UNT police captain shares tales of crime and punishment in the Old West

UNT police captain West Gilbreath recently published his second book on legal hangings, Death on the Gallows: The Enyclopedia of Legal Hangings in Texas. His first book, Death on the Gallows: The Story of Legal Hangings in New Mexico, 1847-1923, was published in 2002.

Gilbreath’s newest book contains photographs and stories of more than 460 legal hangings through Texas history. The executions were organized by the county and Gilbreath found that three happened in Denton on the courthouse lawn. Two of those executed committed crimes in Montague County but were tried in Denton on a change of venue, and the third person was hanged for a crime that took place in Cooke County. Changes of venue were not uncommon at the time. In fact, one murder that actually took place in Denton County — that of jailer Floyd Coberly — was tried in Wise County, where the execution also took place. 

During the Wild West days, hangings were public events that everyone attended, drawing thousands of people. Spectators rarely missed the executions and even brought their children. Gilbreath conducted detailed and exhaustive research on the executions of the day, documenting the crime and investigation that ultimately led to the punishment handed down to each perpetrator.

Gilbreath is no stranger to laws and law enforcement. He has been upholding laws for the better part of his life, having served the public for over 35 years. He began his career in Doña Ana County in Las Cruces, New Mexico, as a deputy patrolman. It was during his time in Las Cruces that he began researching and writing about the region’s law enforcement history.

The most famous regional story was about Pat Garrett, who served as sheriff of Lincoln and Doña Ana counties. Garrett killed William H. Bonney, the outlaw known as Billy the Kid, on July 14, 1881. Bonney had killed Lincoln County Sheriff William Brady, was tried for the murder in Doña Ana County and was subsequently sentenced to hang. Bonney was being transported back to Lincoln to be executed when he escaped, killing both deputies charged with guarding him. This and other Wild West stories further piqued Gilbreath’s interest in law enforcement history and led him to dig deeper into the region’s past.

He shared stories of Old West crime and punishment and the state’s outlaws and lawmen through articles in various New Mexican newspapers and says he received the most feedback on his articles about legal hangings, leading to further research on the topic. People wanted to know more about the crimes, those who committed them and where the executions took place. That research, in turn, led to his first book detailing each account of legal hanging in New Mexico, case by case.

Gilbreath had risen to lieutenant and commander over the criminal investigation division by the time he retired from Doña Ana County in 2001. Fate then intervened and he moved to Texas with his wife, Sabrina, so she could bring her logistics expertise to the UNT chemistry department as the stockroom manager. Just one month after retiring, Gilbreath found himself drawn to a second career in law enforcement with the UNT Police Department and currently serves as captain over criminal investigations. And with the move to Texas, he became intrigued by his new home state’s law enforcement history.

Gilbreath is highly trained, having graduated from the New Mexico State Law Enforcement Academy in Santa Fe, the FBI National Academy at Quantico, Virginia, and the National Forensic Academy at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. He is a Texas Master Peace Officer and Police Instructor.

It’s hard to say exactly when Gilbreath developed his fascination with punishment, specifically legal hangings, but it’s safe to say The Duke and Dirty Harry were big influences.

“I was raised on John Wayne and Clint Eastwood movies out in El Paso. I was always fascinated by the Old West and about how justice was managed out on the frontier,” Gilbreath says. “Once I began doing research, it was something I just had to know more about. The more I learned, the more I wanted to know.”

In addition to researching lawmen and outlaws of the Old West, the UNT police captain collects law enforcement badges from Texas and New Mexico, along with Old West memorabilia. 

Gilbreath is currently conducting research for a third book on outlaws and criminals from various states and he promises that there will be more accounts of legal hangings, but he doesn’t plan to relocate again to the places he’s researching.

“Going from a sheriff’s department responsible for 3,863 square miles bordering El Paso and Mexico to a university setting was a big change. It has been both challenging and rewarding,” Gilbreath says. “Since moving to Denton, my wife and I both fell in love with the area, country living and our work at UNT. To put it simply, this is our home and we’re not leaving.”