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Nevada Highway Patrol trooper honored 40 years after Lake Tahoe death

Jack Barnwell
jbarnwell@tahoedailytribune.com
Friends, family and law enforcement gathered to remember fallen Nevada Highway Patrol Trooper Gary Gifford at Zephyr Cove Lodge on Wednesday, Oct. 14. Gifford was killed on Oct. 14, 1975, near Cave Rock Tunnel on Highway 50.
Jack Barnwell / Tahoe Daily Tribune |

ZEPHYR COVE — On Oct. 14, 1975, Nevada Highway Patrol Trooper Gary Gifford was shot and killed at Cave Rock Tunnel during a traffic stop.

Forty years later, friends, family and fellow law enforcement veterans raised a toast and swapped stories at the Zephyr Cove Lodge in memory of Gifford.

For retired Nevada Highway Patrol trooper Tom Hammill, the meeting was a way to remember Gifford.

“Everyone loved Gary Gifford,” Hammill said. “He was a fun-loving, nice guy who was always making jokes.”

Hammill was Gifford’s field training officer at the time and recalled reports of the incident.

Gifford was shot and killed by suspected bank robber Kenneth Meller during a traffic stop on the eastbound tunnel at Cave Rock on Highway 50.

He was only the second trooper to be killed in the agency’s then 26-year history.

Prior to that, when the Nevada State Police existed, only three officers were killed. Nevada Highway Patrol trooper and public information officer David Gibson said only nine active state police officers lost their lives to various causes since 1911.

According to Hammill, Meller, a former Marine, robbed a Round Hill, Nevada, bank and escaped before Gifford stopped him on Highway 50.

Reports described Meller as a man with a clean record and no history of past violence. Meller struggled with Gifford during the stop, and he managed to knock out the trooper.

Meller killed Gifford with the officer’s own gun in cold blood before fleeing, Hammill said. He then left his vehicle in Sand Harbor, Nevada, took a driver hostage and made his way to Kings Beach in California. Meller surrendered after a standoff at the Innisfree Beach Club and was later sentenced to life in prison.

Meller died on Oct. 13, 1989, in Nevada State Prison after he took a prison doctor hostage. He lunged at a SWAT team and was shot five times.

Gifford remembered

Jimmy Gifford, Gary Gifford’s son, was present at the Oct. 14 gathering.

Jimmy was only 5 years old at the time of his father’s death, and doesn’t remember much about Gary Gifford. He does, however, remember the connections he made after his father’s death.

“A couple of the troopers stayed in touch with me all of these years,” he said. “One of them used to bring me Christmas and birthday presents. I’m really grateful to have that kind of relationship with these guys 40 years later.”

Jimmy Gifford added that the gathering represented the respect officers had for his father.

A U.S. Department of Agriculture environmental conservationist, Jimmy Gifford said he never felt inclined to pursue a law enforcement career. But he does wonder about the what-ifs had his father survived.

“It’s interesting to think what influence my dad might have had if he were still alive,” he said.

Nevada Department of Transportation granted Gifford a rare posthumous honor when it named a stretch of Highway 50 after him. The department restricts the number of dedication signs since Nevada has 5,500 miles of state highway.

Col. Dennis Osborn, Nevada Highway Patrol’s chief, remarked that the gathering to remember Gifford held a lot of meaning. Osborn was present at the Oct. 14 gathering as well.

“Even 40 years later, it’s important that people are remembering Gary Gifford, and that he’s not forgotten when he gave the ultimate sacrifice,” Osborn said.


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