Slain Utah officer honored 95 years later
SALT LAKE CITY — Nearly a century after he was gunned down, buried in an unmarked grave and forgotten, Utah's first game warden killed in the line of duty has been recognized with a memorial service and a niche in state history.
Ernest Berry's killer was never found. The 35-year-old Swiss immigrant was shot to death in 1914 as he gave chase to a suspected poacher in a marsh outside Salt Lake City.
When his body was found several days later, the full-time city employee was quickly laid in a grave in his brother-in-law's family plot with little fanfare and no marker.
On Wednesday, a memorial service - complete with a color guard and gun volley - was held for Berry at one of Salt Lake City's oldest cemeteries.
"Today, we finally give Ernest the honor, the respect, the love he deserves," said Robert Witt, a pastor and former Utah game warden.
The ceremony included more than two dozen law enforcement officials, bagpipes, a bugler playing "Taps" and a ceremonial flag-folding.
His grave now has a granite marker that reads, in part, "First Utah Game Warden Killed in the Line of Duty." A bronze plaque with his name is also now included at the Utah Law Enforcement Memorial at the Capitol.
Few people knew Berry's story until recently. Salt Lake Tribune columnist Robert Kirby, who chronicled slain officers in his 2004 book "End of Watch: Utah's Murdered Police Officers 1858-2003" came across it while combing through newspapers.
Kirby, a former police officer, spent hundreds of hours researching the case, only to find a record of Berry's burial at Mount Olivet Cemetery but no grave marker.
Utah's system for game and fish wardens was still a fledgling operation in 1914. Berry, who worked full-time as a dredge operator for the city, was commissioned as a game officer because of his knowledge of the marshes, including those south of the Great Salt Lake.
On Sunday Sept. 27, he was working on Williams Lake when he heard gunfire in a nearby salt marsh, where poaching was common. Alone and unarmed, he gave chase. A witness later reported seeing him following a man with a gun.
"He went to investigate and never came back," Kirby said.
Searchers worked the area for days but didn't find Berry's body until Oct. 2. He'd been shot at close range in the head and upper body. After an autopsy, he was buried in his brother-in-law's plot. The family apparently didn't have the money to pay for a marker.
"Back then, the paycheck stopped as soon as you did," Kirby said.
Left with four young children, Berry's wife remarried and moved to southern California.
Berry's story began slipping from Utah history. Even Williams Lake disappeared, paved over for expansion of the city's airport.
Kirby and officers at Wednesday's ceremony were determined not to leave him forgotten.
"This kind of thing is really important," said Sgt. Stacey Jones, president of the Utah Conservation Officers' Association. "When somebody goes down, it affects all of us."
No one's been able to find any of Berry's descendants. With no family members present, Mike Styler, director of the state's Department of Natural Resources, accepted a folded flag on the their behalf.
"I'm just the caretaker" until Berry's relatives can be found, Styler said.