Another sidewalk, another terrorist dead

& November 28, 1969: The shooting had stopped, but the cop kneeling behind the potted pine tree was peering intently at another cop, who was holding what looked to be a baton in a relay race.  But it wasn’t a baton. It was a pipe bomb. There was a body at his feet.

Maybe somebody yelled “bomb!” I don’t know. Whatever, the downtown crowd that had pressed in close moved back quickly. Very quickly, tripping over our heels. I know; I was in the crowd. Then a screaming emergency vehicle slammed to a stop, two guys jumped out, loaded another body, one that was still moving, onto a stretcher, shoved it into the ambulance and peeled off.

As we watched from 30 feet away, the cop searching the corpse pulled out another piece of pipe. We backed up some more. The bomb squad rolled up in an armored truck, and the long investigation began into the final violent moments of one of Colorado’s most notorious murderers. Nobody knew it at the moment, but the lifelong rampage of “Mad Dog” Sherbondy was over.

Today, when I saw a Twitter-supplied video clip of a similar scene as it played out on a London bridge a few hours earlier, I remembered that day-after-Thanksgiving 50 years ago.  The knot of people, pressing in like a rugby scrum, and then stumbling in reverse. Others waving their hands: Get back, get back! Then, what appeared to be a policeman pulling something with a long black barrel out of his jacket, aiming, and a shot, maybe two. A woman screamed, and a body lay stretched on the sidewalk.

We still don’t know the identity of the dead guy in London – we’re told he injured several people, maybe killed one, with a knife. Maybe, they say, he was a terrorist. We’re also told he might have had a bomb, maybe a dummy bomb, strapped to his body. Maybe that’s why he was shot dead. We don’t know yet. It will take awhile to sort it out.

Fifty years ago, it also took a while to sort out what had happened, and who had died on the sidewalk next to the Denver Post building at the corner of 15th and California Streets. For us in the bureau of United Press International, five stories up, we knew only that something was going on in the alley below. There had been a siren, maybe a thump of cars colliding. Some of us ran to the window above the alley, looked down. One car with doors open, hemmed in by a couple of black-and-whites. Red lights flashing. Two or three guys with their hands spread on the car’s roof. Cops pointing guns at them.

Then we heard shots. They came from the opposite end of the Post building, a half-block from the alley. We ran down the stairs, as I recall (the damned elevator was always out of order), out the front door of the Post on 15th Street, and then a few steps to California street. I rounded the corner of the building. The bodies were splayed on the sidewalk.

Once we got back in the office, all we knew is that someone had been killed during a lunchtime gun battle on a downtown Denver street and a police officer had been taken to the hospital. It was a bigger story than we expected – we hadn’t known the dead guy was notorious. And back then, anyone who had murdered a police officer was notorious.

Jim Sherbondy was that.

Thirty years earlier, after deserting from the Army and committing armed robbery in Chicago, he’d killed an Eagle County deputy sheriff who was trying to arrest him on Tennessee Pass in Colorado’s high country. He’d been on the lam for a few weeks until they finally caught up with him in Nebraska. He was ultimately sentenced to life for second-degree murder. He was 18, and would spend most of the rest of his life in prison.

Not all of it, though.  In 1947, Sherbondy escaped from the state pen, took a family hostage, and then gave up. Hollywood turned that into a movie, “Canon City,” and Sherbondy went into solitary for a few years. He said solitary was a place for mad dogs, so he got the nickname, which stuck.

 In the Fifties, he tried another escape and didn’t get far. In 1962, he was paroled, but that lasted only a few months. He was arrested for armed robbery and possession of explosives. Back in prison, he’d been a good enough prisoner to earn a place outside the high gray walls in Canon City, and was sent to an honor camp east of Denver.

In early ’69, he walked away and hid out in Denver. During the next ten months he was on the loose. He acquired a pistol – one that had been used, police learned, in the shooting of a security guard (by someone else) – and the dynamite and gunpowder he needed for his pipe bombs. He also drew up maps and plans for robbing a bank, and told fellow fugitives he would blow himself up if he was ever caught again.

That day in Denver, detective Michael Dowd and his partner had spotted a car loaded with four guys, one of them on their wanted list. They didn’t know it then, but another passenger in the car was Sherbondy. A chase ensued, and came to a stop in the alley — another police car had blocked the exit. Sherbondy jumped out of the hemmed-in car, and ran. Dowd followed him down the sidewalk and around the corner. There was a struggle, the guns came out, and each man fired five shots. Dowd took four bullets, three in the leg and one in the abdomen. But one of his hit Sherbondy in the chest.

Mad Dog died with a book of matches in his hand, the fuses on his two bombs never lit. Mike Dowd survived, to be honored as a hero.

These days, I suppose, James Sherbondy would have been called a domestic terrorist. Back then, we just called him a cop killer.

& Remembering a Black Friday of long ago, I’m outta here.

With Sherbondy dead on the sidewalk, an officer moves to assist the prostrate Dowd. Somewhere back there in the crowd was Yr’s Truly.

(Much of Sherbondy’s history retrieved from the Vail Daily

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