No one knows better the danger that a tense circumstance can present than police in the United States. Constantly under pressure to control people who are guaranteed rights that provide them a wide latitude of no control, the scenarios that citizens can present range from the mundane to sheer terror, even for a trained professional. With that thought, we continue to reflect on moments in the history of law enforcement we wish we could get back, the sacrifices of those that have paid the ultimate price on our behalf.
Lake of the Ozarks
In 1912, Ralph Street had a big idea. He was a lawyer, practicing in Kansas City, and as the Industrial Revolution wore on, and focused on building consumer goods, Mr. Street thought that the need for cheap electricity would be in order. He felt that a dam across the Osage River would provide a plethora of electricity for Kansas City, and the Ozark region of Missouri, the southern half of the State. Street didn’t receive permitting until 1924, and that was for mere exploration of the viability of a dam in the area of Bagnell, a small town on the banks of the Osage. Mr. Street’s struggle to get the dam completed included a near collapse of the project to bankruptcy, banks that disappeared after promising financial backing, permit delays, investor relations soaring, and a host of other problems, until the dam was finally completed in 1929, with commercial operation beginning in 1931. The Bagnell Dam opened just in time for the Great Depression to take hold, but thankfully it provided over 20,000 jobs to the region, which would have otherwise been another dust bowl.
The lake that produced from the dam’s creation stretches four counties in length, and rather than a traditional lake, where it is contained to one specific area, it snakes around the greater region, much like it’s a river onto itself. Soon the new water body became known as a lake, named after the region’s mountain-like hills, The Ozarks. Twenty years later, and the Truman Reservoir and Dam was created in Warsaw, forming another similar lake, and making the region a go-to destination for summer vacation seekers.
All the towns around the lakes are small, generally not more than 2,000 residents in each one – however, there are many of them doting the shores of both lakes. One town serves as the hub of them all, Warsaw. It’s the county seat of Benton County, which benefits from its central location to both lakes. But, with tourism being the main economic driver for the greater community, employment, and sustained growth elude the area. That can be a blessing and a curse. The lake region probably closely resembles today, what it looked like 50 years ago, compared to other nature-rich areas around the country.
The Lake of the Ozarks region has been partially defined by grizzly crimes committed by locals. Burglaries leading to shootings, and violence visited upon lawmen are all-too common headlines for the sparsely populated area. While to outsiders the area is a place to get away from it all, it seems that for locals, it’s a place that feels like a trap. Subsequently, they resort to drastic, illogical acts that ultimately hurt others. Our next officer fell victim to one of those illogical acts.
Sheriff Louis J. Miesner
Sheriff Louis J. Meisner was the elected Sheriff of Benton County, when on November 1st, 1944, he had taken an inmate on trustee detail out of cell to clean the Sheriff’s quarters, which sat on the second floor of the Sheriff’s Office. Sheriff Miesner left the inmate, Harold Buster Goff, in the quarters while he attended to errands a few blocks away from the office. What Sheriff Miesner did not know was that another inmate in the jail was aware of a machine gun that the Sheriff kept behind a door in a closet in his living quarters. That inmate had tipped off Goff to its existence. Goff completed his cleaning duties in the Sheriff’s living quarters, and laid in wait for his return.
Sheriff Miesner returned to the office around 3:30 PM, and walked up a stairway, likely to retrieve Goff. When Sheriff Miesner reached the top step, Goff came around the other side of the door, machine gun trained on Sheriff Miesner. Goff shot the Sheriff three times, twice in the chest, and once in the head.
Sheriff Miesner was survived by his mother, and four brothers.
Goff took ahold of Sheriff’s Miesner .38 revolver, and fled to the jail kitchen, where Ms. Goldie Smith, another inmate who was working at the time. Goff took her hostage, and they ran about a block away from the jail. Ms. Smith fell during the escape, and she returned to the jail, after Goff left her behind. Goff stole an oil tank truck, and took that to continue north out of town.
Later, after Goff was captured in Henry County, he admitted that Smith was part of the escape, and that the inmate who told him about the machine gun was Kenneth Holloway. Holloway and Smith were being held for a burglary of residential garage, where they stole about $800.00 worth of items and cash. In today’s dollars, that would be $11,335.00, which would make it a pretty significant felony. Holloway was sentenced to life in prison. Smith received 10 years in prison, but her sentence was then commuted, and she was assigned to the State Industrial Home for Girls, which was a vocation rehabilitation center in Chillicothe, Missouri.
Goff received a life sentence as well, but in 1952 he escaped the State Prison, but was caught three days later in Warsaw. After that, he served his sentence, never to be heard from again.
It’s hard to imagine in today’s era, a scenario where an inmate would be left by themselves in a room to conduct assigned work duties. But, given the time of this incident, and the location (Missouri is part of the famed ‘Bible Belt,’ and Sheriff Miesner had let Goff go free the day he was original sentence to the county jail, so he could attend his father’s funeral), one can see how such circumstances could come to be. However, Sheriff Miesner’s demise did not go unappreciated in law enforcement agencies. The complete set of circumstances led to significant changes in how sheriff offices handle inmates who were sentenced and on work or other details. Constant monitoring, ratios of inmates to deputies, and host of other security issues were addressed in the aftermath of Sheriff Miesner’s death. This outcome is the best way to honor his death. The best way to remember him, is to never let it happen again.
In memory of Sheriff Louis J. Miesner.