SPEARFISH, SD – When Butte County Sheriff Dave Malcolm and South Dakota Special Agent Tom Mathews were called out on a cold evening January 24, 1946, neither could know they would die that night. The two lawmen will be remembered when memorial signage is placed at the location where their brutal murders occurred 75 years ago…. north of where I-90 Exit 10 now exists between Spearfish and Belle Fourche.
Historian and author, Tim Velder of Sundance, WY has researched and written of the incident extensively. He also played a key role in securing the official recognition that is set for 11 a.m. Monday, May 10, at the Golliher Arena on Highway 85 between Spearfish and Belle Fourche.
“We don’t want to forget the two lawmen who died,” said Velder. “They were fathers and veterans. A lot of talk circles around the life of George Sitts. But these two men lived and died here while protecting citizens from this fugitive.”
George Sidney Sitts was a hardened criminal at the age of 32. He had escaped in transit to the Minnesota State Penitentiary where he was to spend the rest of his life in prison for the murder of a liquor store clerk in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area.
“Sitts escaped from a holding cell,” says Velder. “He found a part-time job within miles of the penitentiary. He was hiding in plain sight.”
Eventually, people became suspicious. Sitts stole a vehicle and headed west traveling on old Highway 212, stealing gas along the way. It was after he stole gas in Belle Fourche that Malcolm and Matthews were alerted. What they didn’t know was that Sitts had stopped at the McQuire Ranch, near Newell and stole a pistol. He was armed.
“Matthews was just sitting down to dinner when Sheriff Malcolm called regarding a suspicious person leaving a gas station in Belle Fourche,” relates Velder. “Interstate 90 didn’t exist in 1946, so the interception point for Matthews was the Highway 85-14 wye north of Spearfish, where I-90 Exit 10 now flows with traffic. Matthews met up with Sitts’ car.
“It’s speculated through later discussions with Sitts, says Velder, “the two exchanged words through open car windows with Matthews telling Sitts to return to the station and pay for the gas.” Sitts turned around and headed north back toward Belle Fourche where Sheriff Malcolm was waiting about a mile away. According to Velder’s research, Sheriff Malcolm got out of the vehicle at same time as Sitts and Matthews. Sitts shot Malcolm first, wheeled around and shot Matthews. Both men fell to the ground. Sitts dispatched Malcolm first, then shot Matthews in the head.
“It was over in a few seconds,” says Velder. “There was a truck driver who was nearby and heard the shots. It was so dark he couldn’t see very well, but he could see what appeared to be Sitts kneeling over Matthews, rifling through his pockets and taking his side arm.”
A massive manhunt ensued. ”Hundreds of law enforcement officers descended on the Black Hills,” reports Velder. “People reported at the time the town of Spearfish looked like a virtual armed camp. There were roadblocks everywhere and agents combing the countryside looking for him. You couldn’t travel without having your car stopped somewhere at a checkpoint.”
Sitts first hid in the attic of a stone school house near Whitewood. The building, that still stands, was searched by law enforcement but no one went up to the attic,” says Velder. “Sitts sat up there watching police below him.”
He then walked to Deadwood where he hid in the root cellar of a home owned by the former Deadwood Chief of Police. “The women of the house passed within feet of him every time they went to the cellar for canned goods,” Velder says. “Sitts could also hear the radio upstairs so he knew ongoing details of the manhunt.”
He eventually hijacked a car in Deadwood, forcing gas station attendant Lenoard Ronnenber at gun point to drive him across the state line into Wyoming. “Ronnenberg was a devout Lutheran. They talked of sin and redemption. He basically saved his own life by relating to Sitts in a non-confrontational, spiritual manner,” reveals Velder. Sitts let him go just miles over the state line.
Most recently Velder has connected with one of Ronnenberg’s sons, a Lutheran minister on the east coast. He related that his Dad never recovered from the kidnapping. He would later sell his business and move to Colorado. “He was traumatied by it,” says Velder. “He tried to start over but just couldn’t get it behind him. He died at a relatively young age.”
After stealing license plates in Sundance, Sitts continued west. A person around Lysite, WY, recognized the plates on Sitts vehicle as belonging to his cousin. But it wasn’t his cousin’s car. He put two and two together, reported it and Sitts was apprehended.
He was tried in Deadwood and was executed for the murders in 1947 in the South Dakota State Penitentiary.
The signs honoring the memory of Malcolm and Matthews will be unveiled during an informal gathering at 11 a.m. Monday, May 10, at Golliher Arena on Highway 85 between Spearfish and Belle Fourche. Local law enforcement, elected officials, and family members are invited to attend.
“The story continues to evolve yet today,” shares Velder. “Although we are losing the generation who have direct knowledge of events, this was a moment in history that I didn’t want to go by any longer without it being permanently remembered.”
TOM MATTHEWS BACKGROUND:
Special Agent Tom Matthews, 48, was the son of cattleman Thomas Matthews who operated near Spearfish. Tom schooled in Spearfish and attended Black Hills Teacher’s College. He was active in the community and was a race car driver in his younger days. Matthews was also a World War I veteran, and worked for the FBI in anti-espionage realm during World War II. He left behind a wife and two young children. He is buried at Rose Hill Cemetery in Spearfish.
Dave MALCOLM BACKGROUND:
Sheriff Dave Malcolm, 57, emigrated as a child with his family to the United States from Scotland in the 1890s. They initially settled in the Hot Springs area but later moved to the Nisland area. Malcolm, husband to Edith (Thomson) and father of a 9-month-old daughter, was a World War I veteran, worked as a deputy sheriff, farmer and mine worker until becoming Butte County’s sheriff in 1945. He is buried a Pine Slope Cemetery in Belle Fourche.