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October 22, 2014

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Gun-toting bailiff a throwback to a bygone era

In a courtroom here during a hearing last month, the bailiff looked like an Old West lawman come to life.

He is.

Bearclaw - whose birth name is Bob Stutsman - was on loan to the Storey County Courthouse to keep things peaceful during the court session. Nobody made trouble.

"When Bear says he'll enforce the rules, he's not kidding," said John Tyson, Storey County range investigator and reporter for KOLO-TV, Channel 8 in Reno. "He's the guy you want around in a big court case. If something bad happens, he'll put a stop to it right quick."

Bearclaw, about 6 1/2 feet tall and weighing 330 pounds, dresses in black pants, a wide-brimmed buckaroo hat and a black shirt with a silver and gold badge on his chest. In his hands, a grapefruit looks as small as a baseball.

He has the fierce, drooping mustache of a mountain man. A necklace of 20 black bear claws encircles his throat. Two .44-caliber Magnum pistols are holstered, cross-gripped, at his belt line.

Judges say he can shape up an angry inmate with a single glare.

"If he says stop, it gets your attention," Carson City District Judge Michael Griffin said. "He has no difficulty with anybody. Before they moved Max (maximum security prison) out of Carson City, we'd get a lot of murders-in-prison cases. Those guys are already doing life plus 20 years. They don't care about a lot."

Griffin said Bearclaw talks to inmates before they enter the courtroom. That's usually enough to keep them polite.

"Yep, I'm big and ugly. Sure ain't no movie star," said Bearclaw, 58. "Everybody can't be big and tough, but the ones that are should help the ones who aren't."

He's made a living at being big and tough since he was an overgrown kid in Arizona. He chopped trees and packed horses for the Forest Service, served in the military and as a mercenary, worked law enforcement and security jobs, was a bush guide and trapper in Alaska and boxed in prizefights.

He uses "cowboyed" as a verb.

"I was raised on a ranch near Tombstone, Ariz., so that kind of set my way of life," Bearclaw said. "I've cowboyed all my life and I've enjoyed it even though you have to know more and get paid less than any other job."

He still works with horses and wagons on weekends and once captured and broke mustangs.

He began his bailiff career in Carson City Justice Court in the 1980s for the popular Judge Tom Davis, who gave him the custom-made badge he now wears.

He's had to control death-row inmates who had nothing to lose and get between civil case opponents who let their emotions overcome their brains. In 1994, he made national headlines when, on a judge's order to silence a rowdy inmate, he used duct tape to seal the prisoner's mouth.

"I didn't like it. The judge didn't like it," he said. "But there was no alternative. I can deal with the tough ones because toughness is the only thing they understand."

Most folks in Carson City just call him Bear and have never head of Bob Stutsman. A story is behind the nickname and the necklace.

Working as a forester at age 15, Stutsman walked into a canyon to chop up a felled tree.

"As I walked around the point of a cliff, I met a black bear," he said. He was surprised and I was surprised. He weighed 455 pounds and was a few feet away."

When the bear lunged, he swung the ax at the animal's head.

"Killed him," Bearclaw said. "Lucky blow. My mom was half Cherokee and she made me this necklace. She said when you kill an animal in battle, you take the spirit of the beast."

Bearclaw grew up on the legends of Tombstone gunslingers and lawmen like Johnny Ringo, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. He still reads about Indian issues, Western lore, wagon trains and Gen. George Armstrong Custer.

He said the Old West was "a tougher, cleaner time" in history. Things were new, and honor counted for something.

"I got caught up in Western history at a very early age," he said. "If I had my choice, I'd be 100 years dead by now."

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