For decades, the Kentucky grave of a Utah corrections officer stabbed to death at the prison by an inmate remained unmarked. But not anymore.
Members of the Utah Law Enforcement Memorial tracked down the spot in Frankfurt, Ky., where Officer Edwin J. Fisher is buried, installed a headstone and held a brief on-site ceremony for him Wednesday.
Fisher was 58 years old when he was killed June 1, 1955. He was born in Kentucky and came to Utah after retiring from the U.S. Navy, according to ULEM historian Robert Kirby, who also works as a columnist for The Salt Lake Tribune and is the author of “End of Watch: Utah‘s murdered police officers 1853-2003.”
As a widower with no children, Deputy Warden Jerry Pope said, it’s likely there was no one to pay for a headstone at the time Fisher was buried in a plot next to his first wife.
The Utah Department of Corrections purchased the headstone, which now sits atop his grave, and sent Pope and Corrections Honor Guard Commander Sue Partridge to participate in a ceremony memorializing him Wednesday morning.
Brian Clement, who along with Pope is a ULEM board member, attended the ceremony.
“It‘s a duty,” Clement said of the memorial. “It’s an honor to do it, but there’s no gratification to it because we’re talking about someone who was killed protecting our freedoms.”
An officer who takes the oath to “protect and enforce the laws of the state of Utah ... becomes family,” Clement said. “And we take care of our family.“
According to Kirby’s book, another Utah corrections officer received a call just after 12:30 p.m. June 1, 1955, and was told: “Fisher‘s been hurt in the boiler room.”
The officer found Fisher unresponsive on the bloody floor of his own office with stab wounds to his arm, back and chest.
About the same time, 21-year-old inmate William Walter approached two other officers who were talking in a nearby office in the same building.
The officers noticed a blade protruding from the bottom of Walter’s front pocket and asked what he had, Kirby’s book states. “I just stabbed Fisher,” he told them, and handed the knife over.
A prison physician pronounced Fisher dead half an hour later, and stated his cause of death was “internal hemorrhage and shock from the knife wounds,” according to Kirby‘s book. He said he found a small cut on the officer’s hand, indicating he’d tried to defend himself from the assault.
Walter had been serving one to 20 years for a 1953 Sanpete County burglary and was scheduled for parole in 1957.
He worked in the prison mattress factory in the same building as Fisher, and told officers he’d stolen the 8-inch boning knife from the prison butcher shop months earlier. Walter had kept the weapon hidden in a mattress, he said.
Walter told officers he didn’t know why he’d killed Fisher, and that he remembered seeing the officer behind his desk before he “blacked out.” The next thing he remembered was seeing the officer on the floor.
Two days after Fisher’s death, Walter was charged with first-degree murder. He entered a plea of innocent on July 23, 1955, and at the November trial, he testified along with other witnesses.
The inmate who’d found found Fisher bleeding and leaning against his desk said the officer was still breathing as the inmate lowered him to the ground before running to call for help.
Investigators presented Walter’s confession, but when he took the stand, Walter claimed he’d killed Fisher in self-defense.
Walter told the jury that Fisher had caught him with the knife eight months prior to the slaying, but had negotiated with the inmate that he wouldn’t tell if the inmate became the officer’s “errand boy,” Kirby’s book states. Walter would bring Fisher cigarettes and coffee, he told the court, and began to resent the arrangement.
After getting Fisher’s coffee the day of the killing, Walter said, “I told Fisher he could take the knife and turn me in.”
The officer became enraged and hit the inmate, Walter said, and during the scuffle, Walter used the knife to protect himself and fled because he was afraid.
The jury deliberated for eight hours, and the next day, found Walter guilty of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to life in prison. Though he once escaped a medium-security prison in 1971, he was picked up two days later, Kirby’s book says.
Once he finished his Utah sentence in 1979, Walter was transferred to a federal facility in California until he died at age 80 on Oct. 25, 2013.
Kirby’s records are part of an effort to track down and memorialize all Utah law enforcement officers who have died on-duty. The ULEM wants to “make sure every fallen officer has a headstone,” he said.
For the majority of officers, whose graves are marked, the ULEM adds a bronze medallion on or near the grave.
Fisher is one of five Utah corrections officers to die on the job.
In 1876, Warden Mathew B. Burgher died of a skull fracture after an inmate bludgeoned him with large rocks placed in woolen socks in the prison yard.
Officer Don Wagstaff died in 1970. An inmate attacked him with a pair of hoof clippers at the prison dairy. Then when Wagstaff was unconscious, the inmate bound his feet and covered him with grain, causing him to suffocate.
Lt. Fred F. House was shot and killed by a barricaded suspect in 1988 during a standoff at Singer Farm near Marion.
And in 2007, Officer Stephen R. Anderson was killed in a University Hospital exam room, when an inmate took his gun and shot him in the head.
Fisher’s memorial had been in the works for more than a year, Kirby said, and in addition to the three Utahns who attended the memorial service, several representatives from the Kentucky Department of Corrections were there.
The memorials show other officers “that their departments care about them and there’s value to what they’re doing,“ Pope said.
There are about a dozen other officers lying in unmarked graves throughout the state, Clement said, three of whom are buried in the Provo City Cemetery. The ULEM is working with local agencies to get headstones at those gravesites.
Veterans killed in action are revered as heroes, Clement said, and wars end. But law enforcement officers are fighting “a war that’s happening on our own streets.” They deserve respect from the citizens they’ve died protecting, he said.
“It’s just important that when we lose one of our officers in the line of duty, that we do everything we can to recognize that officer for their sacrifice,” Pope said.
Fisher was “one of our own,” Pope said, and until Wednesday, hadn‘t received the recognition he deserved.