TOOELE — Fifty years ago, on March 19, which was a Wednesday in 1968, the Deseret News broke a story that would have significant worldwide ramifications.
The reporter who broke the news remembers it like it was yesterday.
“I was sitting at home on Tuesday night the 18th when a county commissioner called me,” says Joseph Liddell. “He said, ‘Joe, I’ve got a scoop for you. We’ve got 5,000 dead sheep.’”
In the next day’s Deseret News, this lead appeared: SKULL VALLEY, Tooele County – A mystery epidemic had killed possibly 5,000 sheep today, leaving a “sea of dead animals” on the ranches and winter ranges of Skull Valley.
Ever since, the world has never looked at chemical warfare the same.
• • •
Liddell will be 95 in a couple of months and he’s still as with it as he was when he was a young man growing up in Erda, the little farm town next door to Tooele.
As evidenced by the following exchange:
Me: “So have you lived in Tooele County all your life?”
Liddell: “Well, not quite. I’m still living it.”
Liddell’s byline appeared in the Deseret News over a 36-year period, from 1957 to 1993, when he retired at age 70. As a city desk reporter, he covered a variety of big news stories, from Ted Bundy to prison breaks to Donald Campbell’s crash on the Salt Flats.
But it’s the sheep story that resonates loudest all these years later.
“The most significant news story I ever did,” says Liddell, who still lives in the same house on the same street in Tooele he’s called home for more than half a century.
It was where he got the phone call that night from the county commissioner.
“How I ever slept after that I’ll never know,” he says.
The Deseret News was an afternoon newspaper in 1968, meaning the staff arrived in the morning to put out the paper. Liddell’s shift on March 19 started at 4:30 a.m. He was the first to arrive at the office. After he turned on the teletype machine, he breathed easier when he noted there was nothing about the dead sheep on the wires.
Then he sat down at his typewriter and wrote his story, referencing shorthand notes he’d jotted down the night before.
When the editors looked at what Liddell had, they decided to run a banner headline on Page A1 — “Mystery Illness Kills 5,000 Utah Sheep” — and lead the local section on B1 with the story.
Still, Liddell didn’t sense much of a vibe.
“They didn’t realize what a bombshell it was,” he says. “But I did.”
His hunch was verified as soon as the news hit the street and the wires.
“My phone started ringing and didn’t stop,” he says. “I got a call from Belgium, another from New Zealand, and from all over the East Coast. It was driving me crazy.”
The reason, of course, wasn’t because of the dead sheep. It was because the U.S. Army’s Dugway Proving Grounds bordered the Skull Valley range where the sheep died.
In the days that followed, the Army admitted it had tested a nerve agent the day before the sheep started dying. By summer, the government — while not explicitly accepting full responsibility — nonetheless paid out $376,685 in damages to the owners of 6,249 deceased or disabled sheep.
Liddell wrote about all that, too.
And the next year, he wrote about President Richard Nixon announcing the end of America’s offensive biological weapons program, a stand that in turn led to an international ban on chemical warfare.
It isn’t far-fetched to suggest that the rise of the modern environmental movement can be traced back to those dead sheep in Tooele County.
“The world picked up their ears,” says Liddell. “The words ‘chemical warfare’ got their attention.”
The old newsman smiles at the memory of what his scoop wrought. He also smiles at the irony that even all these years later, the mystery illness he wrote about is still a mystery.
While it’s generally accepted that the Army did it, there’s a growing body of scientific research that suggests the culprit might have been an insecticide that was sprayed by ranchers at the same time in the same vicinity.
“I think it was the Army,” says Liddell. “The coincidence is just too hard to explain. But I also have serious reservations because the insecticide the ranchers used was capable of killing just like the nerve gas.”
What he knows for sure is 5,000 sheep died, and then some, in Tooele County 50 years ago — and he was the first to let the world know.