Like many officers who die in the line of duty, Ector County Sheriff’s Detective Thad DeWitt West didn’t know what he was getting into until it was too late.
West was checking a report of a couple trying to sell a 4-month-old baby girl when he was shot and killed on Feb. 27, 1958, and his death is still painful to the department, which has put up a shadow box display case in his memory.
Sheriff Mike Griffis said the easygoing 40-year-old Alabamian had been an Air Force military policeman and an Odessa policeman before joining the ECSO just a month before he was attacked.
“We’ve had several officers shot, but Thad is the only one who lost his life,” Griffis said. “The department has been lucky, especially in this day and time.
“The world we live in is so crazy that it’s a wonder we don’t have more situations where officers are involved in shootings, not just us but all agencies.”
Griffis said the county child welfare office had alerted Sheriff Slim Gabriel about the case and Gabriel sent West to check it out.
The detective zeroed in on a back alley apartment at 511 N. Dotsy Ave. and was interviewing 18-year-old Patricia Ledbetter when Ledbetter’s 36-year-old boyfriend jumped out of the bathroom and shot West in the heart with the detective shouting “No, no, no!”
A 15-hour manhunt ensued for ex-convict G.F. “Jack” McMichael with a military helicopter and a hundred officers from two states, ending when deputies Clyde Ray and Dave Collier went to the front door of a house at 208 E. Pecos St. and McMichael, pistol in hand, ran out the back door and into a fusillade of gunfire from officers there.
Griffis said it is unknown what happened with the baby, but she was probably taken custody of by the county.
West was survived by his wife Opal and three daughters.
Asked how officers cope with the risk, the sheriff said, “You just go out there and do your job and be prepared for any situation.
“You have to have your mind in the right place and be on guard all the time. If you dwelled on it, you couldn’t do the job.”
Griffis said it was a very emotional experience to receive a box from a nephew of West’s in Oregon with his Smith & Wesson .38-caliber revolver and holster, his gray leather jacket and his slapper or blackjack. “Chills ran over my body when I opened the box,” he said.
“It was so amazing to have these items and be able to pay tribute to him. We put the shadow box in the duty area to safeguard it because it is sacred to us. If anybody wants to see it, we will let them in to view it.”
Griffis and his officers will go to Alpine for an elaborate 10 a.m. May 29 ceremony with West’s name on a bronze plate on the Big Bend Area Law Enforcement Officers Association Memorial in the courtyard near the library at Sul Ross State University. More than 200 area officers are expected to attend.
West is also remembered at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C.
ECSO Lt. R.V. “Rick” Dickson researched the case and wrote an account that he published on the Internet.
“Thad could carry on a conversation with a mechanic or a lawyer and sound equal to either one of them,” said Dickson, explaining that Griffis and he want West to get the recognition he had long lacked.
“He had had a little brake and alignment shop off West County Road and he went to Eugene, Ore., to start his own business,” Dickson said. “He had a brother who was quite a scoundrel. Thad put up his business as collateral for a loan and his brother took off and left him holding the bag.”
Dickson said motorcycle officer Bob McAlpine found McMichael’s car near a stock tank on the south side of town and an informant probably told Gabriel where the former inmate from the U.S. Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kan., could be found.
“Nothing happened in Ector County that Slim Gabriel didn’t know about,” Dickson said. “I would expect that in that day and time they had no intention of taking McMichael alive.
“Odessa American reporter Jimmie Cotton must have been on the scene because he clearly described the events.”
Dickson said that when officers report for duty, their wives and children go with them emotionally. “It’s not just us who go out on the job,” he said.
“Our families have to put up with it and bless us enough to let us go. It’s hard on them every day. We’re just the face of the picture. The big picture is the wives and kids who worry but are extremely proud of what we do.”
Dickson often takes young deputies by the apartment on Dotsy and the house on Pecos to tell them what happened. “With any call you go on, you don’t know what’s running through somebody’s mind,” he said.
Noting West and his wife are buried at Sunset Memorial Gardens with a police honor flag waving nearby, Dickson wrote in his report that West “was Bill and Mary Jane’s boy from Franklin County, Ala., who died in an alley apartment on Dotsy Avenue in the rough West Texas oil town of Odessa on an unusually bright, sunny day back in 1958.
“Folks should know that the spirit of Thad West still lives in the hearts of Odessa law enforcement officers,” he said. “They should know that any one of us would still gladly take a bullet if need be to protect a little baby girl we don’t know. It will always be that way, no matter what.
“So if you get a chance, Thad and Opal are buried right behind the chapel in the Love Section at Sunset Memorial Gardens. Stop and say thanks or you could thank Thad in person.
“That’s him behind the badge that says, ‘Deputy, Ector County, State of Texas.’”