CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) — In the process of uncovering its nearly 272 years of history, the Chesterfield County Sheriff’s Office is working to build a monument to memorialize the lives of sheriffs and deputies lost in the line of duty.
However, because of legal constraints, not a single dollar to construct the Chesterfield County Sheriff Memorial Monument can come from taxpayer funding or the Sheriff’s Office budget, which is why supporters have turned to fundraising efforts.
“About two years ago, we started our fundraising efforts for that, and, obviously, with the onset of COVID last year, it put a little crimp in our fundraising activities,” Chesterfield County Sheriff Karl Leonard said. “But we picked it up again at the end of 2020. Right now, we need $31,000 to build this monument. We have $24,000 already collected of donations. We’re trying to do the final push.”
Not long after Leonard became sheriff, the Sheriff’s Office started to put an effort into tracing and recording its history. Over the course of nearly three centuries, history can be lost, which is why no one knew what to expect.
“When we first entered into this project, we really didn’t know what we were going to find,” Leonard said. “We did hear rumblings of one person we thought might’ve died in the line of duty, so we had a starting point for that one. But we really didn’t know what it would amount to be when we finished.”
That person was Sheriff Benjamin Branch. Records show he was leaving the courthouse after a day of work and heading toward his Willow Hill farm. A letter written by Chesterfield County State Senator Archibald Cary to Governor Patrick Henry stated that Sheriff Branch was killed after being thrown from his horse.
“He is also recognized in the National Law Enforcement Museum in D.C. as the first line-of-duty death in the history of the United States,” Leonard said.
Branch’s End of Watch was April 29, 1786, just 10 years after American independence was won. He led the Chesterfield County militia to war in 1777 as a captain during the American Revolution.
Branch left behind a wife, three sons, and two daughters.
“We continue to do our research,” Leonard said. “We’ve got four names now to put on the memorial. It’s just our means of preserving their memory forever, for the sacrifice they made for the citizens of Chesterfield County.”
Deputy Archer Thomas Belcher is one of those four names. His End of Watch was on Feb. 17, 1912. County records show that he was employed as a part-time deputy, while also working as a farmer. He was guarding a work detail on Hickory Road, just a half mile from his farm, when an inmate attacked him with a knife. While defending himself from this attack, he was struck in the head by another inmate armed with an axe.
Deputy Belcher never regained consciousness, dying 26 days later. His killers were eventually captured, convicted, and executed for capital murder.
Belcher left behind a wife and 10 children.
Chief Deputy Gilliam Cogbill served under Sheriff Ordway Gates, serving civil processing papers. That’s exactly what he was doing on Sept. 24, 1965, his End of Watch. During that afternoon, he was traveling on Kingsland Road.
According to a witness, she found Cogbill inside his black 1964 Ford Galaxie sheriff car, slumped over his steering wheel alongside the road. He was unresponsive. The witness called for a rescue unit, which transported Cogbill to the closest hospital, the Medical College of Virginia on Broad Street.
Cogbill was pronounced dead at the hospital at age 65.
Leonard says the Sheriff’s Office is still uncovering names of sheriffs and deputies who were killed in the line of duty, including the name of one person discovered recently in records, information about whom is still being finalized.
“It’s a very extensive process,” Leonard said. “The gentleman we had doing the work for us would spend hours going through old archives at the library, and he would find where there was a trial, for instance, of somebody who was convicted of killing a deputy and then work backwards from there, trying to identify the actual act, the crime.”
As the Sheriff’s Office continues to go through County records and uncover more information, work has begun on the monument. The project has been approved by the Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors, as well as the Chesterfield Historical Society, which had to consent to the proposed location for the monument, since it will be placed in a historical area.
“We have started construction of the monument itself,” Leonard said. “That actually starts with identifying the piece of granite, which takes a while. They have to find a piece of granite big enough for what we have in mind.”
Though there are four names currently set to go on the monument, there is always the concern that more names could be added in the future, as more history is uncovered or future events unfold.
“Hopefully there’s not another name that will ever go on it,” Leonard said. “But we’re not short-sighted either. We know that this profession is one that comes with risk, and, if something happens to one of our deputies, they will be added to the monument and also preserved in our history.”
So far, local businesses and individuals have contributed to help fund the construction of the Chesterfield County Sheriff Memorial Monument, which will be located near the Chesterfield County Police Memorial Monument, next to the Chesterfield County Museum and in front of the 1892 Jail.
“To me, personally, this is a very lasting monument, recognizing those who have served before me, especially the sheriffs before me who’ve actually died in the line of duty,” Leonard said. “It would mean a lot to me to finally have a monument in place to recognize them. As we always say, ‘You’ll never be forgotten.’ One way to ensure that is to have your name inscribed in this monument forever.”
Leonard says the goal is to unveil the monument in May of 2022, the month when the nation recognizes the service of law enforcement officers throughout the U.S.
Once the granite is selected for the monument, the first phase of construction will be on the base and the surrounding sidewalk. Right now, a few stone slabs signify where the monument will be once completed.
“There is a lot of rich history in the Chesterfield County Sheriff’s Office, not only in those who may have lost their life, but [also] in the service provided to citizens of this County over those almost three centuries,” Leonard said. “This is just a culmination now of really getting that formal memorial to recognize those who’ve made the sacrifice while serving.”
To contribute to the funding necessary to build the Chesterfield County Sheriff Memorial Monument, click here.