August 28, 1978 12:00 PM

Mike Rosa told his wife, Becky, very little about his work as an undercover narcotics cop until last month.

“I could be killed any day now,” he told her, as they drove from their home in Rock Springs, Wyo. to Salt Lake City on a shopping trip. For a moment after Becky asked him why, Mike was silent. Then he said, “Because I know too much. I know things that could put a lot of higher-ups in jail. It could even go back to Washington, D.C.”

A few days later, 60 hours before he was scheduled to tell a special grand jury what he knew, Mike Rosa, 29, was shot between the eyes. The man who pulled the trigger was his boss, Rock Springs Director of Public Safety Ed Cantrell, 51. In the aftermath, Rosa’s private files on his undercover work were stolen from his home, says Becky. He was, it appears, a good cop in a bad town. “He wouldn’t have been killed if he’d known when to shut up and where to run,” says a source close to the grand jury investigation. “He was in worse shape than Serpico. Serpico was not alone. He at least had some personal friends in the department.”

Rosa had been exploring the underworld of Wyoming for eight months, posing as a drifter on the hustle. It was not a difficult role for him to play. Born in Ponce, Puerto Rico, Mike had grown up on the rooftops and fire escapes of Manhattan’s Spanish Harlem. At 17, he fled into the Marines and did two combat tours in Vietnam, making sergeant and winning the Purple Heart for a knee wound. He attended the University of Maryland, worked as a cop in that state, then moved to Wyoming. After knocking around several police departments, he was hired by Ed Cantrell. “We came here so the kids wouldn’t have the worries he had as a child in New York,” says his widow, but soon Rosa was facing a web of crime and corruption that made the barrio seem tame.

Big mineral strikes in the early 70s—coal, oil and gas—turned Rock Springs (pop. 26,000) into a boomtown—almost like the Gold Rush days, when Chinese miners and the likes of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid gave the place a raffish, hell-for-leather reputation. But there was an ugly side to the new affluence. Mike Rosa reportedly had discovered tie-ins between drug smuggling, prostitution and gambling. He was tracking down rumors of police payoffs, mob activity and several unsolved—even uninvestigated—killings. After 60 Minutes broadcast a segment on corruption in Rock Springs, Becky asked her husband if things were that bad. “Worse,” he answered. And he was going to spill it all. “Mike told me many times he didn’t think he’d ever reach 30,” says Becky. “He had dreams that he was being chased, that some men shot him in the head.” One report indicated he thought he had enough evidence to involve no fewer than 50 state and county officials in one kind of criminal activity or another.

Rosa was not the first Rock Springs lawman to try to expose corruption. The others, however, had been scared off. Bob Stockwell, 34, was a town cop until four years ago, when, he claims, he was railroaded off the force for arresting “certain people with friends in high places and other indiscretions.” Stockwell now carries a gun and keeps his attack dog, Satan, around him at all times. “The criminals have taken over and are paying off,” he says, “and if anybody tries to stop them his life is in danger.” Nonetheless, Stockwell has declared for sheriff in the November election.

Clyde Kemp Jr., 39, who was public safety director before Cantrell, was hired early in 1977 to “clean up” Rock Springs. “I ran up against apathy and corruption,” he says, charging that some police were in league with prostitutes and under orders not to raid gambling dens. “Shortly after I told the city police officer assigned to a county task force that I wanted them to clean up the town, he was shot to death.” When Kemp was told to quit with a month’s pay as severance or be fired, he left—in part, he claims, because of threats on his life. But he also started talking to newsmen, whose investigations led to the convening of the grand jury. “There are good, honest, decent people in Rock Springs who don’t understand what has been happening to them,” Kemp says. “It’s too bad a young man had to lose his life to get their attention.”

Rock Springs Mayor Paul Wataha keeps to the official line, calling the Rosa slaying “an unfortunate situation blown out of proportion. I think it was just trouble between two men…Cantrell said after the shooting that Rosa was going for his gun and he got him first. He told me Rosa has been giving him a real bad time for a month.”

But that version sorts oddly with the facts as recounted by witnesses. The Friday night before his scheduled Monday grand jury appearance, Rosa headed for Rock Springs with his sense of dread deeper than ever. “If something happens to me,” he told Becky, “don’t feel bad.” At about the same time in Rock Springs, Cantrell was huddling with Matt Bider, second-in-command of city detectives, and Jim Callas, Rosa’s sergeant, about what the young cop might tell the grand jury. As they drove along the town’s main street, they passed the Silver Dollar bar and spotted Rosa’s car. Cantrell decided to stop and talk with him. By radio, the Rock Springs police dispatcher was asked to call the bar and tell Rosa to come outside. He did so, carrying a glass of wine, and climbed into the back seat. Only a few words were exchanged before Cantrell fired. “Good God, Ed,” Callas asked Cantrell, “why did you do that?” Cantrell stared at him coldly, then asked Bider to put his service revolver on the floor in front of Rosa’s body as if Rosa had drawn it. Bider refused. Rosa’s own gun was still in its holster inside his trouserband.

Afterward Cantrell said he shot Mike Rosa because “I could see in his eyes he was going to get me. It was me or him.” But Jim Callas remembers something else Ed Cantrell said that evening as they discussed Rosa’s subpoena: “Maybe we ought to take the son of a bitch out and kill him.”

After a psychiatric examination had found him fit to stand trial for first-degree murder, Cantrell was released on $325,000 bond. A judge ruled that he should not remain in the county “for his own protection,” and he is believed to be in seclusion in the eastern part of the state.

Becky Rosa was tempted to go home to her family in Maryland but has decided to stay in Rock Springs with her son, Christopher, and two daughters, Roxanne and Jasmine, despite the risk. Not long after the killing, someone poisoned her German shepherd guard dog. She considers it an implied threat. “It’s not myself but my children I’m worried about,” she says, “but I have to remind the people why Mike died, that he was killed because he was going to help clean up the town. Otherwise it’s a waste. It will all have been for nothing.”

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