Hall of Fame
The current Lancaster County Sheriff, Two former Lancaster County Sheriffs and one deputy sheriff have been honored by being inducted into the Nebraska Law Enforcement Hall of Fame. While the long history of the Lancaster County Sheriff’s Office is punctuated by many incidents of great drama and import, there can be little doubt that the four most significant incidents in the history of the office have revolved around these four men:
- Sheriff Samuel M. Melick - the lynching of Luciano Padillo
- Sheriff Merle C. Karnopp - the murder spree of Charles Starkweather & Caril Ann Fugate
- Deputy Sheriff Craig D. Dodge - murdered in the line of duty March 14, 1987
- Sheriff Terry T. Wagner - 45 years in law enforcement
Samuel M. Melick served as Lancaster County Sheriff from 1883 to 1891. On August 23, 1884, Melick was transporting a rape suspect, Luciano Padillo, from the jail to a homestead in the southwest part of the county. The purpose of the trip was to obtain an eyewitness identification from the victim, who was bedridden and not expected to live. Melick had set out by train but disembarked at Denton and proceeded on horseback in order to avoid a potential mob at the Burke Train Depot near the victim’s home. The plan failed, however, when word of the strategy apparently leaked, and the sheriff was confronted by a mob of some fifty masked riders bent on a lynching. After a lengthy horseback pursuit and a considerable period of attempted persuasion, the sheriff was downed by the mob and Padillo lynched in the timber along Cheese Creek.
After serving four terms as sheriff, Sam Melick was twice appointed Lincoln Police Chief under two different mayoral administrations. He also served as the postmaster of Lincoln, as a detective for the Nebraska Banking Association, and as a Deputy United States Marshal. In 1912, a riot at the State Penitentiary resulted in the death of the warden, two deputy wardens, and a prison usher. The National Guard was called in to restore order, and Governor Chester Aldrich appointed Sam Melick to serve as the interim warden. Educated at Marshall College in Iowa, Melick completed an unprecedented law enforcement career before returning to private life and becoming a successful real estate developer.
Merle C. Karnopp, also a member of the Nebraska Law Enforcement Hall of Fame, held the office of Lancaster County Sheriff for 28 years, from 1951 to 1979. He was a Lancaster County Deputy Sheriff for eight years prior to his first election. Karnopp was prominent in a number of civic and professional organizations. In 1978, he was named president of the 50,000-member National Sheriffs’ Association, the only Nebraska sheriff to hold that honor.
The Lancaster County Sheriff’s Posse was formed under Sheriff Karnopp in October of 1955, with twenty original members. Each man owned his own horse and equipment, consisting of uniform, gun and the necessary riding paraphernalia, at an approximate cost of $1,000. All members were sworn in as special deputies and were subject to call to assist the sheriff whenever necessary. Posse members were assigned to work with regular deputies, and their training consisted of traffic control, firearms, protection of crime scenes, and riot control.
Mass Murder Spree
Although his seven terms saw many accomplishments, the most enduring public memory of Merle Karnopp’s career as Lancaster County Sheriff was the mass murder spree of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate in 1957-58. For a few days in January, 1958, Lincoln and Lancaster County residents were terrorized by the repeated discovery of Starkweather and Fugate’s eleven victims. Four of the eleven murders occurred in rural Lancaster County and were investigated by Sheriff Karnopp and his deputies.
Governor Victor Anderson had called out a National Guard unit to assist in the search for the killers; however, before they were fully mobilized, the Sheriff learned that Starkweather and Fugate had been arrested near Douglas, Wyoming, following the roadside murder of a traveling shoe salesman and a harrowing high-speed chase. After Starkweather’s capture, Karnopp and his wife Gertrude made the arduous 900-mile round trip to Wyoming to bring Starkweather and Fugate back to Lincoln to stand trial. Charles Starkweather died in the Nebraska electric chair on June 25, 1959. Caril Ann Fugate was sentenced to life imprisonment and paroled in 1976 after serving 18 years of her sentence.
The third member of the Lancaster County Sheriff’s Office to be inducted into the Nebraska Law Enforcement Hall of Fame was Deputy Craig Douglas Dodge. Deputy Dodge had served as a United States Marine, a Lincoln Police Officer, and a Reserve Deputy Sheriff for both Lancaster and Adams Counties prior to becoming a Lancaster County Deputy Sheriff in 1985. He was also a co-founder of Eastern Ambulance Company in Lincoln.
At 5:21 a.m, on March 14, 1987, Deputy Dodge was dispatched to a report of a domestic assault at an apartment building in Hickman, Nebraska. Deputy Dodge arrived within minutes and heard the victim pleading with her husband. Knowing that backup was many minutes away, Deputy Dodge made contact at the door to the apartment and was trying to stabilize the situation until assistance arrived when the suspect suddenly shot and killed Deputy Dodge with a.38-caliber revolver, then stole Deputy Dodge’s revolver, and ran from the scene.
Deputy Dodge’s killer was apprehended a short time later by a nearby creek bed. Deputy Dodge’s weapon was recovered from the water where it had thrown it. The killer was subsequently convicted of first-degree murder and is currently serving a life sentence.
Deputy Dodge’s funeral was attended by Governor Kay Orr, U.S. Senator Robert Kerrey and many other dignitaries. His widow, Barbara Dodge, later became a prominent national advocate for survivors of law enforcement line-of-duty deaths. She was elected president of the national organization "Concerns of Police Survivors" and spoke at the 1991 dedication of the National Law Enforcement Officers’ Memorial in Washington, D.C, sharing the dais with President George Bush. Craig Dodge’s memory still burns brightly in the hearts of his co-workers, family and friends. The example of his life and sacrifice will continue to inspire generations of Nebraska law enforcement officers.
The fourth member of the Lancaster County Sheriff’s Office to be inducted into the Nebraska Law Enforcement Hall of Fame was Sheriff Terry Wagner. Sheriff Wagner has made significant contributions to law enforcement during his 46 years in Law Enforcement and the Nebraska Sheriffs’ Association.
Under Sheriff Wagner’s leadership the Lancaster County Sheriff’s Office has been able to grow and keep up with the changing times in law enforcement. During his time as Sheriff numerous specialized position and units have been developed and/or modernized. These include the U.S. Marshal’s Fugitive Task Force, Criminal Interdiction Unit, Electronic Evidence Unit, Tactical Response Unit, Crash Team, Meth Lab, Crime Scene Techs, SRO program, Cedar’s youth projects, marine unit, and honor guard. Many of these units provide support and resources for other law enforcement agencies throughout Nebraska and beyond.