History of the Cowlitz County Peace Officer

Cowlitz County has had a colorful history. Through it all, the Peace Officer has always been there. From the first Sheriff who who had to perform a public hanging to the deputies who had to corral a maurading elephant. Join me as I gather the facts and true stories that describe the journey of the law enforcement officer in Cowlitz County from 1854 through today.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Elephant, the Photographer, and the Sheriff

Sitting in the desk of a good friend of mine at the Cowlitz County Sheriff’s Office, (Detective Marc Gilchrist) is a postcard that his sister found on a postcard rack in Germany while on vacation in Europe. Heather (Gilchrist) Hunt was looking for a post card to send home to her mother. Suddenly one caught her eye. In the picture lies a large elephant in the middle of the road. In the lower right corner of the picture there is, what appears to be, a Cowlitz County Sheriff’s Office patrol car. Heather immediately recognizes the picture and coincidently knew the story behind it.

The postcard itself may be peculiar enough, like something you would find in a gag-gift store like Spencer’s Gifts, but what’s even more peculiar is the story behind the postcard. On this one day in June of 1979, three worlds intersected in Cowlitz County; a renegade elephant, a world class photographer, and the Cowlitz County Sheriff’s Office.

Tuesday June 26th, 1979 – 11:00 P.M.

Deputies Dan Sheridan (pictured left in 1986) and Brad Bright are on patrol, graveyard; A typical evening with nothing spectacular going on. While enjoying a cup of coffee with their fellow team members, they receive a call for a welfare check on a gentleman named Morgan Berry. The caller is Morgan Berry’s son, Ken Berry, who says that he is unable to get in touch with his father who has been having heart problems. Ken says he calls his father every evening to check up on him around 9 P.M. but on this particular evening, there is no answer.

It’s around 11:00 p.m. and the deputies drive out to check on Mr. Berry. When they arrive, they are met by a neighbor who is also concerned. They knock on the door. No answer. They notice the door is open, so they go inside and check throughout the house but find no sign of Berry. They go around back and are startled to find a large elephant chained to a tree, rocking back and forth acting very strange. They call out for Mr. Berry, but there is no response.

Being careful to keep their distance from the chained, angry, elephant, the Deputies check all around the property and cannot find Morgan anywhere. They decide to drive around the area in an attempt to find Berry but find nothing. Assuming he left, they decide to come back in the morning.

Morgan Berry – Elephant Trainer

In 1965, Morgan Berry moved to the 75 acre farm south of Kalama. The farm contained nine elephants and two wolves. An experienced elephant trainer, Berry came to Kalama after spending time as a keeper with the Woodland Park Zoo. In all, he had 38 years as an animal trainer and dealer. He became world famous for being the first person to breed elephants in the western hemisphere in 40 plus years and it was his elephants that gave birth to “Packy” at the Oregon Zoo (pictured right with Berry in white shirt).

A year prior to this event, in 1978, Berry’s partner Eloise Berchtold, was killed by an elephant while performing with a circus in Quebec Canada. The elephant, Teak, had been trained by Berry and Berchtold on the farm in Cowlitz County. Teak was immediately killed by the veterinarian at the circus. During the fracas, another elephant, Thai, had escaped from the circus and Berry was flown in by helicopter to help capture the frightened animal. Riding around in a patrol car, they were able to find Thai hiding in the bushes. Berry walked into the bushes and came out with Thai, without incident.

Wednesday June 27th, 1979 – 5:00 A.M.

Ken Berry is still concerned about his father so he makes his way to the farm in the early morning hours of June 27th. When he arrives, the sun is just coming up and he finds the elephant, Tonga, still chained to the tree. He also notices his father’s shirt near Tonga. While still searching for his father, Ken notices that one of the other elephants has escaped. Thai was missing, again.

Berry calls the Sheriff’s Office and reports that there is an elephant loose. Dan Sheridan and Brad Bright immediately head back out to the property and meet up with Ken. Ken describes what he knows and then they all start the search for Thai.

Sheridan describes the events as almost being surreal. He drives around a corner and sees an enormous pile of dung in the middle of the roadway and literally says, “Oh shit.” A little past the pile he sees Thai standing in the roadway. Bright pulls up behind Sheridan and they begin to try to coax the animal back towards the property. Sheridan hits his siren and lights off and on trying to move the startled pachyderm. As Thai backs up, he suddenly decides he’s had enough, and starts to run straight at the deputy’s vehicles.

Sheridan and Bright quickly throw their vehicles in reverse and start backing up furiously trying to get out of the way of the charging bull elephant. As they are backing up, they are turning to their left going down the hill when Sheridan notices that the elephant has gone off the roadway, through a garden on a neighboring property, and disappeared.

They stop and quickly exit their vehicles. Sheridan grabs his shotgun and starts into the brush after Thai. Ken Berry arrives about the same time and tells Sheridan, “I hope you have slugs in that shotgun.”

As they search the brush, it becomes evident that Thai must have fallen off the embankment, but they can’t find him. They can hear him, but they can’t see him. They decide to back out and call in reinforcements.

Are You Kidding Me?

Thai the elephant is loose, his trainer is missing, and there is an angry elephant named Tonga chained to a tree. This is not the way most deputies like to spend the end of their shift. Trying to figure out what to do next, Deputies Sheridan and Bright along with Ken Berry decide they better call for help.

One of Sheridan’s first phone calls is to the Undersheriff Bob Swanson. Swanson responds with, “Are you kidding me?”

Calls go out to Ron Cram (a Longview Police Officer) and Dan Bender (a Deputy Sheriff) who are both known to be big game hunters and each have large rifles if they need to dispatch the animal. The Oregon Zoo and the Woodland Park Zoo and notified and immediately send personnel to the scene. Other deputies begin to arrive to assist while on-lookers begin mobbing the bizarre situation.

Thai is quickly found on the main road and is obviously exhausted, hurt, and confused. As the day progresses, several attempts to coral the elephant are unsuccessful. A Zoo staffer is finally able to tranquilize the animal and Thai goes down in the middle of the road.

Exhausted and overheating, Zoo staffers quickly ask for water to start tying to cool Thai down while they figure out how to get him back to the farm. Hours go by before they are finally able to get Thai up and back to the property.

In the meantime, Tonga (pictured right) is still chained to the tree and is not happy. Ken Berry quickly realizes that the shirt near Tonga is actually his father, trampled into the ground. Ken and the concerned neighbor make several attempts to get to his father while they watch Tonga pick up and toss the mangled body. Each time they try to get to Morgan, Tonga charges at them (probably trying to protect him).

As the events of the day play out, Sheridan and Bright are sent home and other deputies arrive to help with the scene. A small crowd of people show up and watch in amazement not quite sure what to think of the situation. Amongst the crowd is a photographer who snapped a picture.

On this one day in June, at this one moment in time, Joel Sternfeld just happened to be in Cowlitz County. What he captured was something that he has titled, “Exhausted Renegade Elephant”. The photograph and subsequent postcards have been sold and displayed around the world.

Joel Sternfeld – Photographer

In the late 1970’s, a photographer named Joel Sternfeld was making his way around the western United States in his Volkswagen bus taking pictures. Using a large format 8x10 view camera, Sternfeld was trying to document “site-specific landscapes somehow connected to human presence”.

Joel went on to become a world-renown photographer and has been honored for his work with color photography. He is known as helping to establish color photography as a respected artistic medium. Several books of his work have been published and his work is featured at the Museum of Contemporary Photography amongst other places.

The Columbia College Museum of Contemporary Photography describes Joel this way:

“Joel Sternfeld's projects can perhaps be divided into two general groups: site-specific landscapes somehow connected to human presence (though people are rarely present in them) and shot during distinct periods of time, and a more ranging, long-term examination of the United States accomplished largely by photographing Americans contextualized by their environments. The large format 8-by-10 view camera Sternfeld employs may be part of the reason for that formality, but the camera's more obvious function is to capture and render the rich textures and telling details that draw Sternfeld to a particular scene. Sternfeld's sense of irony comes through in the way these subjects are dressed as if to color-coordinate with their surroundings, while the darkness of his humor is suggested by their unsettling expressions.”

After the “Exhausted Renegade Elephant” hit the art world, like any piece of art, it was analyzed by art critics. Here are a couple of reviews of “Exhausted Renegade Elephant”:

“In one well-known picture, an elephant lies collapsed on a country road (Exhausted Renegade Elephant, Woodland, Washington, June 1979, 1979/2003). It's a jarring image that may look staged or PhotoShopped to an eye nourished on Jeff Wall or Gregory Crewdson and his spawn. But no: It's just that Sternfeld has a knack for homing in on improbable situations, and his lucid, hieratic style, which suggests the gaze of an omniscient narrator, heightens the pictures' resemblance to fiction.”

This one is quite possibly my favorite:

“…The elephant is also flanked by a variety of human onlookers whose reactions to it's predicament read in sharp contrast to each other. The family peering cautiously from their driveway seem to perceive it as a threat, the man with the hose is providing physical relief to it in the form of water, the teenagers on the bank are amused by it, and the sheriff? We can't say. All that shows of him is his pant leg, stretched casually out in his cruiser as if he were taking a nap. There is a silent, unsettling authority to the form of this man and his cruiser, sitting comfortably at the bottom right of the image. A final blockade against any ideas the viewer might have of further action about to take place. The action is over.”

When The Dust Settled
Morgan Berry’s body was eventually recovered. His official cause of death was labeled as a heart attack. However, what isn’t known is the sequence of events. Did he have a heart attack and was then trampled or vice versa. We’ll never know. Thai and Tonga both survived the ordeal and Berry’s son, Ken ended up moving to Florida.

While the headline of the day, the event passed off into history, quickly to be forgotten. The elephant, the photographer, and the Sheriff are all now perfectly preserved in time in one celebrated photo captured by pure luck and complete happenstance.

~ DcU