The Last Western (sample)
Long before gunfighter lawman Ed Cantrell shot his undercover narcotics officer Mike Rosa dead outside the Silver Dollar Bar, Rock Springs, Wyoming was well established as a mean and unstable place. On the town's darkest day in 1885, a mob of white nativists from the Knights of Labor union descended on Chinatown with Winchester rifles, blocked exit routes, massacred at least 28—some accounts say as many as 51—unarmed Chinese coal miners, ransacked their bodies for loot, and then burned the miners’ shantytown homes to the ground. Several white women gleefully participated in the slaughter. A town doctor, Edward Murray, rode his horse through the besieged Chinatown, waving his hat and shouting, “No quarter! Shoot them down!”
What became known as “The Incident at Bitter Creek” remains the worst single killing of ethnic Chinese in American history. The massacre in Rock Springs inspired a series of similar attacks on Chinese across the American west and marked a black moment in Wyoming’s rough past. At the time it occurred, however, the killing was endorsed by several Wyoming newspapers and celebrated by many in the state who opposed Chinese “sojourners” taking less pay to work “white men’s jobs.” The men accused of leading the slaughter were quickly no billed by a grand jury that concluded that, despite the many dead Chinese, there was insufficient evidence to show that a crime had been committed. In each of the cases brought before them, the jury ruled that “the deceased came to his death from gunshot wounds [or fire], the cause of same being unknown to us.” The jury panel included the “No Quarter” Dr. Edward Murray, who chaired the inquest and signed the report. One of the main instigators charged with the killings, Isiah Whitehouse, was subsequently elected as Sweetwater County’s representative in the territorial legislature. Appalled by the jury report, U.S. President Grover Cleveland called it “a ghastly mockery of justice.”
Since that time--as though in revenge— Rock Springs' streets have frequently collapsed, swallowing homes and businesses into cavernous sinkholes created by the catacombs of underground coal shafts that the Chinese had helped dig, and upon which the town was injudiciously built. On January 4, 1949, parishioners at the South Side Catholic Church left midnight mass to find a gaping 60-by-80-foot hole where the street used to be. A fire in an old mine near the junior high school smoldered for decades. A woman watering a bush in her yard saw it suddenly disappear, dropping 55 feet into a mine shaft.
Rock Springs is pocked with dozens of “subsidence zones” where the ghosts speak only Cantonese. It is the high desert town’s curse and its grimmest legacy.
So, there was at least some irony that on July 14, 1978, when Ed Cantrell huddled with deputies to discuss what to do about “the Michael Rosa problem,” it was in the only Chinese-owned business in Rock Springs at the time, the Cantonese-style Sands Café.
An edgy Puerto Rican ex-Marine who grew up in gang-infested West Harlem, Rosa had been hired by Cantrell as an undercover narcotics agent. For a time, the two men performed as an efficient team, Cantrell the steely-eyed Wild West throwback and Rosa, the street-savvy New Yorker with an impressive Afro. It was as though Wyatt Earp and Shaft had teamed up to fight crime in the Mountain West. But there was a falling-out. Rosa had just been subpoenaed to testify in Cheyenne before a state Grand Jury investigating corruption in Rock Springs, including inside the police department. Cantrell and others had come to consider Rosa a loose cannon and were worried about what he might tell the grand jury.
It was at the Sands Café that Jim Callas, Rock Springs chief of detectives, testified that a frustrated Cantrell said about Rosa: “We ought to shoot that son-of-a-bitch.”
At his 1979 murder trial, Cantrell said he did not recall saying such a thing but if he had, characterized it as a “meaningless remark.”
But 21 years later in an unaired portion of a television interview with the A&E channel program “City Confidential,” Cantrell elaborated in a way that –because of its oddly sexual language—made it seem even worse.
“Here’s what happened,” Cantrell told A&E interviewer Matt Shelley. “I’m a shooter. I have been all my life and still am. We have an expression where if you’re testing bullets or something, to see how far it will penetrate, you know certain bullets penetrate further than others. You know what I’m saying? …And here’s what I said, ‘You know someone ought to run a penetration test on that prick.’ Just like that.”
Attorney Gerry Spence: “Who is Ed Cantrell?”
Ed Cantrell: “A year and a half ago. I think I could have answered that question for you without a lot of struggling and stumbling, but now, I don’t know. What I really am is a man charged with First Degree Murder.” —Testimony from 1979 Cantrell murder trial in Pinedale, Wyoming
With the exception of his own mother, who I don’t know, I’ve got to have more affection for Michael Rosa than anyone else in the world. —Ed Cantrell, Testimony at his murder trial, Pinedale, Wyoming, 1979
Award-winning journalist and investigative reporter Rone Tempest presents the gripping true crime story of a Puerto Rico-born undercover officer gunned down by a white Wyoming lawman in 1978 — and the notorious frontier trial that followed.
Of all the possible explanations for why lawman Ed Cantrell shot and killed his deputy Michael Rosa in the parking lot of the Silver Dollar saloon, the least likely was the one that prevailed at trial—that a deranged Rosa went for his gun and Cantrell outdrew him in self-defense. In his powerful and compelling reconstruction of the infamous 1978 killing in boomtown Rock Springs, Wyoming, award-winning journalist Rone Tempest tracks the parallel lives of Ed Cantrell, an Indiana schoolboy who fashioned himself into a 19th-century Western gunfighter on the right side of the law, and Michael Rosa, a Puerto Rico-born and West Harlem-raised decorated U.S. Marine who worked under Cantrell as an undercover narc. For a time, Tempest writes, the two were an efficient team: Cantrell, the steely-eyed Wild West throwback and Rosa, the street-savvy New Yorker with an impressive flair. It was as though Wyatt Earp and Shaft had teamed up to fight crime in the Mountain West. But then came a falling-out. Rosa was subpoenaed to testify before a state grand jury in Cheyenne on the matter of corruption in Rock Springs, including within its own police department. Tensions and paranoia built to a breaking point at a midnight meeting in a saloon parking lot where Cantrell, with two other cops beside him, drew his Model 10 .357 and shot Rosa between the eyes, killing him instantly as he sat in the backseat of an unmarked police car. Unearthing previously unseen investigators' notes, military records, personnel files, census records, college transcripts and even airplane manifests, Tempest skillfully demonstrates the true aim and cost of the raucous murder trial that followed the killing.
"A grave miscarriage of justice," said former Wyoming U.S. Attorney Christopher "Kip" Crofts.
THE LAST WESTERN is quick moving, deeply sourced, and a page-turning snapshot of an event that rocked the state and still lingers - for better or worse.
Wyoming was riveted by word that an undercover drug agent was shot by his boss in a police car just as he was preparing to testify before a grand jury investigating corruption. I remember covering that electrifying story as a young reporter, and Rone Tempest has brought to light extensive new details about the characters involved in one of the American West’s strangest dramas.
Hugely entertaining.... Think: High Noon meets Training Day in Deadwood.
Rone Tempest’s spellbinding latest work won’t be the last western, but it will stand as one of the very best.
Reading Tempest is like taking a masterclass in writing and reporting—and a seriously good time.
Tempest gives his readers a gripping, well-told tale, introducing us to a colourful cast of characters inhabiting the volatile, often violent world of a twentieth-century Western boomtown. … Tempest provides a meticulously researched account of the ways in which the unlikely partnership between Cantrell and Rosa evolved… A fascinating and highly enjoyable true crime story.