HEAT VISION

How 'The Last Western' Uncovers the Truth Behind a Murder

The Last Western- Publicity - H 2020
WBYK/NeoText
Read an exclusive preview of the forthcoming NeoText nonfiction release by journalist Rone Tempest.

What led to the murder of a cop in an unmarked police car in the parking lot of a saloon in Wyoming more than four decades ago? The first nonfiction release from new digital publisher NeoText will answer the question — and, ahead of its debut later this month, The Hollywood Reporter has a special sneak peek at Rone Tempest’s The Last Western.

Throughout his career, Tempest has written for the Los Angeles Times and Detroit Free Press, among many other outlets, and co-founded Wyoming-based nonprofit news service Wyofile. He has won both the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting and a Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting, the latter of which shared for the L.A. Times’ coverage of the 2003 Old Fire wildfire in Southern California.

The book tells the story of lawman Ed Cantrell’s murder of his deputy Michael Rosa in 1978 in the parking lot of Rock Springs, Wyoming’s Silver Dollar Bar, with Tempest unpicking the histories of both men, using previously unseen official records, investigators’ notes and more. The Last Western will be released Aug. 18.

The Last Western is Tempest's second book, following 2014’s The Two Elk Saga: How One Man’s Dream Became State, Federal Nightmare.

The first chapter of The Last Western appears below.

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1: CANTONESE GHOSTS

”With the exception of his own mother, who I don’t know, I’ve got to have more affection for Michael Rosa than anyone else in the world.” — Ed Cantrell, Testimony at his murder trial, Pinedale, Wyoming, 1979

Long before gunfighter lawman Ed Cantrell shot his undercover narcotics officer Mike Rosa dead outside the Silver Dollar Bar, Rock Springs, Wyoming was well established as a mean and unstable place. On the town's darkest day in 1885, a mob of white nativists from the Knights of Labor union descended on Chinatown with Winchester rifles, blocked exit routes, massacred at least 28 — some accounts say as many as 51 — unarmed Chinese coal miners, ransacked their bodies for loot, and then burned the miners’ shantytown homes to the ground. Several white women gleefully participated in the slaughter. A town doctor, Edward Murray, rode his horse through the besieged Chinatown, waving his hat and shout- ing, “No quarter! Shoot them down!”

What became known as “The Incident at Bitter Creek” remains the worst single killing of ethnic Chinese in American history. The massacre in Rock Springs inspired a series of similar attacks on Chinese across the American west and marked a black moment in Wyoming’s rough past. At the time it occurred, however, the killing was endorsed by several Wyoming newspapers and celebrated by many in the state who opposed Chinese “sojourners” taking less pay to work “white men’s jobs.” The men accused of leading the slaughter were quickly no billed by a grand jury. Despite the many dead Chinese, the grand jurors concluded there was insufficient evidence to show a crime had been committed. In each of the cases brought before them, the jury ruled that “the deceased came to his death from gunshot wounds [or fire], the cause of same being unknown to us.” The jury panel included the “No Quarter” Dr. Edward Murray, who chaired the inquest and signed the report. One of the main instigators charged with the killings, Isiah Whitehouse, was subsequently elected as Sweetwater County’s representative in the territorial legislature. Appalled by the jury report, U.S. President Grover Cleveland called it “a ghastly mockery of justice.”

Since that time — as though in revenge — Rock Springs' streets have frequently collapsed, swallowing homes and businesses into cavernous sinkholes created by the catacombs of underground coal shafts that the Chinese had helped dig, and upon which the town was injudiciously built. On January 4, 1949, parishioners at the South Side Catholic Church left midnight mass to find a gaping 60-by- 80-foot hole where the street used to be. A fire in an old mine near the junior high school smoldered for decades. A woman watering a bush in her yard saw it suddenly disappear, dropping 55 feet into a mine shaft.

Rock Springs is pocked with dozens of “subsidence zones”, where the ghosts speak only Cantonese. It is the high desert town’s curse and its grimmest legacy.

So, there was at least some irony that on July 14, 1978, when Ed Cantrell huddled with deputies to discuss what to do about “the Michael Rosa problem,” it was in the only Chinese-owned business in Rock Springs at the time, the Cantonese-style Sands Café.

An edgy Puerto Rican ex-Marine who grew up in gang-infested West Harlem, Rosa had been hired by Cantrell as an undercover narcotics agent. For a time, the two men performed as an efficient team, Cantrell the steely-eyed Wild West throwback and Rosa, the street-savvy New Yorker with an impressive Afro. It was as though Wyatt Earp and Shaft had teamed up to fight crime in the Mountain West. But there was a falling-out. Rosa had just been subpoenaed to testify in Cheyenne before a state Grand Jury investigating corruption in Rock Springs, including inside the police department. Cantrell and others had come to consider Rosa a loose cannon and were worried about what he might tell the grand jury.

It was at the Sands Café that Jim Callas, Rock Springs chief of detectives, testified that a frustrated Cantrell said about Rosa: “We ought to shoot that son-of-a-bitch.”

At his 1979 murder trial, Cantrell said he did not recall saying such a thing, but if he had, it was a “meaningless remark.”

Twenty-one years later in an unaired portion of a television interview with the A&E channel program “City Confidential,” Cantrell elaborated in a way that – because of its oddly sexual language — made it seem even worse.

“Here’s what happened,” Cantrell told A&E interviewer Matt Shelley. “I’m a shooter. I have been all my life and still am. We have an expression where if you’re testing bullets or something, to see how far it will penetrate, you know certain bullets penetrate further than others. You know what I’m saying? ...And here’s what I said, ‘You know someone ought to run a penetration test on that prick.’ Just like that.”

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