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Associated Press, Published June 02 2013

Beltrami County deputies seek honor for fallen 1923 comrade

KELLIHER, Minn. — Beltrami County deputies are trying to track down the descendants of James Art Wilson, the only deputy to die in the line of duty in the 116-year existence of the Beltrami County sheriff's office.

The deputies are hoping to provide Wilson a more fitting resting place than the simple, easily overlooked gravesite where he was buried after he was killed in 1923, the Bemidji Pioneer reported.

“I guess it just left an empty feeling. It really saddened me,” Deputy Scott Wherley said when he first saw the modest grave in Kelliher.

Wherley and fellow deputy Lee Anderson are now trying to find any of Wilson's family members to let them know they're hoping to create larger memorials, both at the Law Enforcement Center in Bemidji and the Fairview Cemetery in Kelliher.

Wilson was survived by a wife, son and two sisters, according to Pioneer archives.

“It's one of those events where the guy laid down his life and should be memorialized,” Wherley said. “If we don't hear from any family, we're just going to go ahead on our own and get some sort of funding.”

News accounts of Wilson's death are fuzzy but they describe a “long-standing dispute” that cost four lives, including Wilson's.

Newspaper reports say Leonard Portano first killed John and Lena Sanders, the parents of a 15-year-old girl who was the object of Portano's affection. Then he killed Oscar Timmy, a rival who was also interested in the girl.

After Wilson learned of the killings he made his way to the Sanders’ home. Portano spotted him from a distance and shot him in the head.

The citizens of Kelliher formed a posse to find Portano. The sheriff and his men eventually found Portano hiding under a pile of hay in a barn. He spent the rest of his life in Stillwater prison.

Wilson was buried in a simple grave. A bronze footstone reads, “James A. 1881-1923” and a nearby tombstone says, “Wilson.”

Wherley said the memorial is too insignificant to do justice to Wilson's memory. He and Anderson hope a more prominent memorial will keep his legacy alive.

“That would be our goal,” Wherley said. “Just that somebody can go into the cemetery and see that he gave his life for the community.”