Leroy Albert Wilson



from Time Magazine, Monday, May. 31, 1954

CRIME: The Geiger-Counter Murder
Time Magazine, Monday, May. 31, 1954

Until three months ago, Kanab (pop. 1,287) was a peaceful, elm-shaded Mormon oasis amid the wind-worn rocks and wild hills of south-central Utah. Basically a cow town, it was a pleasant stop for tourists and a sometime location for Hollywood westerns. Three months ago, Kanab's quiet was disturbed by the discovery of commercial-grade uranium ten miles east of town.

Steadily, uranium fever mounted. Some 1,300 claims were filed on lands in the surrounding desert and mountains. Outsiders came to Kanab to prospect, and among them was Leroy Albert Wilson, 62, a brawler, an inventor, a Mormon excommunicated for defending polygamy and the leader of a strange band of men and women. Last week Wilson was found on his left side, lying on a sandy, sunny slope, a Geiger counter still clicking in his right hand. Six .45-caliber slugs had torn great holes in his back and head. He was the first man to be dry-gulched, as prospectors in the Old West so frequently died, in the 20th century rush for the new glamor metal, uranium.

The Claim Jumper.

Wilson was no run-of-the-desert prospector. He was something of a legendary figure, 6 ft. 3 in., 240 Ibs., loud-voiced, belligerent and shrewd. His past included periods as a salesman of insurance, stocks and bonds, and for a time he was a manufacturer, in Salt Lake City, of water heaters. He had hundreds of patents in his name.

A few years ago he formed a colony in the mountains above Veyo, a tiny farming settlement about 100 miles northwest of Kanab. Only its members, both men and women, know what the colony stands for. Outsiders did know, however, that Wilson was absolute ruler of the Bull Valley settlement.

Wilson's colony heard of Kanab's uranium strike. He and some of his followers left their mountain fastness to take hotel rooms in Kanab. Wilson had prospected the Kanab area before and filed claims. Other prospectors assumed that he planned to develop or sell his property.

Instead, Wilson energetically went after more claims. He was a college graduate with a good knowledge of mining laws. He bluffed some prospectors out of their claims, simply jumped the claims of others who refused to deal with him.

The Jolly Farmer.

For eight months before his death, Wilson had off & on dealings with Tom Holland, a 6 ft., 200 lb. farmer from Beryl, a hamlet 150 miles to the northwest. Holland, who is as jovial as Wilson was bellicose, came to Kanab in a house trailer, with some vague agreement to work on Wilson's claims. The partners fought, made up, fought again. One day last week Holland and Wilson were observed in town, apparently in a rare mood of good fellowship. They set off to inspect new claims, returned that night, and made plans to meet the next day.

The Practical Joker.

Before they met, the town was jolted when a stranger appeared at the Kane County recorder's office. In one hand was a chunk of ore, in the other a Geiger counter. The rock seemed to be super-rich with uranium. One prospector who saw it said: "It made that there jagger counter go nuts!" The stranger excitedly told the recorder where he had found the rock, in a seldom-visited foothill area west of town, the opposite direction from the February strike. He filed his claim for the usual 20 acres.

On the street that day, he met Wilson, told him of the discovery and then disappeared. A few days later, investigation revealed that the stranger was an Arizona uranium miner who had staged his performance only as a practical joke.

It was no joke for Leroy Wilson. He and Holland set out for the area of the new find in Holland's car.

The Sheriff.

The next afternoon, Sheriff Mason Meeks heard that Wilson was missing. Only a few hours earlier, a rancher had told the sheriff of a strange automobile which had stood on his fence line the afternoon before. A slip on the steering column showed that the car was registered in the name of Tom Holland.

Big, level-eyed Sheriff Meeks lacks training as an investigator. "Hell," he drawls, "I'm just an ex-cowhand." But he has an innate canniness that serves him well in enforcing the law, with only one deputy, over 3,800 square miles. Notified that Wilson had not returned, he went to the spot where the car had stood. From there he followed two sets of men's tracks, leading into the hills. Just before sundown he found Wilson's bullet-torn body. The tracks indicated that the two men had walked side by side until they came to the gully. Then one had dropped behind about twelve feet. This man, it seemed, had shot Wilson and not even walked forward to examine the body. His tracks led back to the place where the car had been parked.

The sheriff made plaster casts of the footprints. Holland was arrested at his farm next morning. He denied the killing.

In the grey stone jail at Kanab, the 49-year-old Holland retains his amiability. His story: after one unsuccessful attempt to reach the area, they took another route. When the car came to a gorge Wilson got out alone to continue the journey on foot. Holland went back to town, took a nap in his trailer, bought a bottle of whiskey and spent a gay evening with some prospector friends.

The Root of Evil.

Sheriff Meeks had been, as he says, "bird-doggin'" for evidence to back up his charge of murder against Holland. As this week began he was still trying to uncover two important pieces of evidence: the murder gun and shoes that will match the plaster casts. "This scientific investigatin' ain't my dish of tea," he says, "but I got one big advantage. These people around here will talk to me." The sheriff is not as confident about the immediate future of Kanab.

"Used to hear about the gold fever that hit the old timers," he says. "Terrible thing it was. Many a man was murdered in cold blood because of it. Well, we got a new one now, uranium fever, and as long as the fever lasts and people keep on claimin' everything in sight and them outside promoters keep swarmin' in here with their big-money offers, there's bad trouble ahead."

But as he said goodbye to a reporter, he added: "Come back and see us again when maybe we'll have a little more time to show you we got more worthwhile things in Kane County than uranium."