Four weeks before he was to retire, Humboldt County sheriff Gene Wheeler Cox was shot to death while attempting to aid his father-in-law in a dispute with a former mental patient at a trailer park.
Also killed were the father-in-law and a bystander who rushed to their aid. The carnage ended when the alleged gunman was fatally wounded in a shoot-out with police.
Eureka Police Chief O.R. Shipley said those killed were Cox, 56; his father-in-law, park manager and former sheriff’s deputy, Jack Alton, believed to be in his late 60s; and retired park resident Claire Montgomery, 71.
Shipley identified the gunman as Clarence Eugene McCutcheon, 50, a resident of the park who listed a permanent address in Santa Monica.
He said federal officers arrested McCutcheon late last year in New York City after threatening to bomb an airplane he was on, as well as other flights.
Shipley said his officers were called to the Ebb tide RV Park on Highway 101 at the edge of Eureka about 3:55 p.m., where they were met by McCutcheon, who opened fire on them with a large-caliber rifle.
He said the officers returned fire and wounded McCutcheon, who died at about 6 p.m. at Eureka General Hospital.
Shipley said eyewitnesses told officers the gunman was responsible for the deaths of Cox, Alton and Montgomery.
He said he had no idea what prompted the shooting or any leads as to a possible motive.
He said McCutcheon had been hospitalized at a federal prison following the airport incident, but was released in February. He was not prosecuted because of his mental condition.
According to deputy police chief Murl Harpham, Alton had telephoned the sheriff seeking help in dealing with McCutcheon, Cox promised to stop off on his way home.
Harpham said Cox, unarmed and known not to have carried a firearm for the last several years, was found shot to death on the ground about 15 feet from the front of McCutcheon’s trailer. The door to his automobile was still open and the motor was running.
Harpham said the sheriff’s office at about the time Cox was shot received a telephone call – possibly from Alton – indicating that Cox might have been shot.
Harpham said evidence and testimony from witnesses indicated that after Cox was shot, the killer reloaded his rifle and “stalked” Aton to his office and shot him there.
Alton’s body, bearing numerous gunshot wounds, was found outside the office, Harpham said.
He said it appeared Montgomery had come to Alton’s aid and was attempting to shield Alton’s wife, Hannah, when he was shot, moments before police arrived.
Harpham said Humboldt officials first encountered McCutcheon Oct. 27 when they placed him in a mental hospital after he threatened to kill a group of people at a campground.
He was subsequently diagnosed as being “very dangerous, capable of anything,” but was released because he was not so disabled he could not care for himself.
Alton and Cox were known to be longtime friends, having worked together as sheriff’s deputies. Cox married Alton’s daughter, Shirley, in 1976.
They were active members of Bethel Church in Eureka, where Cox served as a deacon.
Cox’s police career began in the early 1950s with the Arcata Police Department in Humboldt County. In 1954, he joined the sheriff’s office, where he rose to under sheriff in 1962. He was elected sheriff in 1966 and was re-elected in 1970, ’74 and ’78.
He chose not to seek re-election this year. Shipley said Cox only last month had addressed a police chief’s association and looking ahead to his retirement, encouraged the chiefs to “get out of law enforcement as early as you can.”