Swift Justice in old west Vegas

You’ve got one hour to get out of town, but you’ve got two minutes to get out of my sight.
— Sam Gay, First Sheriff of Las Vegas
 
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stranger danger - then and now

Those of us that grew up in the 1980’s and early-90’s remember the ever-present (often media hyped) threat of “Stranger Danger” and Las Vegas was no different.  But sensationalism does not mean that the threat does not exist, and from the earliest days in Las Vegas, child abduction was a threat.

A story from shortly after the founding of Las Vegas offers a glimpse into the long-term threat posed by abduction, but also to how swift “justice” could be carried out in a frontier town. 

 

The old Las Vegas Creek at the time the Romero child went missing. (UNLV Digital Collections)

The old Las Vegas Creek at the time the Romero child went missing. (UNLV Digital Collections)

A missing girl

The Romero family lived in Old Town on the north side of downtown Las Vegas. The Romero child walked along the poorly maintained dirt roads in Old Town on her way to school. On January __, 1909, the Romero girl failed to return home from school. Her mother began frantically searching for the child. Soon Sheriff Gay and his deputy joined the search along with other local residents.

The bakery where Walter Smith worked at the time of the attempted abduction of the Romero child.

The bakery where Walter Smith worked at the time of the attempted abduction of the Romero child.

A Suspect Caught in Time

Sheriff Gay’s deputy located the child walking along the Las Vegas Creek with one Walter Smith. Smith only arrived to Vegas a week before the incident and took a job at the Las Vegas Bakery. There is virtually no information that could be found about Smith and he likely was among the frequent transient travelers that hopped the rails searching throughout the west for work.

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frontier "justice"

Sheriff Gay immediately brought Smith to the temporary courthouse where Judge Lillis presided over a short hearing. Lillis questioned Smith about his intentions, and while the consensus was that Smith intended to harm the Romero girl, the consensus was equally clear that there was insufficient evidence to convict Smith of any crime.

Normally when there is insufficient evidence to convict a criminal suspect, the suspect is released.

the practical limits of due process

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vegas - a transient town for over a century