Longtime Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever was killed Tuesday evening when his truck went off a road in Northern Arizona while on a family hunting trip. He was 60.

His death left his family, friends and colleagues shocked and saddened. And it ended Dever's 16-year run as the Republican sheriff of Cochise County - a period in which he rose to national prominence as an advocate for stronger border enforcement.

Dever's tenure coincided with Arizona becoming the busiest stretch of U.S.-Mexico border for illegal immigration and drug smuggling after a mid-1990s security push beefed up enforcement in Texas and California and funneled traffic to Arizona. Cochise County has 83.5 miles of Mexican border in Southeastern Arizona.

During his numerous appearances at congressional hearings and in his comments to the national media, Dever became known for having a measured response to the border issue. But he sharpened his tone in 2010 after his friend, rancher Robert Krentz, was killed on his land northeast of Douglas.

Dever blamed the killing on the unsecured border, deducing that it was probably carried out by a cross-border criminal. The crime has yet to be solved.

The Krentz killing triggered a wave of concern about border-related crime in Arizona and helped get Arizona's immigration enforcement law, SB 1070, passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Jan Brewer. Dever asked to legally defend the state's controversial law in federal court.

Dever also joined the chorus of Republicans slamming the Obama administration over a botched federal operation that lost track of weapons sold to suspect straw purchasers for Mexican drug gangs, known as "Fast and Furious."

His chief deputy, Rod Rothrock, takes over as interim sheriff and may also become his successor. (See box at right.)

No matter who replaces him, though, Dever's boots will remain forever unfilled, said Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, a Democrat who didn't always share the same opinions as Dever but respected him.

"He's going to be irreplaceable," Dupnik said. "He was an expert on border law-enforcement issues. He was always cooperative."

Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada, also a Democrat, called Dever a friendly, professional and knowledgeable lawman. Both Dupnik and Estrada agreed that Dever's death leaves a major gap in the Southern Arizona law-enforcement community.

"We're going to miss him," Estrada said. "He's been a great ambassador for law enforcement and for the sheriffs of Arizona."

The accident

Dever died near Williams, west of Flagstaff, where he was on a family hunting trip.

He was driving a 2008 Chevrolet truck on a well-traveled dirt forest road about two miles north of White Horse Lake when the truck went off the road, said Gerry Blair, Coconino County Sheriff's Office spokesman.

Investigators don't know why, but Dever apparently lost control of the truck, going off the road and rolling at least once, coming to rest upright.

Dever, who was still in the truck when investigators arrived, was pronounced dead at the scene. They don't know yet if he was wearing a seat belt, Blair said.

There are no signs that he was drinking or impaired, he said. He was the only person in the truck.

He was on his way to meet several members of his family at a campsite, where they were set to go hunting, Blair said.

Dever is survived by his wife, Nancy, six sons and 11 grandchildren. The sheriff died just four days after his 86-year-old mother, Annie Mae Dever, died of cancer.

Cochise County lifer

Dever spent his entire life in Cochise County. He was born and raised in the town of St. David, southeast of Benson. In 1976, he began his career with the Cochise County Sheriff's Office as a deputy.

Dever was one of several sheriff's deputies wounded in an October 1982 clash at Miracle Valley, near Palominas. A radical church group from Chicago had taken up residence at the Hereford-area religious compound, and when deputies moved in to arrest some members, fighting and gunfire broke out.

Dever, then a sergeant, was hit by shotgun pellets and suffered minor wounds. In the aftermath, Dever was criticized for allegedly escalating the standoff, but he always defended his conduct.

During his first 20 years with the agency, Dever rose as high as chief deputy before retiring in early 1996 to run for sheriff. He changed his party affiliation - from Democrat to Republican - the year before to run against one-term incumbent John Pintek, a Democrat.

In an acrimonious campaign, Dever accused Pintek of wrongdoing, and Pintek said a win by Dever would represent the return of a good-old-boys network. Pintek had defeated Dever's cousin, Jimmy Judd, a four-term sheriff, in the 1992 Democratic primary. Dever defeated Pintek, the first of four victories.

Border sheriff

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Dever became a proponent for more resources from the state and federal governments to combat the problems caused by crossings of illegal immigrant and drug smugglers that had become a constant in the rural county.

In 2000, he called on then-Gov. Jane Hull to deploy the Arizona National Guard to provide more non-enforcement support.

"I have a responsibility to preserve the peace, and I'm trying to meet it. It is one of the greatest challenges I've faced in my life," Dever said in 2000.

Dever said his deputies were spending as much as 40 percent of their time on border crime in the early 2000s. The traffic continued throughout the decade, and a massive buildup of Border Patrol agents, fences and technology followed. Only recently has the flow of illegal immigration slowed.

In the aftermath of the Krentz slaying and Brewer's signing of SB 1070 into law, Dever supported placing National Guard troops on the border. He also openly called for using the moment of crisis to bring more resources to the border.

"While we have the nation's attention, it's important that we strike now and that we get these suggestions implemented now," Dever said in April 2010. "I really feel that the window of opportunity will close very quickly."

After the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit to stop the implementation of SB 1070, Dever and Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu joined forces in a group called the Border Sheriffs. The group was formed to raise money to defend SB 1070 against the ACLU lawsuit, which named the state's sheriffs and county attorneys as defendants.

His legacy

Residents are in shock about Dever's death, said Cochise County Attorney Ed Rheinheimer.

"When you hear about something like this, it's the kind of thing that makes you go weak in the knees," he said.

Dever will be remembered personally as a trustworthy man, and professionally as a sheriff who spoke up for border ranchers whose lands were being trampled by illegal crossers and drug smugglers, ranchers and colleagues said.

Cochise County Recorder Christine Rhodes, a Democrat originally from St. David, lauded Dever as a "wonderful family man."

"Larry Dever will be sorely missed. He was extremely well-liked, so well-liked that nobody was bothering to run against him," she said.

Dever's death is a huge loss to ranchers fighting the border issue, said Ed Ashurst, who manages a ranch in Cochise County.

"He wasn't afraid to speak out about it," Ashurst said. "He was a real patriotic American."

 

Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or bmccombs@azstarnet.com.