by William Overend
(Reprinted from The Arizona Republic, Sunday Jan 28, 1973)
Sometimes he thinks about it out on a trail ride, what it would have been like to have been a marshal in the Old West. He wonders just how fast the old gunslingers really were. “You can’t help but think whether you would have been equal to some of them,” he says. Major Gordon Selby is doing the talking. He’s sitting in his office in the Arizona Department of Public Safety, the Assistant Chief of Criminal Investigations there, a top administrator now, well over 100 investigators out in the field.
You don’t’ hear much about that, though, when people start taking about Gordon Selby. They talk instead about his 21 years on the Phoenix Police Department. And most of all, they talk about the four men who died because Selby was the best shot there was. There was always that one thing Selby could do better than anybody else. Selby himself doesn’t like to talk about it. You can see he feels there’s been too much talk already. And in fact, this talent of his, this ability with a gun well, in some ways it actually hurt his career. When Selby was an 8-year-old boy growing up in Phoenix, he used to practice lighting matches with a .22 rifle. On the police force, he won every pistol competition he entered.
In 1957, he won the national police pistol championships. Just last week, at the age of 50, he picked up another trophy as top pistol shop in the Department of Public Safety. “It’s a God-given gift,” Selby says, after considerable reluctance to say anything. “Of course, depending on how you look at it. There have been lots of times I though it was a curse…. Any time you take a human life you have regrets, very deep regrets.” A century ago they probably would have turned Gordon Selby into a legend, immortalized him as the fast-draw, straight-shooting lawman. Today there might even be a television series about that legend. Gordon Selby didn’t live a century ago, however. And, over the years, as his reputation grew, some people started saying maybe Selby was too quick to shoot. “I think it was a great deterrent in my progress,” Selby says. “People start saying bad things about your, and, of course, they don’t really understand what really takes, place, why you have to do what you do…”It just happened I was in the wrong place at the right time many, many times…I guess only God and myself know whether what I did was right.”
Although Selby won’t talk much about the times he had to shoot somebody, it’s all there in the police files. He’d been on the force only four years when the first time came. It was 1949 and Selby was just 26 years old. A three-time murderer, Billy Ray Gilbert, was on the loose in Phoenix. Gilbert was spotted at a Phoenix motel. Selby and his partner, Ed Langevin, were sent to the scene. They were just outside the door to Gilbert’s room when he opened fire from inside, hitting Langevin in the legs. Selby returned the fire. He was quoted later that he wasn’t concerned much about Gilbert, that his main concern was for his partner, lying there wounded beside him. As the years followed, there were other notches added to Selby’s pearl-handled .357 Magnum.
One night on the roof at the Kraft Cheese Co., Selby and his partner, Richard Harrington, caught up with two burglars. One tried to take off Selby’s head with a chisel. A second later, he was dead with four holes in his chest. On another night, another rooftop, Selby had to shoot again. And another burglar died. Then there was a different setting, a man in a bar, with a knife to a woman’s throat. Selby and other police tried for hours to talk the man into letting her go. But he was too far gone to listen. Suddenly the woman panicked. She started to pull away. The knife flashed forward-but not as fast as Selby’s hand as he drew his gun and fired. The man was dead. The woman lived. “People talked about the times you’ve been involved in killing somebody,” Selby says. “They never talk about the times you bring somebody in when maybe you should have killed them.” Selby remembers one incident about all the rest, one that he is willing to talk about.
It was about 20 years ago. Selby and his partner had arrested a man on a fugitive warrant. “Out of the goodness of our hearts we decided we’d take him back to his apartment so he could pick up a few things,” Selby says. “His wife was there, about 8 months pregnant. She went hysterical, and she ran back into the back room and came out with a rifle. “I knew she was going to shoot me if I didn’t shoot her first. But I thought it was two lives, and I just couldn’t do it. I decided I’d have to take the bullets rather than the lives. So I didn’t shoot.” As it turned out, she didn’t shoot, either. Her husband grabbed the rifle away form her before she could pull the trigger.
In fact, Selby never has been wounded during his years as a policeman, although he’s been in more gunfights than he cares to remember. People who know Selby speak with awe about what he can do with a gun. He can draw a pistol and hit a bull’s eye at close range in a fifth of a second. In a second and a half, he can draw and put five bullets into a target, or a man, all within the same two-inch square. At the police station in Phoenix they used to play a little game with Selby. Everybody would take the bullets out of their guns. Somebody would stand behind Selby, a gun in his finger on the trigger. The game was to see whether they could pull that trigger before Selby could draw his gun, spin, take aim at them and pull his trigger. Selby seldom lost.
Today, however, Selby doesn’t’ spend much time playing games. He feels those days are behind him. He doesn’t practice shooting much anymore. As he always has, he spends a lot of time by himself, riding the champion Appaloosa horses that he raises. At the moment, he says he’s trying to retrace the path of the old Butterfield Stage route north of Cave Creek. In addition to time with the horses, he also spends a lot of spare time hunting. Arizona history interests Selby. He has an Apache water basket in his office, roughly 300 years old. Behind the desk, there’s an old painting of some Plains Indians painted 90 years ago. Next to it are trade beads used centuries ago by the Hohokam Indians.
Selby even seems to regard himself as something out of the past. “I’ve always thought I was born 100 years too late,” he says. This image, though, of being the last of the Old West gunslingers- it doesn’t seem to mean much to Selby today. He’s more interested in his administrative duties, and in his personal, private family life. Selby and his wife, Charlotte, have three daughters, 6, 10, 11. Although he’s hesitant to discuss the events of the past, the events that added so much controversy to his career, Selby has no reluctance to discuss the present and his goals for the future. It’s noting very complicated. The man who could shoot faster and straighter than any other policeman around has thought about it carefully. And he puts in simply: “My main interest today is leading a Christian life and raising a good American-oriented family.”