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Police officers, some wearing black armbands in tribute to their slain colleague James Sell, listened yesterday outside a news conference in Mountain Home, Ark., about the slaying.
Police officers, some wearing black armbands in tribute to their slain colleague James Sell, listened yesterday outside a news conference in Mountain Home, Ark., about the slaying. (Essdras M. Suarez/ Globe Staff)

In joining force, slain officer had 'just wanted to get involved'

MOUNTAIN HOME, Ark. -- The last time a police officer was killed in action in this quiet part of the Ozarks was in 1968, when Baxter County Sheriff Emmett O. Edmonds went to feed a couple of prisoners breakfast at the county courthouse and they turned on him with a .32-caliber handgun. Only one other officer died in the line of duty here in the 20th century, and that was in an accidental shooting in 1907.

So when 18-year-old Jacob D. Robida pulled out a handgun and shot Officer James Sell, 63, in broad daylight Saturday during a routine traffic stop in Gassville, it shook police here, and other state officials, to the core.

Yesterday, flags flew at half-staff in Gassville. Arkansas's governor, Mike Huckabee, called Gassville's police chief to see how he could get in touch with Sell's family to express his condolences, said Scott Thrasher, a detective on the tiny Gassville police force, which includes four full-time officers, three part timers, and four reserves.

In Gassville, a community of 1,714, most years pass without a single homicide. Police spend most of their time stopping speeders along Highway 62, or checking that the churches have locked their doors at night, or patrolling the residential neighborhoods to make sure nobody's burning trash illegally.

The possibility of facing a gunman on a murderous rampage, said Ron Weaver, the chief of police in the neighboring town of Cotter, ''is not in the foremost of your mind."

Sell never meant for his job to be more than a part-time occupation, a way to stay active in the community where he retired in 2000 as a captain after more than 25 years on the force in Blytheville, a city of about 18,500 about four hours away.

''He definitely didn't need the paycheck," Gassville Police Chief Tim Mayfield told reporters at the Baxter County Sheriff's Office yesterday, where police wore black bands over their badges in Sell's memory. ''He just wanted to get involved."

He worked all day Saturday and half of Sunday, every other weekend. When Thrasher asked if he would like to do some detective work, Sell made it clear he wasn't interested.

''I think he liked to be in the car, on the street," he said.

Gassville police described their headquarters as an area of not much more than 280 square feet. There is no holding cell -- people taken into custody are brought to the county lockup -- and the department owns just four cruisers. Thrasher said Gassville police are like a family. Many citizens expect the police to treat them like relations, too.

''We get complaints for not waving," Weaver said.

''You have to wave with all the fingers," Mayfield agreed with a smile.

Like many of the officers in Gassville and other small towns nearby, Thrasher grew up in the area and found his niche in small-town policing. He is content here, as the department's lead investigator.

''I have no interest in wearing full body armor and a helmet and being on a SWAT team," he said. ''Sitting down and solving crimes, patrolling -- I like that."

If Sell's family wants police at the funeral, officers are likely to turn out by the hundreds, Thrasher said. He recalled that the last police funeral he attended, for an officer who died of an illness six years ago, drew at least that many.

Mayfield said he planned to meet with Sell's stepdaughter, Terri Elliott, this morning to discuss arrangements for the funeral. Thrasher said there had been discussions about finding ''venues that would hold at least 1,000."

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at lwangsness@globe.com.

James Sell retired in 2000 from police in Blytheville, Ark.
James Sell retired in 2000 from police in Blytheville, Ark.
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