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.