DEATH CRASHES NEW YEAR'S PARTY
By Lawrence Sullivan, Glasgow, Kentucky - Sullivan@scrtc.com
The violent death of Guy Belmont Latta reads like the plot of a B grade Western, the kind you might catch on Saturday afternoon television if you're not careful.
After a back-alley brawl that ended a New Year's Eve celebration filled with too much booze, the 28-year old Latta was gunned down by the county sheriff - a man he considered his best friend in the world.
The fight began, some said, when Latta accused several Indians of rustling cattle at his ranch six miles east of the county seat town of Martin, South Dakota. Others insisted the argument stemmed from hard feelings over a "ringer" expert horseman, a friend of Latta, who'd come to the Bennett County Fair the previous fall and humiliated the local Sioux boys in various riding and roping competitions.
Most folks agreed with the weekly Martin Messenger's view that the events were basically "trouble brewed out of too much liquor."
It was a story family historian Robert H. Latta may have considered too tacky to touch. The spot assigned to the ill-fated young man in the Branch #1 Latta Family Tree reads tersely: 333 Guy (7) Born: Oct. 10, 1892. Killed.
The date of the tragic incident was Dec. 31, 1920, and the place, as described in one contemporary newspaper account, "a wide-open frontier town in a country controlled by Indians and mixed bloods." Bennett County, in fact, had been part of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation until it was opened to homesteading only 10 years earlier. The Messenger said the day began promisingly enough. The Town Hall was full of celebrants drawn by the Leap Year dance planned by the ladies of Martin. But an ensuing quarrel was taken outside to an alley behind the town's lone pool hall and garage and ended with a "scrimmage" - as the paper put it - between Latta and a 32-year-old Sioux farmer named Bat Dubray.
Dubray got the worst of it and was taken to the local hotel for treatment of several knife wounds. Sheriff Seth Austin, himself a mixed-blood Sioux, proceeded to the fight scene with a group of followers to lace Latta under arrest. According to testimony at a coroner's jury, Latta still had the knife in his hand and ignored several orders to drop it.
"When he came within a few feet Austin shot, he said, [intending] to hit him in the shoulder or arm" according to a newspaper account. "But the bullet struck Latta in the abdomen and lodged in his spine."
Latta was carried to a room in a nearby bank for medical attention and then to the hotel, where he died two hours later. Someone noted the time of death as midnight exactly.
A coroner's jury was impaneled the next day and three days later brought charges of felonious killing against the sheriff. He was immediately relieved of his duties and confined in his own jail pending trial. At a preliminary hearing the following Saturday, however, the magistrate ruled the killing self-defense and ordered Austin released. His badge, gun and job were all returned to him.
Oddly, neither Latta's widow, Grace, nor his father, Milton N. Latta of nearby Valentine, NE, blamed Austin for the shooting. Grace had been at the family ranch with the couple's small daughter, Neva, their only living child, when Guy was shot and didn't reach town until after he had died. She told a Valentine newspaper, The Democrat, that her husband "considered the sheriff the best friend he had in the world outside the family."
Milton Latta, when notified by telegraph of the shooting while his son was still alive, sent a return wire urging the young man "to seek the mercy of your Creator...[and] forgive the man that shot you." Guy died before the message could be delivered.
Before his own death seven years later, Milton Latta told his younger brother, James, that he regarded the loss of both his sons (an older boy, Niles, had drowned 13 years earlier) as divine retribution for his own sins. He particularly lamented the killing, many years earlier at a farm he owned in the Nebraska Sand Hills, of a young Indian - just a boy, really -- struck by a stray bullet as Milton and farm hands chased down a pack of cattle rustlers. Milton Latta, the proverbial preacher's son -- his father, grandfather and one uncle had all been notable circuit riding Methodist ministers -- never forgave himself.