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Longtime west Sonoma County utility worker, outdoorsman and shopkeeper Rex Nance, who as a reserve deputy sheriff in 1975 was shot five times while attempting to aid a fellow deputy in mortal danger, died Saturday.

Nance, who just three years ago was belatedly awarded the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office’s highest honor for heroism, was 79.

“He was a very likable, easy-going personality,” said his wife of 54 years, Mary Nance, of Timber Cove. “He was always willing to help a friend or a stranger.”

Rex Nance was born in Ripley, Mississippi. He came to Sonoma County in 1968 with his wife, whom he met while living in Los Angeles County.

A year later, while working for the phone company, he volunteered to be trained to wear a badge and carry a gun on patrol as a reserve deputy with the Sheriff’s Office.

Nance subsequently went to work as a lineman for Pacific Gas & Electric. In 1975, he was working days for PG&E, serving as a volunteer deputy at least one night a week and helping out at the Cazadero General Store, which he owned at the time.

Late the night of Saturday, Aug. 23, 1975, Nance, then 36, and a friend met up in Jenner with on-duty and uniformed deputy sheriff Merrit Deeds.

Deeds, 32, was a 1960 Healdsburg High School graduate and had just returned that May to Sonoma County after living in Alaska, where he worked as a state trooper.

Nance wasn’t on duty that night, so he wore street clothes. He legally carried a pistol in his waistband.

Deeds bade them farewell and left Jenner in his patrol car, heading inland.

He was on Highway 116, about a quarter-mile past Highway 1, when he spotted three men standing near a green Oldsmobile parked on the shoulder. Thinking the car might have broken down, the deputy pulled over just ahead of the Olds to offer assistance.

At that instant, Deeds had no way of knowing who the men were or what they were up to.

The car’s driver was Robert John Shirey, a convicted child molester who was on parole from prison and was named in an arrest warrant. Shirey and two companions, David Waite and Steven Johnson, had picked up two runaway 15-year-old hitchhikers and pulled over, apparently intending to assault the boys.

The teens managed to escape, running into a pasture. Seeing Deputy Deeds, who had spoken to the men and returned to his patrol car to use his radio to check on them, the boys shouted to him that one of the men had a gun.

Shirey then rushed up with his gun pointed at Deeds. He took the deputy’s .357 revolver.

It was about then that Nance drove up in his pickup with his friend riding beside him. Nance saw Deeds scuffling with a stranger.

As Nance stepped from his truck, Deeds shouted, “Rex, he’s got a gun!”

Shirey shot Deeds in the cheek. As the deputy fell, he then shot him in the back near his neck, killing him.

Nance charged at Shirey. The felon opened fire on him.

The first slug struck Nance in the face near his eyebrow, knocking his hat off and throwing him to the ground.

He was attempting to return to his feet and was reaching for his pistol when a second shot hit his right arm, causing him to let loose of the gun.

As Nance stood, Shirey shot him, again, in his upper right chest. Nance was trying to get back to his pickup when he was shot a fourth time, in the abdomen.

Shirey and the other two men got into the Olds. Before he drove off, Shirey fired at least three more shots. One bullet struck Nance in his already wounded right arm, a second flattened his pickup’s left front tire.

The car headed toward Guerneville, then doubled back and headed south on Highway 1 toward Bodega Bay.

Nance, though shot five times, directed his friend in the pickup to check on Deeds and use the patrol car radio to report what had happened.

About 12 minutes later, Deputy Sheriff Brent Jameson and Reserve Deputy Bill Passalacqua arrived on the scene. They reported by radio that Deputy Deeds was dead and Reserve Deputy Nance was gravely wounded.

The two teens were shellshocked but otherwise unharmed.

Shirey’s accomplices would recount later that after the scene near Jenner, Shirey pulled to a stop and retrieved from the trunk a 12-gauge shotgun and a box of shells. They said Shirey told them that if they were stopped by other officers, he would shoot them through the rear window.

About 45 minutes after the shooting, two CHP officers stopped the suspects’ car on Barnett Valley Road, off Bodega Highway. All three men were arrested. Officers found in the car the shotgun, Deed’s revolver and a 9mm semiautomatic pistol.

Nance underwent dozens of surgeries and was prevented by his injuries from becoming a full-time deputy.

Shirey was convicted of first-degree murder and was sentenced to death. His sentence was later reduced to life in prison, where he died.

His accomplices received lesser sentences.

Deeds, a husband and the father of two daughters, was buried at Shiloh Cemetery near Windsor. In 2014, the state Legislature designated a 5-mile stretch of Route 116 near Jenner the Deputy Sheriff Merrit Deeds Highway.

And in May of 2015, grateful and apologetic Sonoma County Sheriff’s officials reached out to Nance. They told him they wished to present him with a long-overdue tribute.

For all he’d done and all he’d suffered upon coming to the aid of Deeds and the two teens, the Sheriff’s Office bestowed upon Nance its highest honor, the Gold Medal of Valor.

Mary Nance said he deeply appreciated the award. Though Rex Nance survived the gunshots, he struggled with the murder of his friend Deeds and was often bothered by the damage to his right arm inflicted by the two bullet wounds.

Throughout his more than 50 years in Sonoma County, Nance enjoyed riding and caring for his horses, fishing and hunting.

After the tragedy near Jenner, he left PG&E and returned to work for the local phone company as a communications technician. He retired in his late 50s.

Nance was diagnosed with lung cancer in mid-September. He spent 10 days at the Kaiser Permanente Santa Rosa Medical Center and returned home to Timber Cove on Sept. 23.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by their combined seven children, Candi Nance, of Santa Rosa, Bonnie Sanchez, of San Fernando Valley, Joe Fisher, of Yuma, Arizona; Laura Norton, of Denver, Colorado; Rex Nance Jr. and John Cam Nance, of Fenton, Michigan; and Don Larzelere, of Mission Viejo; 13 grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

At Nance’s request, there will be no services.

You can reach Chris Smith at 707-521-5211 or chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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