Columbia hasn’t grieved for a local fallen law enforcement officer for more than 70 years. It has been that long since an on-duty officer was shot and killed in the line of duty on this town’s soil.
On June 14, 1933, Sheriff Roger I. Wilson, grandfather of former Gov. Roger Wilson of Columbia, and Missouri Highway Patrol Sgt. Ben Booth were killed on what is now Business Loop 70. The officers were shot as they approached two men who had committed a robbery in Mexico, Mo.
In 1933, as now, the community was stunned. One day after the killings, the Columbia Daily Tribune reported that “the tragedy which resulted in their deaths was so shocking that at first hearing it was discredited by almost everyone.” The Tribune noted there was “no question” that had the criminals been found and brought to Columbia on the night of the crime, they would have been lynched.
Two days after the killings, it was not outrage, but support, on display in Columbia. Both the Tribune and the Columbia Missourian reported 2,000 people gathered on the courthouse lawn for a service honoring the officers. In addition, hundreds had come to view the bodies in the funeral home where they were prepared for burial, and hundreds more filed through as the deceased lay in the courthouse. Courthouse offices were closed in tribute.
Columbia attorney George S. Starrett, quoted in the Tribune, described the incident’s effect.
“I have lived in this community a great many years, but I have never known any tragedy that has so affected the entire community as this one has,” he said. “It has touched the heart of every citizen of Boone County.”
Wilson’s sole surviving child, Helen Wulff, 73, was only 2 years old when her father died. Though she can’t remember him, Wulff has been amazed through the years by how many people still do remember.
“Even to this day, people come up to me to talk about it,” she said. “Older people will say, ‘I remember your dad so well.’”
In fact, Wulff said a woman told her that although she was only 9 years old at the time, she can remember hearing the sirens from when Wilson and Booth were killed. She also gave Wulff a clipping she had found saved among her mother’s papers.
The final lines of a June 15, 1933, Tribune article predicted the long-lasting effect the officers’ deaths would have on Columbia residents.
“The sympathy of the entire community goes out to the bereaved families of the dead officers. Both were men of fine sterling qualities who gave their lives in the exercise of duty. This may seem an empty encomium to those who have been bereft, but Columbia will ever remember Sheriff Roger Wilson and Sergeant Ben Booth as brave, valorous men, and their memories will long live in the annals of Columbia.”