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Cowboy Cop Lonny Hurlbut Rides Herd on Bad Guys in a Tiny California Town

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With a cigarette stuck between his lips and a gold star pinned to his chest, Lonny Hurlbut sits astride his horse surveying his chunk of the Wild West—the peaceful town of San Juan Bautista, Calif. Steely-eyed, a .357 Magnum holstered on his Levi’s, he taps the brim of his black hat for the ladies and offers a macho-quick nod to the hombres and wide-eyed kids.

Police chief Lonny Hurlbut, 49, is living out a boyhood fantasy in grand California style. “I’m not a mean man,” he says evenly. “But if enforcing the law means sticking a gun down some dirt-bag’s throat, hell, I’ll do it.” Finally comes the laugh and Hurlbut adds, “No other cop is dumb enough to dress the way I do. I’d wear leotards if it would enforce the law.”

Tiny San Juan Bautista (pop. 1,400) is the perfect place to carry off such an everyday cowboy gig. Since Hurlbut first donned his Western getup in 1982, he boasts, crime has dropped 65 to 70 percent. San Juan Bautista’s 800,000 annual visitors come to see the historic mission but others want to chew the fat with the cowboy cop who actually comes from Ohio and only learned to ride a horse 2½ years ago.

Hurlbut had been a beat cop, then a security supervisor. Shortly after he was hired as chief he dressed in cowboy duds to publicize a town rodeo. He was such a hit that he’s dressed Western ever since, patrolling from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. (His two uniformed deputies have the night shift.) “Lonny is quite a, uh, unique individual,” says Captain Terry Medina of the nearby Watsonville police department. “He has become a tourist attraction, but he hasn’t lost his identity as a law officer.”

Hurlbut’s got a horse, a town straight off a Hollywood back lot and a family (wife Lee of 29 years and five children). What more could a good lawman want? “Before I get to that big precinct in the sky,” says Hurlbut, “I’d like to be in a Western movie.”

Ride ’em, Lonny.