In 1978, one of Wyoming's most infamous killings took place in Rock Springs. Rock Springs Director of Safety Ed Cantrell shot his deputy Michael Rosa, who was in the backseat of a car. Cantrell said he shot Rosa in self-defense, while others suggested that Cantrell was trying to keep Rosa from testifying about local corruption he had witnessed.
Cantrell hired Wyoming Attorney Gerry Spence and was acquitted of first-degree murder in Pinedale. Award-winning investigative journalist Rone Tempest has written about the incident in his new book, The Last Western. He sets the stage by describing Rock Springs at the time.
"Beginning in the mid 1970s, a plan to build the Jim Bridger power plant, the second largest power plant in the West, was underway. There was the upturn of mining and upturn of production that started to peak in Sweetwater County. And because of the OPEC oil embargo, oil and gas exploration was really building. So Rock Springs went from basically a dead or dying town to a huge boomtown. Its population swells from 12,000 to 26,000 people. And it attracted all sorts of incoming laborers and workers, it was in an extreme boom. And then, with all the things that come with boomtowns, it started to have some notoriety.
In 1977, 60 Minutes and Dan Rather, the reporter, came in in 1977 and did a big 60 Minutes two-part series on Rock Springs that not only portrayed the kind of vice that was taking place in the town but also alleged that there was a lot of corruption that went all the way to the state capitol. So, there were a lot of dramatic things happening. There was an increase in prostitution and gambling and extreme housing issues, that sort of go along with it being a boomtown. So that was the context," Tempest said.
Cantrell was a lawman who grew up in Indiana and became enamored with the West. He taught himself to become an excellent shot along the way. He worked across the state and eventually landed in Rock Springs. Michael Rosa was much younger and started his career in New York before he moved West. Tempest said Cantrell liked Rosa at first.
"He'd heard about Michael Rosa's work as an undercover narcotics agent in Gillette and met with him up at South Pass and they needed somebody in Rock Springs. Cantrell liked him. They were kind of opposites in a lot of ways but similar in some. They were both very physically fit, intelligent guys and [Cantrell] hired him to be an undercover narcotics agent in, I think, '78."
The two, with other officers present, had an argument and Cantrell shot Rosa. Cantrell said it was in self-defense. Tempest had access to a multitude of materials, notes, and conducted numerous interviews and came to his conclusion of what happened.
"Cantrell had sort of reached a breaking point. So, there's a lot of pressure, the grand jury was building, it was uncertain what Rosa would say. There was a clash of personalities. They had arguments, and there were several encounters in which Cantrell warned Rosa that if he acted up again or if he embarrassed him again in front of his officers that he was going to pay a price for it. So, I think what actually happened is that Cantrell snapped in a vehicle in which he and Rosa were flanked by two other police officers. I might point out, he [Cantrell] positioned himself to draw if necessary. And I think he snapped.
Now some people even give him the benefit of the doubt, thinking that he may have thought that Rosa was going for his gun, it just never made sense to me. And if you look carefully at the, as I have, the jury did not really. If you look carefully at the photographs of the crime scene, you'll see that basically, Rosa still had his hands on his lap. He had a three-quarter full wine glass in between his legs. He was certainly not in the position to draw a gun against a man who was already recognized as one of the fastest draws in the West. And I think he snapped, and his instant reaction was to draw his gun, and he shot Rosa between the eyes without Rosa ever touching his gun."
When the case went to trial, it was moved to Pinedale. Tempest says by all accounts the prosecutors were incompetent while Cantrell had one of the best attorneys in the country in Gerry Spence. Tempest says Spence sold the jury on the idea that it was a gunfight. But there was one other key point.
"The biggest victory was to limit the charge to first-degree murder because I think it would be really hard to convict Cantrell on first-degree murder in this case, because that involves premeditation. And by limiting the charges that were presented to the jury, they couldn't consider his case as a second-degree murder or manslaughter. And by eliminating that, you had to conclude, if you were a jury member, that Cantrell went into that car, knowing that he was gonna kill Mike Rosa. I don't know why he would do that in front of two other officers in a car, without knowing whether Rosa was armed," Tempest said.
The verdict didn't go over well, but Cantrell always maintained that Rosa would have killed him if he didn't kill Rosa first. The book by Rone Tempest is The Last Western and is available on Amazon. Producers are also once again considering a movie about the incident.