Echoes from our Past: The baffling murder of Sheriff David Douglass
Monday will mark the 125th anniversary of the murder of Nevada County Sheriff David Fulton Douglass, a former Wells Fargo shotgun messenger appointed sheriff following the murder of Sheriff William Pascoe in 1893. And if ever there was a local homicide case without full closure, it is the death of 38-year-old Sheriff Douglass.
In 1896, three years after Douglass took office, there were several roadside holdups locally and the two suspected highwaymen were thought to be camped somewhere on Cement Hill. So on July 26, accompanied only by a tracking dog, Douglass hitched up a buggy and went looking for the men in an area that later became the Nevada City Airport. The next morning, however, noticing that the dog had returned to town alone, the worst was feared and a search party organized.
Soon after finding the abandoned buggy and horse, searchers came upon the site of what appeared to have been a close-range shootout between Douglass and one of the suspected outlaws. Both men were dead, each shot multiple times, but when county doctor Alfred Tickell examined the bodies he realized Douglass had been shot from behind — presumably by the dead highwayman’s partner.
The fallen sheriff was buried at Pine Grove Cemetery on Red Dog Road, as was the outlaw — identified only as “C. Meyers.” As for the third man, there were no leads. Several men were questioned, but the identity of Meyers’ accomplice could not be determined. In fact, it was later discovered that the dead road agent was actually someone named Davidson, not Meyers.
Without a suspect or clues, the Douglass murder remained unsolved until 1961, when Nevada County Sheriff Wayne Brown reportedly received a call from a Sacramento attorney advising him that a client’s father-in-law had confessed to family members that as a 12-year-old boy in 1896 he shot Douglass because he feared the sheriff would kill him first if he was spotted hiding in nearby bushes.
Brown and Nevada County District Attorney Harold Berliner met with the 77-year-old man, heard his account of the murder, and decided to close the case without an arrest or prosecution. One theory is that as a juvenile in 1896 he would have been sent to reform school until reaching adulthood, then released, so why prosecute 65 years later?
In 1997, an article in American Cowboy magazine reflected on the murder and mentioned rumors of an attempt by the confessed killer to meet with Douglass’ son, John, to offer retribution for what he had done. But such an attempt never occurred, the magazine claimed, because Douglass had no direct living descendants in 1961.
A recent telephone call to The Union and subsequent conversations with the slain sheriff’s great-granddaughter, however, confirmed that the magazine’s account was inaccurate.
“When I was 20, I met the man who killed my great-grandfather,” Patty Brown (no relation to Sheriff Wayne Brown) explained. She told us of a conversation she had with the confessed killer in 1961, apparently after the case had been closed.
“He came to where I was living in the Bay Area, looking for my grandfather,” she said, “and told me he needed to make restitution for something that had happened a long time ago. I didn’t understand what he meant by making restitution, or why he needed to do it, but I told him my grandfather was deceased and he said he was very sorry to hear that.”
Patty Brown doesn’t recall the man’s name, and at the time had no idea he had killed her great-grandfather, but in retrospect believes he felt genuine remorse. “He had to live with it all his life,” she said, “and I believe he wanted to apologize.”
On Sunday, escorted by representatives of the Sheriff’s Office, Patty Brown plans to visit Pine Grove Cemetery. She will also visit a monument on Old Airport Road, marking the approximate spot of the murder. Although her great-grandfather’s Pine Grove headstone was apparently stolen decades ago and his grave site is unknown, Patty will be paying her respects at both locations.
As for the confessed killer, a few days before his recent retirement took effect, District Attorney Cliff Newell’s staff searched for public documents Harold Berliner might have filed describing the man’s confession and explaining the decision not to prosecute, but none were found. That leaves historians and the curious to continue wondering: Who killed Sheriff David Douglass? Why was he at the scene? What did he do with his life after July 26, 1896? And where at Pine Grove Cemetery is David Douglass buried?
Historian Steve Cottrell, a former Nevada City Council member and mayor, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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