CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) — After roughly five years of planning and approximately $36,000 fundraised, the Chesterfield County Sheriff’s Office opened a memorial in honor of its officers killed in the line of duty on Friday.
Over the 272 years that the Chesterfield County Sheriff’s Office has been operating, it has lost three officers in the line of duty. Those men are Sheriff Benjamin Branch killed in 1786, Deputy Archer T. Belcher killed in 1912 and Chief Deputy Gilliam H. Cogbill in 1969.
Historian Russ Lescault said he searched through court records, county inquest records, old board meeting minutes, family interviews and national archives to learn about these officers and their deaths. Lescault even worked with descendants of the fallen officers to gather artifacts, such as their badges and a family portrait.
He said that he was approached by Chesterfield County Sheriff Karl Leonard in 2014, shortly after Lescault himself had retired from the police department.
“He wanted to look at line-of-duty deaths that may have been forgotten or overlooked,” Lescault said. “Law enforcement at the best of times is dangerous, and the sheriff’s office has been around for some of the country’s worst times in its […] years of service.”
The memorial, first unveiled on Friday, displays the men’s names along with a large star-shaped badge on top. It’s made of granite and weighs roughly 1.5 tons. It is placed outside of the Historic 1917 Courthouse Building on Iron Bridge Road, within view of the Chesterfield County Police Memorial.
The sheriff’s memorial includes the name of Sheriff Branch, who is cited as the first line-of-duty death in the history of the United States.
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. 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.
Below Branch’s name is that of Deputy Belcher. 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.
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.
“Then, three years later, she passed away,” Belcher’s great grandson Jim Varnier told 8News. “They had to get the older kids to take care of the younger ones, and that, you know, it’s just the whole family broken up in no time at all. That’s what I look at it when I see [the memorial] — what they managed, what they went through.”
Varnier was joined by three of his cousins at Friday’s ceremony. They said that, after being contacted by the county about their relative, they were brought together on a mission to find out as much about him as they could.
“I approached all the cousins and started digging and pulling out artifacts,” Belcher’s great granddaughter, Michaele Schriver, said. “I think what Chesterfield County has done and the research has kind of brought him to life for us because, of course, none of us knew him.”
Schriver and Varnier’s other cousins in attendance described seeing the memorial with their great grandfather’s name on it as “surreal.”
“It means everything,” Schriver said.
Chief Deputy 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.
Chesterfield’s current sheriff, Leonard, wanted to make sure all of the funding for the project was donation-based and worked to gather the money make the memorial a reality.
At the unveiling, Leonard said he hopes the memorial will give people a place to visit and grieve. He said it was the least the department could do to honor the loss and sacrifice of the officers.
“I think today really brings closure to our sheriff’s office, first of all,” he said. “For those who’ve lost their lives in the line of duty, it brings closure, to some degree, to the family members who are here today. To our community, it just brings awareness of that rich history of the sheriff’s office, dating back 272 years and providing service to the community for that long.”
Leonard said that the original plan was to unveil the memorial in May of 2021. But the project faced numerous delays due to the coronavirus pandemic, including the granite from which the memorial was constructed being stuck in transit from India, before it could be shaped and polished in Fredericksburg, Va.
“We’re just honored today to be able to formalize this,” the sheriff said. “We made it happen.”
At the event, Board of Supervisors Chairman James Holland said the officers made the ultimate sacrifice for their community and the memorial serves as a reminder of the risk that comes with the job. He prays that another name never has to be added to the monument.