by Don Bullis
New Mexico’s Old Times and Old Timers
“Who Killed Prohibition Agent Ray Sutton?”
United States Prohibition Agent Ray Sutton was born in Woodward County, Oklahoma in 1873. In 1910 he was appointed the first sheriff of Ellis County, Oklahoma, and two years later elected to the position and reelected in 1914. He moved to New Mexico after leaving office in Oklahoma and in 1916 he was elected sheriff of Union County. He was reelected in 1918. He was also a rancher and banker over the years.
The 18th Amendment — The Volstead Act — became the law of the land on January 18, 1920. It made the manufacture, transportation, and/or sale of alcoholic beverages illegal in the United States. To enforce the act, the Prohibition Bureau was created within the U. S. Department of the Treasury. Ray Sutton joined the Prohibition Bureau soon after he left the
sheriff’s office. His territory as a federal agent covered the five northeastern New Mexico counties. He maintained his headquarters at his home in Clayton, but he often stayed overnight in towns across his assigned area. He was staying at the Seaberg Hotel in Raton on August, 28, 1930. He expected to meet with Trinidad, Colorado, Police Officer Oscar Vanderberg that evening. The two of them planned to work in the Raton Pass area in search of rumrunners or whiskey stills.
On that Thursday afternoon, Agent Sutton drove south out of Raton, toward Cimarron. At a point about seven miles from Dawson, he pulled off the road and parked. Colfax County Undersheriff Boots Fletcher saw him parked there, waved, and drove on. Fletcher was the last person known to have seen Agent Sutton alive. A week later, the district director of the Prohibition Bureau in Albuquerque, Charles Stearns, became concerned about agent Sutton. His last report had been filed on August 27, and Sutton had uncharacteristically failed to appear for a district court hearing in Clayton. Stearns contacted Colfax County Sheriff Al Davis.
Sheriff Davis discovered that all of Sutton’s belongings remained unpacked in his hotel room and some reports upon which the agent had been working seemed to be undisturbed. The sheriff called Mrs. Sutton in Clayton and asked if she knew her husband’s whereabouts. She had not heard from him in several days.
By Friday, September 5, Stearns, Davis and Sheriff A. W. Turner of Union County headed up a party of about a 100 men and a search in the mountains around Raton began. The Colorado National Guard sent an airplane to help out and a posse of horsemen joined in. Other law enforcement agencies also participated: Mora County Sheriff’s Department, the sheriff from Trinidad, Colorado and federal agents from across the Rocky Mountain States. Several groups offered rewards which totaled more than $500. By September 18, when no trace of Agent Sutton, or his car, had been found, the search was all but called off.
Then, about three weeks later, James Perry Caldwell, 35, of Springer, a former Prohibition Agent, was arrested when it was learned that he’d forged Sutton’s signature to the agent’s last paycheck, and cashed it on September 1, only four days after Sutton’s disappearance. Since Sutton’s body had not been found, and murder could not be proved, Caldwell could only be tried for passing the check and forgery.
A federal grand jury indicted James Perry Caldwell in December, 1930, and he was tried at Pueblo, Colorado, in January, 1931. The witness who originally saw him cash Sutton’s check suddenly could not identify Caldwell as the culprit. The passing a false check charge was dismissed. The trial continued on forgery charges. Expert witnesses testified that the signature on the check was not Ray Sutton’s; that Sutton’s name had been forged by Caldwell. Even so, the jury took about 20 hours to acquit Caldwell.
A cowboy named Rafael Zamora found Agent Sutton’s car on October 18, 1930 in a deep arroyo near Koehler Lake, southwest of Raton. Lodged between two piñon trees and covered with brush, the Pontiac was so well concealed that drivers of cars on the Taos-Raton highway passing by only ten or so yards away could not see it. Early search parties had also covered the area without seeing it. Fingerprint experts went over the car with care, but rain had done much to wash away usable prints. The ominous thing about the car was the discovery of blood on the back seat. Investigators surmised that Agent Sutton had been killed outside the car, and then the vehicle used to haul his body away. Searchers hoped the body would be found near the car. It was not.
There was general agreement at the time that the case would never be solved, and in fact it never was. Historian Chuck Hornung wrote, “Charles Stearns, the district prohibition director who was the lead agent in the Sutton murder investigation, reached a simple conclusion in the case. ‘Some powerful men were bootlegging in that Taos-Raton-Trinidad area. One of them had it [Sutton’s murder] done. They are big families now. Somebody knows, but won’t talk.’ Sterns was wrong. Someone did talk and [Hornung] was listening.”
Hornung became interested in the matter, and as a newspaperman he wrote several columns on Sutton. In spite of being warned to not pry into the matter, he continued his inquiry. Hornung was well acquainted with an old-time New Mexico lawman named Fred Lambert of Cimarron who was not only familiar with the Sutton case, but also with the people involved, many of whom had been bootleggers. Hornung also located a case file on the Sutton case that contained an affidavit by a bootlegger named Joe McAllister. McAllister stated that James Perry Caldwell was indeed a part of the cabal which did away with Ray Sutton, and that Caldwell had been in the pay of, and acting on orders from, one John Campanela, reputed to be the biggest bootlegger in northeastern N.M.
Through the good offices of Fred Lambert, Hornung was able to interview John Campanela some 40 years after Sutton’s disappearance. The meeting took place in Cimarron, and Hornung and Campanela shot a game of pool as they talked. Campanela won the game and generally confirmed what had been reported in McAllister’s statement. When the two men parted ways, Campanela said, “You know the truth, but you’ll never be able to prove it.”
And what was that truth? Hornung’s research indicates that Caldwell, McAllister and Campanela together kidnapped Ray Sutton, and held him prisoner for a time at an undisclosed location. They beat him savagely trying to learn who had been passing along information to the agent regarding the locations of stills in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. Sutton didn’t tell them, and eventually he bled to death. His body, according to Hornung, was buried in a shallow grave in the right-of-way of a road being paved near Hoxie Junction, 20 miles south of Raton. Highway department records confirm that the road was indeed being paved at just that time. Sutton’s body, in spite of this, has never been found.