said.

Summerlin also listed a conflict over jurisdiction as a reason for the trial's delay. He said the location where the shooting took place was conflicted over between the city of Hot Springs and the federal government.

"Hot Springs has, and always will be, a jurisdictional mess," Summerlin said.

Summerlin said when the trial was finally held, the prosecution was based entirely on circumstantial evidence that came from bootleggers and prostitutes.

Hunt's defense was that he was working at his uncle's battery shop at the time of the murder. Hunt and his uncle said he and Ranger Cary were the best of friends -- his uncle even said he had heard the two laughing outside of his shop.

Summerlin was aghast at the notion that Hunt used such a defense.

"To have this man's wife finally get her day in court and hear this -- excuse my language -- this dirt bag say that they were the best of friends, is unconscionable," he said.

Hunt won the case on grounds of reasonable doubt. Summerlin also pointed out that in Hot Springs, which was known for gangsters and prostitution at the time, it was difficult to get a "guilty" verdict on a murder.

While Hunt won his trial in Hot Springs, he was still held in custody for a year and a day on grounds that conspiracy to commit murder was a federal crime at the time.

None of the other four men allegedly involved in Ranger Cary's death went to trial. Summerlin said Hunt's innocent verdict was a predecessor in this decision.

"If you can't get your strongest case to go through, why try any of the others?" he said.

A monument in Ranger Cary's honor was unveiled on May 30, 2016, at the corner of Reserve Street and Central Avenue. Park Superintendent Josie Fernandez, who attended Summerlin's presentation, said she was "ashamed" that the park had not commemorated the park ranger's life and service until then.

"I'm terribly embarrassed myself that we didn't do something sooner," Fernandez said.

Cary said he did not wish to comment on his father's death. He did, however, say that he believes that authorities conspired against the shooting.

"I try to forget it," he said. "I still think it was a conspiracy, though."

The annual Fallen Officer Memorial Service was held at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Garland County Sheriff's Department.

Local on 05/17/2017

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