I grew up the son of Dewey Catlin, the Kansas Highway Patrolman. When I was born in 1976, he had already been assigned to the Goodland area, where he stayed until 1981. From there, we moved to Sedan, where he was stationed until his retirement in 1997. Growing up, I remember being keenly aware of how dangerous his job could be. I knew of such troopers as Conroy George O'Brien, Ferdinand F. "Bud" Pribbenow, and James Thornton, among others, who had been killed in the line of duty.
Recently, Thornton’s name came to my attention because of his connection to Wellington and Sumner County.
The portion of United States highway 81 from its junction with United States highway 166, then north to the Sedgwick county line, is named as the Trooper James D. Thornton Memorial Highway.
This helps tell the story of who this man was.
Wellington Daily News Oct. 3, 1973
It was a sad assignment for Trooper Burl Anglemyer, Kansas Highway Patrol, to carry out here Tuesday night, but it was one someone had to do.
It was Anglemyer who was instructed to inform Mrs. Wanda Thornton, wife of James Thornton, the cage trooper slain in Topeka, of her husband’s death.
Anglemeyer said he was off-duty when he received a telephone call detailing the death of the patrolman. He was shocked.
Anglemyer was a long-time friend of Thornton. The trooper’s family had been friends since 1960, he said. The trooper said he and Thornton both worked on the Winfield Police Department, although at different times.
It was Thornton who investigated Anglemyer when he joined the KHP, and it was Thornton who broke him into his first patrol assignment in Sumner County.
Thornton served on the Highway Patrol since 1949.
“Jim (Thornton) knew the county, its illegal truck drivers, the legal ones, and lots of other people who helped law enforcement,” Anglemyer said.
Anglemyer took over the patrol of Sumner County from Thornton, who was transferred to the Kansas Turnpike in 1969. Thornton patrolled the pike from then until one month before his death.
Anglemyer said Thornton liked to hunt. “In fact, we’ve got to take two bird dogs of his tomorrow and box (unintelligible) up somewhere for a while,” Anglemyer said.
“Everyone liked him, he was a conscientious and seasoned trooper,” Anglemyer said he also knew twin brothers of Thornton of Winfield and said both are school teachers.
Thornton was not the first trooper Anglemyer knew who was killed in the line of duty. Another friend, Trooper Eldon Miller, was killed at the Metcalf State Bank in Overland Park in 1968. “It’s kind of ironic,” Anglemyer said.
In Topeka, Captain Gene Goldsberry, commander of Division 1 of the patrol, said Thornton’s files contained numerous letters of commendation.
Thornton was fatally shot Tuesday, Oct. 3, 1973, by a hitchhiker from New York who had recently been charged with murdering his father. Thornton was shot in the head with a .32 pistol as he was bending over the man’s gear.
The assailant, Edward E. Mitchell, was killed in a shoot-out with law enforcement a short time later in Topeka.
Thornton served Kansas for more than twenty-four years and was scheduled to retire within the next year. According to newspaper accounts after his death, he had been urged by some residents in Sumner County to run for sheriff following his impending retirement from the Kansas Highway Patrol.
Services were held for Trooper Thornton October 6th, 1973, at 2:00 p.m. at First Baptist Church in Wellington. Burial will be in Highland Cemetery in Winfield. Yost Funeral Home has charge of arrangements.
Trooper Thornton was born Sept. 30th 1921, at Gordon, KS, the son of William B. Thornton and Carrie Ellen Anderson.
He graduated from Winfield High School in 1940. Thornton served in the United States Army from 1942 to 1946, attaining the rank of Staff Sergeant. He attended Southwestern College from 1946 to 1948.
On July 1, 1949, Thornton joined the Highway Patrol and was assigned as a Driver’s License Examiner in Garden City. He was promoted to Trooper in 1951, and began field duties in Finney County.
He was married to Wanda L. Brachear on Sept. 25, 1949, at Winfield. He came to Wellington from Garden City, on Sept. 1, 1957. He started work for the Kansas Highway Patrol on July 5, 1949, and was transferred to the Kansas Turnpike Patrol in 1969.
He was a veteran of World War II; a member of the First Baptist Church, Wellington; Wellington Elks Lodge No 1167; Kansas Peace Officers Association and the American Legion Post at Winfield. He was a past assistant scoutmaster at the First Baptist Church, Wellington.
Survivors include his widow, Wanda; a son, Gary, and a daughter Vicki, all of the home here in Wellington; three brothers, Wilbur Thornton, San Diego, CA; Joe Thornton and Bill Thornton, both of Winfield; a sister, Mrs. Aaron B. (Marilyn Johnson, Winfield; his mother-in-law and father-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. J.R. Allen, Arkansas City.
In the year after his death, Thornton was honored by the National Police Hall of Fame with the Medal of Valor. The medal was given “in recognition of outstanding heroism, valor, and meritorious service and beyond the call of duty.” It was also accompanied with a check for $300.00 from the organization.
His brother, Joe Thornton, was the first superintendent of the Winfield Rec Center. Joe and Bill Thornton were teachers in the Winfield school system for many years. According to retired Kansas Highway Patrolman Jim Gaddie, Thornton had briefly been on the Winfield Police Department before joining the Kansas Highway Patrol. Thornton’s widow, Wanda, now lives in Cumbernauld Village in Winfield.
Ten years ago, the Kansas State Troopers Association paid for and escorted his suviving family members on a trip to the National Law Enforcement Memorial in Washington D.C.
Wanda Thornton and her son, Gary, and daughter, Vicki, traveled with eight KSTA members in May to visit the wall that bears the name of their late husband and father.
James D. Thornton’s name is forever engraved on Panel 37, E-12 on the National Law Enforcement Memorial.
Wanda Thornton’s trip to Washington D.C. was documented in the Summer 2008 edition of the Kansas Trooper, the official publication of the KSTA.
According to the Wellington Daily News article detailing the trip, “His family is the first to be taken to the memorial by the KSTA membership.
During the visit on May 13, a candlelight vigil service was held a the National Law Enforcement Memorial and attended by the Kansas delegation.
Keynote speaker for the event was United States Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey.
“Law enforcement is not about badges and uniforms,” Mukasey said. “It is about taking a stand to protect the rights of our neighbors and shield them from danger.”
The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial was dedicated in 1991 by President George H.W. Bush.
It honors all of America’s federal, state and local law enforcers. Inscribed on the Memorial’s blue-gray marble walls are the names of more than 17,500 officers who have been killed in the line of duty, dating back to the first known death in 1792.
The Memorial sits on three acres of federal park land called Judiciary Square. The site has served for over 200 years as the seat of our nation’s judicial branch of government.
A glance around the space finds plush carpets of grass, nearly 60,000 plants and 128 trees decorating the Memorial grounds. Each year, around the first of April, some 14,000 daffodils make the Memorial one of Washington’s most spectacular attractions.
Bordering the Memorial’s landscaped park are two tree-lined “pathways of remembrance” where the names of the fallen officers are engraved.
The names of the fallen officers are displayed in random order on the Memorial Wall.
At an annual candlelight vigil held each year during National Police Week (in May) new names of fallen officers are added to the memorial.”