Established in 1881, the office of Cochise County Sheriff is an integral part of the region’s legendary Wild West heritage. The inaugural office holder, Johnny Behan, was infamously friendly with the outlaw Cowboys that the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday shot down at the O. K. Corral, and the fourth holder of the office, Texas John Slaughter, was a former Texas Ranger and Civil War veteran who had a hand in hunting down and capturing the renegade Apache medicine man and war leader, Geronimo.
Briefly inheriting the position of undersheriff of eastern Pima County from Wyatt Earp himself, Johnny Behan was elected as the first Sheriff of Cochise County when it split off from Pima County in 1881. A former miner, saloon keeper, and minor political appointee, Behan came into conflict with the Earp brothers almost immediately.
Allegedly annoyed by an incident in which Wyatt used the threat of Behan to recover his brother Virgil’s stolen horse from a member of the outlaw Cowboy gang (a group that Behan was infamously close to), the sheriff refused to name Wyatt as his undersheriff. Earp insisted that the position had been promised to him in a backroom deal as payment for agreeing not to run against Behan in the election.
The friction continued to build when the Earp brothers were appointed city marshals, a position that resulted in the lawmen frequently being at odds with one another, as the Earps periodically arrested members of the Cowboys gang and Behan let them go, an arrangement that culminated in the Earps handing the outlaw Luther King over to Sheriff Behan, and Behan quite literally walking him in the front door of the courthouse and out the back.
The friction came to a head following the famous Shootout at the O. K. Corral, when the Earps and their associate Doc Holliday gunned down most of the Cowboys gang. Behan had attempted to get both factions to disarm, but was unable to prevent the incident, and would afterwards arrest both Wyatt and Holliday for murder, testifying against them at a preliminary hearing, though the marshals were ultimately exonerated.
Behan would again pursue Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday during their legendary vendetta ride against the remaining Cowboys, following the assassination of Morgan Earp, but wouldn’t catch them. Sheriff Behan would hold a grudge against the Earps for the rest of his life, frequently decrying them in the press.
Five years after the Earp brothers’ famous shootout with the cowboys, a man named John Horton Slaughter would be elected sheriff. Every bit as imposing as his name would suggest, Slaughter was a former Texas Ranger who had once hunted a cattle rustler and card cheat across state lines, gunning him down on the grounds of a mutual friend’s ranch.
Grim eyed and taciturn with a short, well groomed beard, Texas John Slaughter would virtually depopulate the county of outlaws in his two terms as sheriff, the most famous incident coming at the very beginning of his tenure when he and his men tangled with the Jack Taylor Gang, killing some and scattering the others. While most of the outlaws would escape, they’d never again be the menace that they were, and the remainder of them all met violent ends at the end of a hangman’s rope or a lawman’s bullet, or were caught and jailed.
Another of Slaughter’s famous exploits came when he assisted the United States Cavalry in pursuing and capturing the Apache leader, Geronimo.
A protege of the county’s namesake, the Chiricahua Apache warchief Cochise who had resisted Mexican and American incursions onto his territory for so long, Geronimo was a medicine man and leader of the Apache guerrillas who refused to be moved from the Chiricahua reservation following a series of attacks on American settlements.
Sheriff Slaughter’s knowledge of the area proved invaluable in the manhunt, the craggy hills of southeast Arizona having confounded the efforts of unaccustomed soldiers hunting Apache guerrillas for a generation or more. Geronimo at last surrendered, and was captured and brought East, where he lived out the remainder of his life on a reservation.
Texas John Slaughter retired in 1890, leaving Cochise County mostly tamed. He spent most of the remainder of his life tending to his ranch, and died peacefully in 1922 at the age of 80.
Today, the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office is based in the county seat of Bisbee, and maintains the county’s jails, as well as policing the unincorporated areas of the county. In addition to Civil, Communications, Detention, and Patrol Divisions, the office operates a SWAT team and a Search and Rescue Posse. Additionally, the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office operates a single helicopter: an Airbus EC130T2, code named ‘Geronimo’.