Formerly known as the Dogtown Territorial Quarterly
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Tiburcio Vasquez in Southern California
The Bandit's Last Hurrah
By John W. Robinson
Western outlaws seem to hold a special fascination in the minds of western history buffs. With the passage of time many of these badmen have become folk heroes, no matter how dastardly their crimes may have been. Witness the fact that most of us are far more familiar with the names of Billy The Kid, Jesse James and the Dalton brothers than with the true, deserving heroes of the West. Books by the score chronicle their crimes. You need only to peruse Ramon Adams' bibliography of Western outlaws, Six Guns and Saddle Leather, to realize how abundant is the literature of banditry and how fascinated is the public with this gender of anti-hero.
California has its share of legendary anti-heroes, too. Joaquin Murietta leads the list, but only a notch below is the of Tiburcio Vasquez. Vasquez is particularly interesting to southern Californians because the climactic two years of his twenty-three year criminal career were centered almost exclusively in Los Angeles County or on the wagon routes leading from Los Angeles to the Cerro Gordo Mines and the San Joaquin Valley. His final capture took place in what is now West Hollywood.
Tiburcio Vasquez was born to a respected Monterey family on August 11,1835. (The Vasquez home, a handsome white adobe structure behind Colton Hall, still stands today.) Young Tiburcio attended school in Monterey and learned to read and write with proficiency, an accomplishment of which he was justly proud all of his life. His criminal career germinated one night in 1852 when, at the age of seventeen, he attended a fandango in the company of one Anastacio Garcia, a local brigand. Accounts differ as to just what happened, but the end result was that Constable William Hardmount was slain and young Vasquez was indirectly involved in the crime. He fled into the hills with Garcia and, through the instruction of the elder outlaw, learned the rudiments of successful banditry. His long career as California's master bandit was launched.
What manner of man was Tiburcio Vasquez? Ben Truman, Los Angeles newspaperman who interviewed him after his capture, described him thusly: "In personal appearance this robber chief is anything but remarkable. Take away the expression of his eyes, furtive, snaky and cunning, and he would pass unnoticed in a crowd. Not more than five feet seven inches in height, perhaps 130 pounds in weight, of very spare build, he looks little like a man who could create a reign of terror." Regardless of Vasquez's unassuming physical appearance, the bandit had a certain charisma that attracted the loyalty of subordinates and the romantic interest of females. If he had an Achilles heel, it was his propensity for amorous escapades. Twice his adulturous romancing with the wives of gang members came close to ending his career prematurely (even his erstwhile friends had no desire to play cuckold to his carnal desires). It was an amorous lapse that indirectly led to his demise.
As most lawbreakers do, Vasquez had an excuse for his crimes. He felt he must punish the Norte Americano - the white, Anglo Saxon American - for discrimination against Californians of Spanish and Mexican descent. He hated the Gringo for leveling slights and insults at his family origin. He entertained the thought that somehow he could help Mexico regain California and used this rationale as justification for his thievery.
By 1856 Vasquez had his own gang and was well on the road to becoming California's master outlaw. He found stealing horses profitable and led his band on a series of raids from Monterey County to Los Angeles, rustling, rebranding and selling hundreds of animals. In the spring of 1857 he made his first mistake. After rustling a herd of horses from a ranch near Newhall in Los Angeles County, he tried to sell them too soon. He and a companion were apprehended by a sheriff's posse. Vasquez's compadre turned state's evidence and went free, while Tiburcio was sentenced to five years in San Quentin.
For the next decade and a half, Vasquez went through a checkered career as a holdup man, stage robber and horsethief, punctuated by several half-hearted attempts at an honest life. Almost all of his escapades took place in central California, from Sonoma County south into the San Joaquin Valley. He allegedly committed some of his crimes in the company of two other infamous California bandidos-Tomas Redondo, alias Procopio or Red-Handed Dick, and the blood-thirsty villain Juan Soto. He was in and out of San Quentin three times during this period.
Until 1873 Tiburcio Vasquez was just one of several California bandidos sought after by lawmen. His fame was nowhere near that of the legendary Joaquin Murietta. Then, in August of that year, Vasquez and his gang committed a dastardly crime in Tres Pinos, a small town six miles south of Hollister in San Benito County. In a raid on the community, three citizens were murdered and $200 in gold was stolen. News of the Tres Pinos raid spread throughout northern and central California and made Vasquez's a household word. Governor Newton Booth offered a thousand dollar reward for the bandit's apprehension, a sum that would shortly increase manyfold, and a number of sheriff's posses were sent out.
Northern California was too hot for Vasquez now. He fled south with two trusted henchmen, Clodovio Chavez and Abdon Leiva. Through the hot San Joaquin Valley they rode, travelling all day and much of the night. Near Buena Vista Lake they were joined by Rosaria Leiva, Abdon's comely wife. They hurried over Tejon Pass (several miles east of the route now followed by Interstate 5) and across Antelope Valley to Elizabeth Lake. Here they rested for a day at Jim Heffner's ranch, nestled in the pines alongside the little lake. (Heffner evidently displayed friendship toward Vasquez; the bandit chief returned to the ranch numerous times during his sojourns in southern California.)
From Heffner's, Vasquez and his small party rode southeast along the northern foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains to Little Rock Creek. Here they decided to hide out, believing this isolated mountain canyon was secure from the law.
Unknown to the bandit, Sheriff Adams of Monterey County was hot on his trail. The determined lawman, through diligent detective work, was able to trace Vasquez south across the Tehachapis to Elizabeth Lake. Here he learned that the outlaw and part of his gang were hiding out in the nearby mountains. Adams summoned Sheriff William Rowland of Los Angeles County for help. Two days later Rowland arrived with six deputies and an Indian guide. Together, the lawmen searched the hills south of Elizabeth Lake.
While Adam and Rowland were scouring the hills a few miles away, Vasquez's amorous impulses almost brought his demise then and there. For some time he had been unusually attentive to Rosaria Leiva, Abdon's 25-year-old wife, described by contemporaries as "plump, healthy and passably good-looking." Her husband suspected but had not been able to prove an adulterous relationship between his wife and the bandit chief. While in camp on Little Rock Creek, Vasquez sent Abdon to Elizabeth Lake for provisions. Suspicious of Vasquez's motives, Abdon obtained the supplies at a nearby ranch and hurried back to camp. His fears were confirmed; he found the romantic couple in what Vasquez later admitted was a "fragrante delicto," or sexual embrace. The enraged husband drew his pistol and threatened to shoot Vasquez, but was dissuaded from doing so by Clodovio Chavez. Instead, Leiva departed camp with his wife, vowing vengeance at some future time. After leaving his unfaithful wife at Heffner's, the disgruntled outlaw rode to Lyon's Station in Soledad Canyon where he surrendered to Los Angeles authorities and readily agreed to turn state's evidence against his former master.
Upon learning of Leiva's surrender, sheriffs Adams and Rowland hurried to Lyon's Station and q> estioned the prisoner at length. From him, the lawmen learned of Vasquez's hiding p1ace on Little Rock Creek and laid plans to snare him.
The two sheriffs and their posse made haste to the mouth of Little Rock Creek, where they discovered fresh tracks leading up the canyon. A short distance farther they came across ashes from a recent campfire and a cache of food supplies. Convinced now that they were closing in on their prey, the lawmen prodded their horses to move faster. They had proceeded about three miles up the narrowing canyon when one of the posse caught sight of Chavez riding along the crest of a low hill just ahead. An instant later Chavez sighted the posse and spurred his horse up and over the ridge, but not before being nicked in the cheek by a bullet from Sheriff Adams' rifle. The posse raced up the hillside in hot pursuit but skidded to an abrupt halt as bullets began whizzing around their heads. Vasquez and Chavez were firing at them from behind clumps of boulders. Adams urged an immediate charge to dislodge the outlaws, but Rowland and the rest of the posse showed more desire to shield themselves from the flying lead. Furious at the "procastination" of his cohorts, the Monterey County sheriff opted to go it alone. During a lull in the action he dashed up the hill, reaching the crest just in time to see the two bandits disappearing in the distant chaparral. Rowland and the others soon joined Adams and they made a vain attempt to track the two desperados, but the dense brush and broken terrain soon frustrated their efforts. Vasquez and Chavez had escaped into the wild and unknown interior of the San Gabriel Mountains.
The disappointed lawmen withdrew down the canyon, their spirits heightened somewhat when they came across Vasquez's camp, obviously abandoned in haste. Here they recovered the eight horses stolen at Tres Pinos, along with a large cache of food and clothing. The sheriffs then went their separate ways, Rowland trotting back to Los Angeles and Adams returning to Monterey. During the following month Sheriff Adams, acting on information supplied by Abdon Leiva, was able to track down and capture several Vasquez gang members who had remained in hiding in San Benito and Monterey counties.
A few days after the sheriff's departure, Vasquez came out of the mountains and abducted Rosaria at Heffner's ranch. Undoubtedly Rosaria was a willing captive, despite the fact that she later claimed she was taken at gunpoint. The romantic couple, along with trusty Clodovio Chavez, rode back into the San Gabriels to resume their adulterous liaison. Here they remained, in contented hiding, for more than a month. And it was here that Rosaria became pregnant.
Just where was this mountain hideout favored by Vasquez and Rosaria? The San Gabriels are dotted with isolated little flats and canyons that, in the 1870s, were unknown to the outside world. Will Thrall, late historian of the range, believed the bandit holed up in the Chilao-Horse Flats region, deep in the heart of the mountains. Thrall tells why: "East Chilao, now the site of Newcombs Ranch Inn, but then deep in the wilderness and little known, made an ideal hideout; the long, narrow valley of West Chilao and Horse Flat with its secret trail were both excellent pasture for stolen horses; and the great boulders of Mount Hillyer above Horse Flat furnished an impregnable fortress if hard-pressed by the law."
Whether or not they were at Chilao or Horse Flat, or in some other isolated recess of the San Gabriels, Vasquez, Chavez and Rosaria stayed out of sight for more than a month. Their whereabouts were totally unknown to frustrated lawmen.
As weeks of inactivity slipped by, Vasquez grew impatient. A sedentary life was not his forte; he yearned for action. Early in October 1873, the bandit chief decided to leave his haunt and organize a new band. The presence of the pregnant Rosaria was now an impediment; accordingly Vasquez abandoned her in the mountains, helpless and alone. (This heartless act should dispell any lingering notion that Vasquez was a gallant, Robin Hood-type folk hero.) Fortunately, Rosaria was able to make her way out of the wilderness and eventually reached her home in San Jose.
Vasquez and his trusty lieutenant Chavez rode north to their old hideout in La Cantua Canyon, an isolated, rocky gorge in the Diablo Range of San Benito County. Here a new gang was recruited, and Vasquez was soon again front page news. On December 26,1873 he sacked the town of Kingston in Fresno County. The tactics of the Tres Pinos robbery were repeated; victims were bound on the floor and relieved of their valuables and two stores were looted. Over $2,500 in cash and jewelry were seized.
The electrifying news of the Kingston raid shocked the state. The sheriffs of Fresno, Tulare, San Joaquin, Santa Clara and Monterey counties all organized posses to hunt the Vasquez gang. The California legislature empowered Governor Newton Booth to spend $15,000 to bring the bandit to justice. In January 1874 the governor offered a reward of $3,000 for Vasquez alive and $2,000 for him dead. A month later the figures were raised to $8,000 alive or $6,000 dead. The state's most famous lawman, Sheriff Harry Morse of Alameda County, capturer of Juan Soto and a host of other desperados, was assigned the task of tracking down Vasquez and given $5,000 and a free hand to do it. Sheriff Morse promptly hand picked a posse and set out after the bandit.
Meantime, Vasquez and his cohorts were ever on the move. They fled south to Tulare Lake, spent a few days drinking and carousing in Panama, a one-horse community near Bakersfield, then rode east toward the Owens Valley country. Crossing the mountains, probably via Walker Pass although their exact route has never been ascertained, they made a sudden appearance at the Coyote Holes stage station on the well-traveled wagon route between the Owens Valley mines and Los Angeles.
Legend says that the outlaws first surveyed the busy desert station atop a conspicuous rhyolite rock formation a mile or so southwest of the settlement. Ever since this rock promontory has been known as Robbers Roost. Today it is readily visible to thousands of travellers on Highway 14, just southwest of the Walker Pass junction.
From Robbers Roost, the bandits quickly descended to Coyote Holes, planning to seize and hold the station until the arrival of the stage from Owens Lake and the Cerro Gordo silver mines. Coming to a halt just outside the main building, Vasquez and his men fired several shots into the roof and ordered the occupants out. A dozen or so meekly obeyed. The victims were lined up, robbed of their valuables, marched behind a nearby hill and tied up. Returning to the station, Vasquez methodically searched the other buildings. In the stable he came across one W.P. Shore, otherwise known as "Old Texas." Old Texas was roaring drunk, the story goes, and objected to the bandit's order to lie down. Vasquez shot him in the leg for his trouble. Just before sundown the Owens Valley stage rumbled to a halt outside the station, some three hours late on its daily run to Los Angeles. Vasquez and Chavez promptly trained their revolvers on the surprised driver and three passengers, one of whom was Mortimer Belshaw, proprietor of the rich Cerro Gordo silver mines east of Owens Lake. The four were relieved of their valuables and tied up and the strongbox was pried open. Vasquez's expectation of finding a fortune turned to disgust, however, when the box produced very little cash and $10,000 in mining stock certificates, which the disappointed bandit promptly scattered to the wind.
The horses were unhitched and turned loose; Vasquez was taking no chances that he might be followed. Then the bandits headed south with their meager loot about $250 in coin, some gold watches and jewelry. Behind them lay twenty bound victims and a legacy of fear and apprehension not soon dispelled. Not for many years would the Owens Valley stage travel its lonely desert route without someone riding shotgun along side the driver.
Vasquez and his men rode south to their familiar haunt of Elizabeth Lake, then on to Soledad Canyon, fifty miles from Los Angeles. Here they conducted a brief reign of terror, relieving a Los Angeles-bound stage of some $300, stealing a wagon and six horses from Harper's Stable near present day Acton, and robbing several travellers of pocket money and watches. During this crime spree, the bandits allegedly hid in the bouldery badlands just west of lower Soledad Canyon,
ever since known as Vasquez Rocks. Then, for nearly two months, the bandits disappeared from view. Frantic lawmen and vigilante posses could find no trace of them. Vasquez later told Ben Truman only that he "wandered around in the mountains" during this period. It seems likely that he and his gang retreated into the nearby San Gabriel Mountains, possibly to Chilao.
Chilao - then in the wild heart of the San Gabriels, today easily reached via the Angeles Crest Highway - is steeped in the legend of Vasquez. Its very name supposedly originated while Vasquez was camped there. The story goes that one Jose Gonzales, a herder in the Vasquez gang, armed only with a knife, killed a huge grizzly bear single-handedly, thereby gaining the nickname "Chilleyo," roughly translated "Hot Stuff." The present name Chilao is said to come from this exploit. Whether or not this story is true, it has become a cherished back country legend. The late Will Thrall, mountain historian extraordinary, wrote in his "Haunts and Hideouts of Tiburcio Vasquez" that Chilao was the bandit's major hideout in southern California. But strangely, there is no mention of Chilao in any of the published accounts of Vasquez's career, nor in any contemporary news accounts. Perhaps we will never know the truth. All we can document is that the bandit hid somewhere in the local mountains for lengthy periods of time during his last years.
While Vasquez was in hiding, on March 12,1874, Sheriff Harry Morse took to the field with his handpicked posse and headed south in search of the outlaw. Over the next two months, California's most renowned lawman traveled some 2,720 miles, by his own estimation, throughout the southern half of the state in a fruitless effort to quarry Vasquez. But Sheriff Morse must be credited with supplying a clue that later led to the bandit's demise, as we shall soon see.
Sometime in early April 1874 Vasquez emerged from his hideout in the San Gabriel Mountains, rode south across the eastern San Fernando Valley and arrived at the ranch of one Georgias Caralambo, better known as Greek George. Greek George, a native of Syria, had been employed by the United States Army as a camel driver during the years 1857 to 1863, when the army attempted to set up a "dromedary line" to carry supplies across the Southwestern deserts. When the experiment was abandoned, Greek George settled on this small ranch at the southern base of the Hollywood Hills, on land belonging to Rancho La Brea.
The precise location of Greek George's ranch has long been a subject of disagreement. Various writers have placed it at such diverse sites as the mouth of Cahuenga Pass, the Hollywood Bowl, the Hollywood Fire Station and Laurel Canyon. The best source as to the ranch's location is a map provided by Ben Truman in his 1875 book on Vasquez's capture. A study of this map, along with Truman's description, clearly reveal that Greek George's ranch was well west of both Cahuenga and Laurel canyons. Most recent scholarship places the site very close to the intersection of Fountain Avenue and Kings Road in West Hollywood, an area now crowded with apartment houses.
Vasquez decided to utilize Greek George's ranch as a hideout. The reason is obscure. Some accounts say he was invited there by Greek George himself, an allegation George strenuously denied after the bandit's capture. It is possible Vasquez knew some of George's ranch-hands and believed they would safe guard him from the law. The explanation most often heard involves a woman, no surprise considering Vasquez's long record of amorous affairs. By this account, the bandit was attracted to the ranch by a comely, tawny-skinned senorita who lived there, supposedly a friend of George's wife. In any event, Greek George's ranch was Vasquez's refuge during his final weeks of freedom.
One of Vasquez's new recruits was an enthusiastic young lad named Lebrado Corona. Impatient for action, Vasquez sent Corona to case the nearby ranchos for a possible robbery attempt. After several days of searching, Corona returned and reported a sheep raiser near San Gabriel Mission a likely candidate. Alexander Repetto, the intended victim, had recently sold a large quantity of wool and was in possession of a considerable sum of money, Corona had been told.
Next day Vasquez and his gang left Greek George's, crossed into the San Fernando Valley and rode northeastward under the spurs of the Verdugo Hills. That night they camped at the foot of "Pietra Gordo" - literally "Fat Rock" described by Vasquez as being "at the head of the Arroyo Seco." Some historians assume that Pietra Gordo is Eagle Rock, which certainly fits the description of "Fat Rock" but is not at the head of the Arroyo Seco, being some two miles southwest of the spot where the broad wash emits from the San Gabriel Mountains. Another possible location of Vasquez's camp is near today's Devil's Gate Dam, between Pasadena and Flintridge. The old Devils Gate was a rugged area of huge boulders, just below the portal where the Arroyo Seco leaves the mountains, and more nearly matches Vasquez's description of at the head of the wash.
The following day Vasquez rode alone to the Repetto Ranch, located in the hills south of the San Gabriel Valley where Monterey Park lies today. He told a sheepherder at the ranch that he was missing a horse and would pay $15 for its return - a ploy to allay suspicion. Then he slyly surveyed the ranch layout and returned a roundabout way to his Pietra Gordo camp.
Just after sundown Vasquez and his men-now numbering four by most accounts - rode to the outskirts of the Repetto Ranch and bedded down for the night. Next morning the bandit and his gang, posing as sheep herders, approached the ranch and inquired about employment. The unsuspecting Repetto invited them into the house where he was suddenly confronted with drawn pistols and a demand for money. Repetto could produce only $80, a sum which failed to satisfy Vasquez. After tying up the frightened rancher and threatening hlm with bodily harm, the bandit prevailed upon him to write a check for $800 which, Vasquez claimed, was merely a loan at 1 1/2% interest! Repetto's thirteen year old nephew was dispatched to the Temple and Workman Bank in Los Angeles to cash the check. Vasquez warned the boy that if he informed anyone of what was transpiring at the ranch, he would find his uncle dead upon his return. Bank officials became suspicious when the lad, appearing unduly nervous, presented the check. They gave him the money, then notified Sheriff Billy Rowland. Meanwhile, the boy hurried back to the ranch with the ransom and handed it to Vasquez. A posse led by Sheriff Rowland was a mere half hour behind. One of Vasquez's men spotted the posse's dust as the riders neared the ranch; whereupon the outlaws quickly mounted their horses and raced north toward the Arroyo Seco. Pursued by the Sheriff's posse, Vasquez, after pausing to hold up three men near the Indiana Colony (Pasadena), galloped up the broad wash of the Arroyo Seco and into the mountains.
At that time the old Soledad Turnpike, a rough wagon road built in the 1860s by a Los Angeles syndicate for the purpose of providing access to the gold and silver mines in Soledad Canyon, climbed up the west slope of Arroyo Seco Canyon, slightly below and paralleling today's Angeles Crest Highway, as far as Dark Canyon. From road's end, a trail zigzagged up Dark Canyon to the top of the divide separating the Arroyo Seco and Big Tujunga watersheds. Here the trail abruptly ended, as the syndicate had run out of money and abandoned the project. By 1874 the roadbed and trail were badly over grown but still passable.
Vasquez and his men raced up the old turnpike into the mountains, with the Sheriff's posse close on their tails. The sun was setting as the bandits reached road's end and started the rough climb up Dark Canyon, with the lawmen less than a mile behind. Darkness overtook both parties a short time later, and as it is next to impossible to follow a poor mountain trail on a moonless night, they both made camp, the posse at road's end in Dark Canyon (slightly above today's Oakwilde picnic area) and Vasquez and his gang in a grassy nook just below the crest of the divide, 700 feet above. Vasquez stated after his capture that he could easily have ambushed and killed the entire posse but that he restrained his men because he "never wanted to kill anybody."
With daylight the chase was resumed. The bandits reached trail's end on the crest of the divide, then plunged down through thick chaparral toward the bend of Big Tujunga, visible far below. About two-thirds of the way down this thorny maze, just below what is today called Grizzly Flat, Vasquez's horse stumbled into a steep gully and broke a leg. The bandit chief was able to leap off the animal as it was falling and avoid injury. Vasquez reluctantly shot the wounded animal and continued downward on foot, carrying his saddle and two guns. Thrashing through the dense brush, he was soon obliged to abandon his saddle and either threw away or accidently lost one of his pistols before hitching a ride with another gang member. (The pistol, with the initials "T V" carved on the barrel, was recovered by 16-year old Phil Begue of La Crescenta in 1883. Years later his son sold it to Will Thrall who in turn sold it to Ernie Hovard. Vasquez's saddle is presently at the L.A. County Museum.)
Meantime, Sheriff Rowland and his men struggled to the top of the divide and looked down over the ocean of thorny brush. They could occasionally spot the bandidos threading their way through the high chaparral, far below and out of rifle range. Rather than risk the dangers of a descent with no trail, the Sheriff and his posse backtracked down Dark Canyon and the Arroyo Seco and raced around to the mouth of Big Tujunga Canyon. But they were too late. Vasquez had once again eluded the arm of the law. Unknown to authorities, the crafty bandit retreated to the Lyons Station area in Soledad Canyon, possibly camping among Vasquez Rocks, before returning to Greek George's ranch.
But the seemingly charmed life of Vasquez was close to running out. The Repetto Ranch raid and subsequent chase was big news all over California. Renewed efforts were launched to snare the elusive outlaw. Hundreds were enrolled as sheriff's deputies or volunteer vigilantes. The $8,000 reward was providing an irresistable lure. Sheriff Harry Morse was diligently searching the mountain country between Soledad Canyon and Fort Tejon. Sheriff Bill Rowland and Undersheriff Albert Johnson, both of Los Angeles, were running down every possible lead and scouring the mountain country from Big Tujunga east as far as San Gabriel Canyon. It was only a matter of time.
Vasquez made a fatal mistake when he did not flee to Mexico, as his friends urged him to do, or hole up in the heart of the San Gabriels. Instead he remained at Greek George's, sleeping in the hills right above the ranch house and descending for meals and to visit his senorita. Then, in early May 1874, came the big break the lawmen had long awaited. Sheriff Morse, while hunting Vasquez near Fort Tejon, was told that the bandit was hiding in the Cahuenga Mountains (present day Hollywood Hills) at the ranch of Greek George. There are two conflicting stories as to how the Sheriff gained this intelligence. One is that he was approached by a former Vasquez gang member who "for a consideration" disparted with the information. Another source claims that Vasquez's own relatives "ratted" on the bandido because he had disgraced his own niece, Felicia Vasquez.
Sheriff Morse immediately took the stage to Los Angeles and presented this knowledge to Sheriff Rowland, in whose bailiwick the alleged hideout was located.
What happened next is shrouded in controversy. According to Morse, Rowland laughed and dismissed the informant's story, saying he knew the man and would not trust him. The disappointed Sheriff of Alameda County then returned north, his role in the great hunt ended. Nevertheless, several days later, after Morse was safely out of the picture, Sheriff Rowland dispatched a deputy named D. K. Smith to stake out Greek George's ranch. Smith, disguised as a ranchero looking for work, hung around the ranch for several days before he finally spied Vasquez, whereupon the deputy hurried to Los Angeles to inform his chief. Thus was set in motion the chain of events that netted the infamous outlaw. Soon after Vasquez was securely behind bars, Sheriff Rowland received a check for $8,000 from the State Treasurer. Sheriff Morse, who had provided the vital first clue as to Vasquez's whereabouts, received not a cent of the reward money. Rowland later defended his right to the money, claiming he acted solely from information obtained after Morse's departure. Although Sheriff Morse never made an issue of the matter, many of his defenders, then and in recent times, have suggested that Rowland was deceitful, inferring that the Los Angeles Sheriff acted out of greed and a desire to cheat his more famous fellow officer out of glory and reward.
Sheriff Rowland's motives notwithstanding, Tiburcio Vasquez's capture was executed with consummate planning and skill. On the evening of May 13, 1874 Rowland appointed Under-sheriff Albert Johnson leader of a hand-picked posse of six to apprehend the bandit. The chosen six included, besides Johnson, city detective Emil Harris, Los Angeles Police Chief Frank Hartly, policeman Sam Bryant, deputy D. K. Smith and attorney Henry Mitchell. Allowed to accompany the posse were George Beers of the San Francisco Chronicle and Walter Rodgers of the Palace Saloon. Sheriff Rowland regretfully stayed behind out of fear that his absence from Los Angeles would be noticed and communicated to Vasquez.
The group assembled shortly after midnight at Jones' Corral on Spring Street near 7th in downtown Los Angeles. They stole out of town unnoticed in the wee hours of the morning. By daybreak they were encamped near the mouth of Nichols Canyon in West Hollywood, a mile and a quarter northeast of Greek George's. A morning ground fog obscured their vision of the ranchhouse.
Around noon the fog lifted and the lawmen were able to clearly see the ranch, nestled serenely against the foothills and surrounded by fields of tall mustard grass and clumps of willow. A short while later a solitary figure, mounted on a white horse, was seen riding away from the ranch. Thinking it might be Vasquez, the posse pounced on him as soon as he was out of sight of the ranchhouse. But the surprised rider proved not to be the outlaw.
Johnson now faced the dilemma of how to approach Greek George's without being observed. An open frontal attack was out of the question; Vasquez would see them coming and have time to escape into the nearby hills. An hour later the problem was solved. Two Mexicans in an empty wagon drove by the mouth of Nichols Canyon. Sheriff Johnson stopped them and asked their business. They replied that they were on their daily wood run into the hills. The Sheriff decided to commandeer the wagon and its two hapless occupants. Six of the posse climbed in and concealed themselves on the floorboard. The drivers were ordered to make for the ranch house and warned not to alert Vasquez on pain of death.
Vasquez noticed the wagon approaching the ranch but, knowing the drivers, suspected nothing. As the wagon drew up outside the ranchhouse, the lawmen leaped out and took positions. They had no specific plan of attack; each man was to act according to his own judgment. In seconds the house was surrounded. Just then a woman opened the door, saw the officers and shouted the alarm. Vasquez, who had just sat down to lunch with his young henchman Lebrado Corona, sprang to his feet just as Johnson and Harris burst through the front door with guns blazing. The bandit, quick as a cat, made a flying leap out the kitchen window, right into the drawn pistol of George Beers. Beers described the ensuing action:
"I stepped into the path leading along the west side of the house, and the next instant the agile form of Vasquez came flying toward me, and I fired. He threw up his hands, at the same instant crying out,'No shoot! No shoot!' and Hartly gave him a charge of buckshot from his double-barrel gun. Johnson and the others closed in upon him immediately. He was led around to the east end of the building. Finding that no more bandits made their appearance, I passed around and found Vasquez and Corona standing side by side against the east end of the house, with the balance of our party standing around watching them, on the alert for any of the gang that might put in an appearance at the eleventh hour. I went at once to the wounded man and began dressing his wounds. My shot had struck the shoulder, while the buck shot from Hartly's double-barrel gun had struck him in half a dozen places, making painful flesh wounds in the left arm, left forearm and shoulder blade, but none of the shots had penetrated the vitals. Whatever may be thought of this man's courage, he certainly, on that occasion, at least, exhibited astonishing self-possession and command of nerve. There was not the slightest tremor in his voice,and his heart beat steadily and calmly. He admitted his identity as soon as I began dressing his wounds."
Vasquez had suffered six wounds, none of them serious. After his wounds were dressed, he was gently lifted onto a mattress placed in a spring wagon brought from the barn. Corona, unwounded, was allowed to sit next to his disabled chief for the ride to Los Angeles.
As the posse and prisoners approached Los Angeles, news of the capture leaked out and excitement spread throughout the city. Throngs surrounded the jail as the notorious outlaw was hoisted out of the wagon and carried inside. Corona was placed in the cell next to him.
Vasquez spent nine days in the Los Angeles jail, the object of state-wide attention. Scores of newspaper reporters sought to interview him. The bandit granted interviews to only three: Ben Truman of the Los Angeles Star, George Beers of the San Francisco Chronicle , and Eugene Sawyer of the Chronicle . To each he insisted that he had never killed a man, and that his motives had always been honorable, that he had just cause for fighting the gringo who had wronged his people.
On May 23 Vasquez, in the custody of Under Sheriff Johnson, was taken aboard the steamship Senator bound for San Francisco. From there he was escorted to the Salinas jail and charged with the murder of Leander Davidson at Tres Pinos. He was moved to San Jose to stand trial. Meantime, Lebrado Corona was tried in Los Angeles for his part in the Repetto Ranch robbery, found guilty and sentenced to seven years at San Quentin.
In the eight months preceding his trial, Vasquez was something of a celebrity, a hero to hundreds of his fellow Spanish-speaking citizens. Scores of visitors every day brought him flowers, wines, notions and other tokens of esteem. While awaiting trial, he posed for the famous photos of himself - the only ones we have - and sold autographed copies of it to the public. He seemed to enjoy his notoriety. Vasquez's trial for murder finally took place in January 1875. The trial lasted four days and the jury took two hours to reach a guilty verdict. Judge David Belden, after a moralistic speech in which pointed references were made to the expense incurred by the state in capturing the bandit, sentenced him to death by hanging.
As the day of his execution approached, the number of visitors to Vasquez's cell increased. An appeal for clemency was denied by Governor Romualdo Pacheco. On March 19,1875, in San Jose, California, Tiburcio Vasquez, bandido and folk hero, calmly met his death by hanging.
Vasquez's loyal lieutenant, Clodovio Chavez, fled to Arizona after his chief's capture. On November 25, 1875, near Yuma, Chavez was shot to death by two deputies, Clark and Colvig, who sought to arrest him.
Tiburcio Vasquez is "honored" today by two place names in southern California. Vasquez Canyon, the Big Tujunga tributary used by the outlaw in his getaway, immortalizes the Repetto Ranch raid. Vasquez Rocks, above Soledad Canyon, now a Los Angeles County park, marks one of the bandido's favorite hideouts.
About the Author:
John Robinson is a retired school teacher living in Fullerton, California who has written extensively on southern California history and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. He is an active member of the Los Angeles Corral of Westerners.
John is a Historical Advisor for The California Territorial Quarterly specializing in stories about southern California history and the Sierra Nevada.
Much has been written about Tiburcio Vasquez, both fact and legend. Separating actual events from the many myths that have been spun around the legendary bandido is a difficult, perhaps impossible task. What you have read here is based on facts and events that are generally recognized as true, reasoned judgment where stories differ, and a thorough knowledge of the terrain where Vasquez roamed and hid out.
The following sources were utilized with care. They differ, sometimes considerably, in their presentations of Vasquez's career in crime.
Greenwood, Robert (ed.), "The California Outlaw: Tiburcio Vasquez" (Los Gatos: The Talisman Press, 1960).
"The Crimes and Career of Tiburcio Vasquez" (Hollister: Evening Free Lance, 1927). No author listed.
Jackson, Joseph Henry, "Bad Company: The Story of California's Legendary and Actual Stage Robbers, Bandits, Highwaymen and Outlaws from the Fifties to the Eighties" (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1949).
Sawyer, Eugene T., "The Life and Career of Tiburcio Vnsquez: The California Stage Robber" (Oakland: Biobooks, 1944).
Secrest, William B., "Lawmen and Desperados: A Compendium of Noted Early California Peace Officers, Badmen and Outlaws, 1850-1900" (Spokane: The Arthur H. Clark Co., 1994).
Shinn, Charles Howard, "Graphic Descriptions of Pacific Coast Outlaws," ed.by J. E. Reynolds (Los Angeles: Westernlore Press, 1958).
Truman, Major Ben C., "Tiburcio Vasquez: The Life, Adventures, and Capture of the Great California Bandit" (Los Angeles: Star Printing Co., 1874).
Burciaga, Joe Antonio, "Tiburcio Vasquez: A Hero," Los Angeles Times , May 24, 1993.
Los Angeles Star (newspaper), April 17, 28, May 15, 16, 1874.
May, Ernest, "Tiburcio Vasquez," Historical Society of Southern California Quarterly, Sep.-Dec. 1947.
Thrall, Will, "The Haunts and Hideouts of Tiburcio Vasquez," Historical Society of Southern California Quarterly, June 1948.
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