New Facts Emerge in Century-Old Murder of a Game Warden Near Rock Springs

New Facts Emerge in Century-Old Murder of a Game Warden Near Rock Springs

Deputy Game Warden John Buxton, at left, and his killer, Joseph Omeyc, inmate #3001 at the Wyoming State Penitentiary. Photos courtesy of Wyoming Game Warden’s Association and the Wyoming State Archives.

SWEETWATER COUNTY — The death of the first game warden killed in the line of duty in Wyoming may have resulted from legislation aimed at immigrants, according to an online article by Dick Blust, Jr. of the Sweetwater County Historical Museum in Green River, published recently on WyoHistory.org, the website of the Wyoming State Historical Society.

Just north of Rock Springs on September 14, 1919, Deputy Game Warden John Buxton encountered John Kolman, 16, and 17-year-old Joseph Omeyc, an Austrian immigrant. The boys were hunting rabbits, and Omeyc had a rifle, a .30/30 Savage. Unaware that Omeyc also had a handgun, Buxton took the rifle away from him. Angered, Omeyc shot him with the pistol, and Buxton died before he reached the hospital. Omeyc was arrested and charged with First Degree Murder. Later he would plead guilty to Second Degree Murder and be sentenced to imprisonment at the Wyoming State Penitentiary.

But Omeyc and Kolman were not poaching — at the time, rabbits were not the classified as game animals. Buxton seized Omeyc’s rifle under a state law that not only required non-citizens to obtain a special license in order to own firearms or even fishing tackle, but directed “the State Game Warden, his assistants and deputies, and all other peace officers in the State of Wyoming, to search for and take into their possession any gun, pistol or other firearms or fishing tackle found in the possession of any alien not entitled to hold or possess the same…”

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Section 21 of Wyoming State Statutes, “Alien’s Gun and Fish License,” was a product of its time. The Red Scare of 1919-1920 was in full sway, and paranoia about European immigrants — especially in the wake of a series of anarchist bombings in eight American cities — was widespread.

The “Palmer Raids,” named for United States Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer — mass roundups and arrests of thousands of suspected anarchists, communists, and leftist figures, often on flimsy or non-existent evidence — were one result of the Scare; laws like Section 21 were another.

Documents over a century old discovered by Museum staff, including a transcript of testimony taken during an inquest into Buxton’s death by the Sweetwater County Coroner’s Office, provided details of his death.

The article, entitled “The Buxton Case: An Anti-Immigrant Tragedy,” can be found on the WyoHistory.org website.