LAS CRUCES – Jail records dating back at least as far as 1902, cash logs and other ledger books once housed at Doña Ana County’s Historical Museum of Lawmen have found a new home at New Mexico State University.
The documents were donated to the university’s special collections library this summer after county Sheriff Kim Stewart closed the 30-year-old museum, the only one in the region dedicated to law enforcement.
For 14 years since the Doña Ana Sheriff’s Office moved into its current home at 845 N. Motel Blvd., the museum has occupied a room to the right of the agency’s front lobby.
It evolved from a window display at the agency’s former headquarters, organized by former deputy West Gilbreath with the approval of Sheriff Ray Storment in the 1990s. In recent years, the museum was curated by retired deputy Jim Beasley.
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This summer, however, the first woman to serve as the county’s sheriff decided to close the museum, saying it was not well promoted, seldom visited, and that the agency was not equipped to curate or maintain insurance for the collection.
“We are law enforcement, not museum curators,” Stewart said.
Emails and other documents pertaining to the museum, obtained through a public records request, suggest most items from the museum were disposed of in July and August, donated to other institutions or restored to individuals who had lent items to the museum.
On Aug. 20, the day before a deadline for lenders to collect their items, Stewart told the Las Cruces Sun-News that all items on loan had been returned and the only county property that remained was a pair of old vehicles.
What remains unclear is just how much property the museum held and how it was accounted for through the decades.
What did the museum own?
The museum’s inventory list as of July, obtained through a public records request, takes up 27 printed pages.
It includes 42 firearms, many of them antiques, from small caliber pistols and revolvers to 12-gauge shotguns and semi-automatic rifles; and other weapons, including a taser, aluminum knuckles, police batons and even a slingshot.
Where possible, firearms were identified by their serial number as well as manufacturer and physical description.
The museum also amassed handheld radios, cameras, scales, service badges and other uniform items issued by the Doña Ana County Sheriff’s Office and the Las Cruces Police Department through the years.
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There was also law enforcement equipment such as a mobile breath-alcohol test devices dating from the 1980s and an old polygraph machine.
Stewart, who holds an undergraduate history degree, said most of the museum’s artifacts were “collectibles” of unclear provenance, while items of historical value were kept in storage and would be more accessible at venues like a professional museum or the university.
The inventory list and deeds of gift include many items not necessarily connected to DASO or law enforcement, and some documents suggest the museum was sometimes a disposal site for unwanted items.
In one example, the donor of a handgun wrote that it belonged to a deceased Silver City man: “I found this gun among my grandfather’s things after he passed away. Tried to give it to one of his 6 children as an (heirloom). None of them want it.”
Clearing the museum
Beginning in July, DASO sent an email to lenders giving them until Aug. 21 to reclaim their items. Claimants were required to collect them in person at DASO.
“Due to the fact that the Dona Ana County Sheriffs Department is not equipped to properly maintain and preserve historical documents, display items, memorabilia, etc., it has been decided that the museum will be disbanded effectively immediately,” the email stated.
The message went on to say that any items left over would either be distributed to other museums and archives, auctioned off or destroyed.
The ledgers and other valuable documents have been donated to the New Mexico State University Library’s Archives and Special Collections.
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The Doña Ana County Historical Society reclaimed a farm wagon and a single-seat buggy it had donated to the museum in 1995.
A horse-drawn hearse that purportedly carried former Sheriff Pat Garrett has been moved to the New Mexico Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum in Las Cruces, where Stewart said it would likely be viewed by many more people than saw it at DASO.
Despite many of the museum’s lenders living out of town or outside New Mexico, and restrictions posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, on Aug. 20 Stewart told the Sun-News there were no items left behind to be auctioned off or destroyed.
Under New Mexico law, museums operated by public agencies are required to notify the state auditor “regarding the disposition of all abandoned property.” Stewart said that in the end, no property was abandoned.
All that remains from the collection, she said, are two vehicles that are county property and may be disposed of with the approval of the county Board of Commissioners: A 1949 custom Ford donated long ago by the New Mexico Sheriffs and Police Association and a 1972 Willis Jeep that is parked on a patio by the entrance to DASO.
Questions on accounting of items
On Aug. 12, the day a report of the museum’s closing appeared in the Sun-News print edition, an accountant from the county’s financial services department emailed DASO department manager Naomi Terry seeking more detailed information about the museum’s inventory, donors and organizations for each item, saying the request was urgent.
“For audit purposes, the county needs to ensure proper disposal process is followed should any items require approval from (county commissioners),” accountant Rima Perez wrote.
Yet some items described on deeds of gift or loan agreements did not appear to be reflected on the July inventory list, nor the 2,000-pound safe dating from the 1880s that has sat outside on the patio, reportedly, for years. (Stewart said it was moved outdoors prior to her election as sheriff.)
In some cases, unaccounted items may have been returned in the past without a record made. Among the more dramatic items in the collection had been a pair of field glasses damaged by a bullet, which was on loan from Augie Lopez, a realtor in California whose father had been a Doña Ana sheriff’s deputy.
A family member told the Sun-News Lopez had reclaimed the field glasses a decade ago.
Clearance of the museum collection was already underway on July 13 when Beasley emailed the sheriff: “I am concerned about the security of the items contained within the museum with items being removed without my knowledge,” indicating that at least one plaque belonging to the museum had been removed and requesting that keys to the museum’s security gate be secured.
A case for a law enforcement museum
Dennis Giever, who heads the criminal justice department at NMSU, said he had heard little about the museum before its closure but suggested a regional law enforcement museum, properly curated with memorabilia from various agencies, would be a worthy endeavor and potential tourist attraction.
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He agreed, however, that a single law enforcement agency should not bear the burden of managing it.
“They don’t really have a curator that can set up the displays in a fashion that would make them very attractive to visitors and … have an educational value for them,” Giever said.
“Having those available for students — it gets them thinking about criminal justice, thinking about the past and historical things, and gets them interested in the history,” he continued.
For now, however, the only museum dedicated to law enforcement in the region has been dissolved, leaving some available space near the front desk at the sheriff’s office.
Stewart told the Sun-News she plans to install a discrete entrance and use the room as a private meeting place for witnesses and victim advocates.
This article originally appeared on Las Cruces Sun-News: County law enforcement museum dissolved, leaving two cars and accounting questions behind