Old Times and Old Timers

Some New Mexico Nicknames.  

The former sheriff of Lincoln and Doña Ana counties, Pat Garrett, was shot in the back of the head and died on February 29, 1908. The murder took place along a wagon road, near Alameda Arroyo, east of Las Cruces.

The official version of that event is that Garrett had been involved in a dispute with a man named Jesse Wayne Brazel over a herd of goats that Brazel grazed on Garrett’s ranch land in the Organ Mountains. On the day in question, as Garrett and Carl Adamson, a business associate, rode a buckboard en route from Organ to Las Cruces, Brazel, on horseback, joined them. Adamson stopped the rig so that both he and Garrett could get down to urinate and two shots rang out. One bullet hit Garrett in the back of the head and exited above the right eyebrow. The second struck him in the stomach and ranged upward to his shoulder. Adamson later reported that the old sheriff moaned softly, and then died.

Adamson said his back was turned when the shots were fired, but that he turned almost immediately and observed Brazel holding a smoking gun. Adamson and Brazel left the body where it fell and rode on into Las Cruces. Brazel immediately turned himself in to deputy sheriff Felipe Lucero. He admitted to the killing, but claimed self-defense.

The late Pete Ross, an Albuquerque prosecuting attorney, was certainly right when he said that it is unlikely that anyone will ever know for sure exactly who killed Pat Garrett. Many in 1908 did not believe that Brazel pulled the trigger, and historians — amateur and professional alike —have argued the point in the years since. Brazel was, however, the object of prosecution for the crime and no one else was ever arrested in the matter even though many were rumored to have been blameworthy: Killin’ Jim Miller (Carl Adamson’s brother-in-law), ranchers W. W. Cox and Oliver Lee, political figure A. B. Fall and others.

Territorial Attorney General James Madison Hervey made a plausible case for a murder charge at the preliminary hearing on March 3. Brazel was ordered held on that charge and bond was set at $10,000. Rancher W. W. Cox posted it and the suspect was freed.

Garrett was interred in the Odd Fellows Cemetery on March 5. His pallbearers included Territorial Governor George Curry. It is at this point that Ross, who did an extensive study of the matter, added a new dimension to the case. It has been long noted that the prosecution of Wayne Brazel was done with “. . . appalling indifference and incompetence,” but Ross goes a step beyond that. He endeavors to show why that was so, and who was responsible for it.

Governor Curry hurried to Las Cruces as soon as he learned of Garrett’s death from District Attorney Mark Thompson. Curry’s relationship with Garrett is worthy of note, especially in light of later events. The two men had been acquainted since the mid 1880s, and had apparently been friends for many of those years. Garrett even co-signed a bank loan for Curry at one point, and ended up paying it off when Curry defaulted during the Spanish American War. But their paths diverged by the turn of the century in 1901. Garrett had been closely aligned with Republican President Theodore Roosevelt until they had a falling-out in 1905 (the subject of a future column); and Curry, was a Democrat who became a Roosevelt Republican, along with Albert Bacon Fall, and others, after the Spanish American War. There was simply no political capital in a friendship with Garrett, and besides, Garrett, who was on hard times, was dunning the Governor for repayment of the old bank loan.
Ross does not believe that Curry had anything to with the planning that went into the murder of Garrett. He does, however, imagine that the governor did the bidding of some of his friends to make sure that Brazel would be acquitted and that not enough evidence would exist to arrest or prosecute anyone else for the crime.
Here is what Curry did.

He called off investigation of the murder by Mounted Police Captain Fred Fornoff who early-on found evidence that implicated Jim Miller. Curry claimed, “The Territory did not have funds available for such an investigation.” Attorney General Hervey also did not believe that Brazel was guilty. Curry says, “[He] . . . declined to appear for the Territory, which had my approval.” Ross thinks that Curry, as the highest-ranking official in the territory, had a bit more to do with it. This is important because with Hervey out of the picture, prosecution fell to District Attorney Mark Thompson and this is where the plot thickens.

Mark Thompson was the law partner of Albert B. Fall who was a close business associate of rancher W. W. Cox who actually employed Brazel as cowhand. Fall had also employed the services of Oliver Lee as gun hand. Fall, Cox and Lee were members of the alleged cabal that plotted the murder in the first place. So, Thompson would prosecute Brazel, and Fall, at the behest of Cox, would defend him.

The trial took place on April 19, 1909. Thompson produced none of the available evidence that would have shown that Garrett was murdered, not shot in self-defense. He did not even call Adamson, the only witness, to the stand. He did not refute Brazel’s assertion that he’d acted in self-defense. The jury returned a verdict of not guilty in only 15 minutes. There was, according to one historian, “a barbecue to celebrate Wayne Brazel’s acquittal” that very evening at the W. W. Cox ranch. “[As] the liquor flowed . . . the . . . occasion turned into a celebration over the death of Pat Garrett.” Cox had already acquired Garrett’s ranch.

And why did all this happen? Ross says that the conspirators were on the way up in their political careers (Curry would become a congressman, Fall a U. S. Senator, Lee a state legislator), and Garrett was a nuisance. Curry owed him money, Cox held a lien on Garrett’s ranch and wanted the water rights thereupon, and Lee was still angry that Garrett had targeted him for the Fountain murders ten years before and had, in fact, tried to kill him. Garrett’s murder settled all those accounts, and perhaps many others.

On the other hand, why would such prominent men run the risks involved in conspiring to do murder? Garrett, at 58, was past his prime and had virtually no political clout left. He’d managed to alienate most of his friends and spent much of his time drinking, gambling and philandering. He held no public office and had no prospects of gaining one.
Whichever position one takes, Pete Ross is to be congratulated for providing a valuable insight as to how government, politics and business worked in Territorial New Mexico.