Algernon D’Ammassa/Las Cruces Sun-News
LAS CRUCES – The county’s Historical Museum of Lawmen sits to the right of the front lobby at the Doña Ana County Sheriff’s Office on Motel Boulevard. The county calls it “the region’s only museum dedicated solely to law enforcement.”
Besides photographs of past sheriffs, service badges, vintage weapons and other memorabilia, the collection includes artifacts related to former sheriff Pat Garrett, famed for killing the outlaw Billy the Kid in Fort Sumner in 1881. The museum also featured a memorial to fallen law enforcement officers.
It once was open during business hours Monday through Friday and occasionally on Saturdays. More recently, tours were available by appointment, per the county website. The museum is curated by retired deputy Jim Beasley.
Now, however, the museum has been permanently closed and most of its inventory has been dispersed over the past several weeks.
Retired Doña Ana County sheriff’s Lt. West Gilbreath, who founded the museum 30 years ago, recently returned to Las Cruces to collect uniforms, badges, vintage handcuffs and other items he had donated to the museum, including a roll-top desk used by Garrett that Gilbreath rescued from the dump in the late 1990s.
“There’s very little left. Most everything is gone,” he told the Las Cruces Sun-News.
Gilbreath said the museum evolved from a display in the lobby of the Sheriff Office’s previous headquarters. He organized it with the approval of former Sheriff Ray Storment.
When the current headquarters building was in the design phase, Gilbreath said space for a museum was incorporated from the beginning. The collection made its home at the new headquarters in 2006.
“It was a place for citizens of Doña Ana County to see Old West history,” Gilbreath said. “Former retired deputies could take their families there and say, ‘This is what I was part of.’”
Up to his retirement in 2001, Gilbreath said the museum was a popular attraction for tour groups and school visits.
Sheriff Kim Stewart, who holds an undergraduate degree in history, said the museum drew few visitors anymore and most of its artifacts were collectibles with items of significant value kept in storage.
Moreover, she said, much of the collection was on loan to the Sheriff’s Office and not insured.
“We are law enforcement, not museum curators,” Stewart wrote in a statement. “Proper display and maintenance is a profession, and we don’t have those skill sets.”
Documents of historical value have gone to New Mexico State University’s library archives and special collections, where Stewart said they will be maintained and open to the public for review.
Gilbreath said he learned of the museum’s closure when Beasley contacted him, thanks to a written agreement returning items to Gilbreath if the museum was ever eliminated.
He expressed concern that some items may be disposed of before donors without such contracts have an opportunity to reclaim them.
As an example of potential losses, Gilbreath said he was saddened to see a 2,000-pound safe that was displayed inside the museum. The safe, which has been county property since 1881, sported original artwork inside and out, but at an unknown date was moved outdoors. Rust now covers the surface of the safe, which sat on a patio outside near an antique service vehicle.
A memorial to fallen officers remains outside the building’s main entrance.