Town, new lawman collide over drunk driving : Marshal says it is his duty to make arrests. But residents argue that he doesn't understand their ways.


Like the hero of a Hollywood Western, the new town marshal here is riling locals by locking them up for something they never considered much of a crime.

In "Destry Rides Again" it was gunfighting; in Three Forks, it's drunk driving.

Since pinning on his badge last September, Marshal Joe Eldredge has locked up 19 of Three Forks' 1,200 residents for driving under the influence of alcohol, compared to three such arrests the entire previous year.

And now, 10 months into a job he hoped to have until he was old enough to retire, Eldredge is fighting to hold onto his badge.

Locals call the blond, 28-year-old Eldredge "Texas Joe" because he moved here from Dallas. The nickname also serves as a reminder that Eldredge is an outsider.

"It's not how we do things here," said R. E. (Dick) Emerson, a retiree, as he tapped cigarette ashes onto the floor of the mobile home he uses as a fireworks stand. "Throwing each other in jail 'cause you drive two blocks to your house isn't right."

Among those Eldredge has busted is the man who pressed the police commission to hire him: City Councilman Jack Rochford, a commission member and owner of the local bank.

Rochford is contesting his drunk-driving charge, bringing the first jury trial to Three Forks in living memory. (Lacking a courthouse, Three Forks plans to hold the trial in the International Order of Odd Fellows Hall.)

Rochford, who declined to be interviewed, is also leading a campaign to force Eldredge's resignation from the two-man police force.

In February, he presented a written complaint about Eldredge to the City Council, but a group of Eldredge supporters was on hand to provide counterpoint.

"'I have yet to have an alcohol-related accident involving a Three Forks resident since Joe has been here," said Dennis Delaitre, a Montana Highway Patrol officer who attended the meeting.

The showdown in Three Forks turned ornery in April when an Eldredge supporter, 23-year-old Tim Tharp, was fired from his job as a cook in a local bar. Tharp, a volunteer ambulance crew member, had used his radio to alert police that a drunk woman was about to drive off with her 5-year-old son in the car.

"I wanted Marshal Eldredge to come drive her home," Tharp said.

But by the time Eldredge arrived, the woman was on her way down the highway and, according to Eldredge, "weaving like crazy." He arrested her, and she later pleaded guilty to drunk-driving charges.

Bar owner Wayne Siren fired Tharp the day after the incident.

"People come in and spend their money, and if they've had too much, you're obligated to take them home," Siren said. "I myself have gotten out of bed at 2 in the morning to drive somebody home. But calling the cops on them? No sir."

But as Eldredge sees it, it's about time somebody cleaned up Three Forks, and for that matter, the rest of Montana. The state has a higher rate of alcohol-related traffic deaths than the national average, and while most states are reporting fewer traffic deaths each year, Montana's record is getting worse.

"I run a virtual taxi service and will drive anybody home in the patrol car who's too drunk to drive," he said recently as he switched off a country music TV program and prepared for his evening shift. "If I wasn't driving them home, I could have arrested hundreds of people this year. But if they get behind the wheel, I'll nail them and I don't care who they are."

Mayor Bonnie Cook, who runs the Charm Beauty Shop out of her basement and also serves as police chief, stands by her marshal. "The people that don't like him," she said, "are what I call 'the bar people.' "

Texas Joe and the Tharp incident are hot topics of conversation in the four bars that line Three Forks' main road.

Conversations with half a dozen patrons enjoying a late-morning beer at the Frontier Bar--most of whom say they have been arrested by Eldredge--reveal that they have no beef with the lawman. Some call him "Elliot Ness" and "Junior G-Man," but they allow that "he's a good cop doing his job."

Tharp's action, however, raises the question of whether a good citizen prevents someone from driving drunk or protects his neighbor from the long arm of the law. In the Frontier Bar, there's little argument.

"Someone working in a bar, taking money from selling liquor, has no business calling the cops on someone because they drink," said Donna Drabbs, 35, the woman Tharp turned in--and everybody in the bar loudly agreed.

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