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.
Mohave County, Arizona
Mohave County forms the northwest corner of Arizona, bordering both Nevada and California. It’s a county full of history, recreation, and road trip folklore. Historic Route 66 cuts due west from Albuquerque, before taking a northerly bend at Flagstaff, where it arcs into the Hualapai Indian Reservation, before heading back southwest, where it cross along Kingman, the county seat in Mohave, on its way into California. While that route has since been replaced as the major freeway in the area, the more direct line of Interstate 40 also crosses through Kingman, where the two converge, separate at the outskirts of town, and then meet again at the California border. Mohave is famous for Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Grand Canyon National Park, and Lake Havasu. Mohave County serves as a desert oasis, in an otherwise dry region of the United States. Because of its hub status for transportation and natural resources, millions of people visit the area as travelers, tourists, and even temporary residents. And it is because these factors that Mohave County, home to mainly small towns by any definition, is truly a little place with big problems. Today, we revisit one of the big problems that visited Mohave County.
Sheriff Robert Mendum Tarr
Sheriff Robert Mendum Tarr was raised in a family business of cattle ranching, in San Bernardino County, California, which sits just over the border from Mohave County. After a childhood on the range, he became a rancher for himself, and then in his late 20’s, served as a military policeman during WWII. From there, he took to the field of law enforcement, as a deputy sheriff for San Bernardino County, then as a police officer for the City of San Bernardino and next Kingman, Arizona, where he was later elected Sheriff of Mohave. He was built like a rancher, and spoke like the oft-quiet gentlemen of his era and region. On a sun-soaked October 21st, in the year 1963, Sheriff Tarr, after a brief slumber from pulling an 18-hour day prior, was awake for his usual start time of duty, when he received a call that the State of Arizona Agricultural Inspection point outside of Kingman had a car with people refusing to open the trunk of their 1959 Plymouth convertible.
The Kingman Inspection point was noted as being a place that captured many stolen vehicles, and the fact that the staff working this location were unarmed, makes the idea of such a feat in modern days terribly scary. However, their purpose was to inspect for fruit and vegetables, not to solve crime. It just so happened that an auxiliary purpose was produced from their efforts. In particular, the FBI had taken note of this inspection point’s ability to capture stolen cars, which served as a linchpin to recovery in the days before Lo-jack and GPS technology. Usually a deputy in the Sheriff’s office would handle these calls, but there none available this bright Monday afternoon, so Sheriff Tarr, the epitome of a “working Sheriff,” answered the call and drove out to the inspection point located on Highway 93, which is a nearly straight northwest route into Las Vegas from Kingman.
Sheriff Tarr approached the vehicle, asking the men what problems they were having opening the trunk, which has been described as a miscommunication between the inspection staff and Sheriff Tarr. Inside the vehicle was Bobby Roberts, who had been released from Arizona State Prison, on the condition that he return to his home State of Ohio (but only making it as far as the California coast), Emmett Brainard, and Don Carpenter. Brainard was hitchhiking north along Highway 93, hours away from Kingman, and Carpenter and Roberts picked him up, because a simmering rift that was building between Roberts and Carpenter. However, for his part, Brainard, who was a forger by trade, and also recently released from prison, his background never came up, and by all accounts, was actually an innocent third party to this incident. Carpenter was a burglar and robber, with a history involving gun violence. He had numerous brushes with Sacramento and San Francisco police by this point in his young life, and he and Roberts, who met in Long Beach a mere 72 hours before this afternoon in Kingman, were already scratching out another crime spree. The car they were driving they had stolen out of a parking lot in Long Beach. They had robbed a hotel in Los Angeles with the use of a toy pistol, and used the money to purchase a shotgun, which they then traded for a .38 revolver at another gas station. Their original plan was to travel to Utah, but Carpenter changed his mind last minute, and since he was the gunman, he got his choice, Arizona. Roberts had asked that they not go back there, simply because of his release from prison months earlier. But Carpenter pushed, and that brings us to the day in question.
As Sheriff Tarr spoke with Roberts and Carpenter, Carpenter remarked, “Oh you can look in trunk.” He then stepped out of the passenger seat, and jiggled the key they had until the trunk latch opened, displaying the two bags belonging to Roberts and Carpenter. Then, Sheriff Tarr felt something unnatural, slowing turning his head to the right. Carpenter was pointing the .38 pistol inches away from the Sheriff’s face. Sheriff Tarr began positioning himself, and Carpenter began to shake and stated “Please don’t make me shoot you.”
Sheriff Tarr, who was an excellent shot, but believed in using words more than using firearms, quietly said “Don’t shoot, son.” While in the same breath, drew his weapon, yelled at the inspection to staff to run, and both men started firing. Carpenter struck Sheriff Tarr first, center of the chest. Sheriff Tarr fired four times, striking Carpenter twice, once in the shoulder, through and through, and the second into Carpenter’s arm, which traveled through his body, before striking back out through his head.
Carpenter screamed out that he was dying. Sheriff Tarr doubled over the Plymouth’s trunk, and took his last breath. He was 51 years old.
It can be argued that because of this incident, that inspection points of all kinds now have armed, commissioned staff at them. Considering the history of this particular inspection point, it begs the question why it wasn’t considered before the loss of Sheriff Tarr. What stands out in the history of this incident, and other incidents involving inspection points, is that in this case, an elected Sheriff was who we lost that day. And because of that, this incident became national news at the time. Where others at inspection points were apparently not newsworthy, this incident was, and even Time Magazine wrote a brief in their periodical about it, capturing a lot of the same details we confirmed for this memorial. Sheriff Tarr was a fair man, and a fair Sheriff. He never handcuffed someone who he could talk away from bad choices, and he took care of his citizens, like doctor would take care of their patients, a bedside manner that we only can hope to replicate in his honor. Sheriff Tarr had been married twice, and he had nine children, all survived him. May we always remember who Sheriff Tarr was, what he stood for, and how he chose to live.
In memory of Sheriff Robert Mendum Tarr