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.
Barton County, Kansas
Barton County is a perfect square. It’s exactly 901 square miles, encompassing the geographic center of the State of Kansas. Its name comes from Clara Barton, the famed Civil War nurse, known as the “Angel of the Battlefield,” who also founded the American Red Cross. Aside from that, Barton County is rich in farm land, where wheat, sorghum, corn, and even sugar cane grows. There is equal amounts of vegetable and fruit production, as well as cattle, dairy, and poultry production. In all, Barton County produces around $300 million dollars of crop and livestock sales annually. And that’s a big number, when you consider that it derives from a total of 694 farms. Rural counties produce very unique scenarios for law enforcement, this is something we’ve documented in previous profiles. And none are any more unique than our next officer.
Undersheriff Alfred E. Jacka
Undersheriff Alfred E. Jacka was a long-term deputy of the Barton County Sheriff’s Office, and had just been elected Sheriff on November 7th, 1950, for a term to begin the following January. Barton County also has a rich history of upland bird hunting, and hunting in farmland can lead to various disputes concerning trespassing, property damage, and even accidental gun fire leading to injury. At the same time, the duties of an Undersheriff in rural county would require Jacka to still answer calls, even on late nights.
On November 27th, 1950, around 2:00 or 3:00 PM a group of hunters were walking through farmland on a dirt road about two miles south of Great Bend, the largest city in Barton County. While it is unknown what their specific intent was, it is clear that they may have gotten bored with the constant walking to catch up with bird populations, and began shooting at power poles along the dirt road. They managed to shoot insulators, the long coil-like devices you see on external power poles that are vertical, and are attached in between power lines. As the hunters shot these insulators, the main line began to sag. Eventually the hunters stopped shooting, but had destroyed a dozen insulators on the same line, which compromised the line terribly.
Later that day around 6:00 PM, a plumber’s apprentice by the name of George Winn came along the power line, which was still hanging in the roadway, at this point around the three- and half-foot mark from the ground. Winn did not see the line, which ended up catching on the end of his vehicle’s radiator, causing a massive spark. Winn, perhaps still unaware of what was happening, stopped his vehicle, stepped out to inspect the trouble, not realizing the ground had been electrified, and died from electrocution on the spot. His wife was worried that he did not return, and called a farmer from the immediate area that she knew, and asked him to look for Winn. J.W. Murphy drove down the road, and saw Winn’s vehicle. He too stopped his vehicle, and got out to check on Winn who he likely saw laying on the ground. As he approached the car, he was electrocuted.
By this point, the story of missing men was now circulating throughout households in Barton County, and a call was made to the Sheriff’s Office to investigate the circumstances. Undersheriff Jacka took the call, and brought Deputy Sheriff Garland Ballhorst with him. Both men spotted Murphy’s vehicle, and then Winn’s. They parked, exited their vehicle, and began to approach Winn’s vehicle, having seen both of the victims lying on the ground. Undersheriff Jacka had a flashlight, but missed sighting the power line. With Deputy Ballhorst only a few paces behind, Undersheriff Jacka walked directly into the line, contacting his chest, which electrocuted him as he was knocked back into dirt road behind him. Deputy Ballhorst was also taken back by the energy of the shock. After he got up from the ground, Deputy Ballhorst saw that Undersheriff Jacka was not moving. He ran back to the patrol vehicle and radioed for help. Firefighters and Ambulance crews arrived, and they began resuscitation efforts on Murphy and Undersheriff Jacka. They were transported to the local hospital, and unfortunately both were declared dead.
A lengthy investigation went into the deaths of all three men. Deputies recovered 98 cartridges from .22 rifles at the scene, and they modeled a timeline based on the surge information the power company had recorded from the events involved in the entire incident. Ultimately, no arrests were made. The spectacular circumstances involved, where the first death occurred 24 hours before being discovered, and the next two happened multiple hours apart. And while there’s little information, it appears from the references in material we found concerning Undersheriff Jacka, that vandalism by hunters was a routine problem in the farmland, leading to power outages and other serious damage, which fueled the intensity of this investigation, which included the State Crime Lab and multiple elements of law enforcement throughout the region.
It was also reported that by walking into the line as he did, Undersheriff Jacka ended up knocking the line off of the car, which helped rescue workers control the line during their efforts. It may not have been his doing, but his sacrifice put an end to an already desperate situation that would not have ended any better had he not walked into the power line. Undersheriff Jacka left behind a wife and son.
In memory of Undersheriff Alfred E. Jacka.