The Death of Pat Garrett: Self Defense or Cold Blooded Murder?
Pat Garrett is best known as the man who killed Billy the Kid in 1881. The Billy the Kid. And everybody knows who Billy the Kid is, right? Billy was the reality celebrity of his day. No two ways about it, Billy was a criminal. He stole horses and cattle. People had a nasty habit of dying in his presence, some by his hand in questionable circumstances. Sometimes he found himself on the right side of the law, but more often than not he was on the wrong side. This was not all that unusual in his time as people living in territorial New Mexico did not depend on the government to solve their problems and were not averse to engaging in self-help remedies.
Pat Garrett was born in 1850 in Alabama, the son of a slave owner. He slowly drifted westward before finding himself voted in as Sheriff of Lincoln County, New Mexico, in 1880. Before becoming a lawman, Garrett lived a quasi-criminal existence and had already killed a man during his buffalo hunting days on the frontier. Garrett captured Billy the Kid. Twice. The second time, on July 14, 1881, he ended Billy’s life in Fort Sumner, New Mexico. Both men entered American folklore soon after. The United States government was determined that political change was coming to New Mexico and Garrett was one of the blunt instruments of that change. The lawlessness had to go and Billy the Kid, who was robbing and killing his way through the territory, was the poster boy of lawlessness.
In many ways, Pat Garrett gets relegated to playing second fiddle to Billy the Kid. However, after killing Billy, he went on to live an interesting life, serving first as Sheriff in Lincoln County and then, later, Sheriff of Dona Ana County, where he eventually settled. He was later appointed as a customs agent in El Paso, Texas, by President Theodore Roosevelt. He was married to a hispanic woman and had eight children. However, the sad fact is that Garrett reached his zenith with Billy. No matter what anybody says about Garrett, he was a man who did his duty and believed in the law and in justice. Reportedly, in Las Vegas, New Mexico, at the train station there while transporting Billy and his gang to Santa Fe after first capturing him, a mob demanded that Garrett give them Dirty Dave Rudabaugh, a member of Billy’s gang and a particularly cruel man, because Rudabaugh was wanted in Las Vegas for gunning down a Las Vegas jailer while trying to bust his friend out of jail there the year prior. Garrett told the mob, which included the local Sheriff, that he was executing federal warrants and that he would arm the prisoners himself should they attack the train car in which Garrett and the prisoners were riding. They all reached Santa Fe safely. That was the kind of man Pat Garrett was. He drank heavily most of his life, loved to dance and played cards for hours on end. But he also loved his family and was deeply devoted to them. Pat had a lot of friends, but just as many enemies.
Pat Garrett was undoubtedly a legend in his own time and his death is much more interesting than Billy’s demise. Garrett met his maker on February 29, 1908, in the desert east of Las Cruces, New Mexico. To this day, his death remains controversial. I wanted to find out for myself what really happened the day Pat Garrett died.
First, I would need to locate the actual murder site. As a criminal defense attorney who has investigated and defended numerous cases, I can tell you that going to the scene of an event is key to understanding it. The historical marker erected by the State of New Mexico is of little help in locating the murder site as even it says, cryptically, the actual location is “nearby”. I drove to the marker armed with another clue, that the murder site is directly southeast of the marker, but no idea how far. Unfortunately, traveling directly southeast of the marker will take you into a quaint residential neighborhood and several dead ends. I got out and walked around for a bit to get a lay of the land. There were no signs anywhere saying “Pat Garrett Murder Site” or anything you might expect of a place of this historical significance. Unfortunately, the only living person I saw while walking in the neighborhood drove off in her car before I could ask her some questions. This was going to be more difficult than I thought.
I went home and I retrieved some aerial views from Google Maps and got a much better idea of where the site was located. Additional research turned up two photos taken of the area a few years back and I discovered that I needed to look for power lines. Using the maps and information, I refined the search area and realized it would be easier to take another road into the area as opposed to the one by historical marker.
I returned the next day and, using the information I had gathered, I was able to locate the actual murder site. It is indeed remote, located about a mile or so into the desert almost directly south of Onate High School. A four wheel drive is required to access the area. I surveyed the area and took some pictures and two videos. The date was February 28, 2010, nearly 102 years to the day that Pat Garrett was killed. It was a cloudy, overcast morning, not unlike how conditions were described on that day in 1908. The growth of Las Cruces (it’s currently about twenty times the size of its 5,000 residents in 1908) is slowly encroaching on the area from the west and I could see a few houses about a half mile away in that direction. But, in 1908, there was nothing out there except the arroyo, which, except for a few power lines and four wheel vehicle tracks, has remained relatively unchanged in the last century. I climbed the steep rise directly to the south of the murder site to get a good view and was able to envision what happened on the day Garrett died.
Garrett was traveling that day with two men, Carl Adamson and Wayne Brazel. Brazel was a local boy who was in tight with W.W. Cox, a prominent Dona Ana County citizen and rancher. Garrett was heavily in debt to Cox, whose ranch adjoined Garrett’s property. At this point in his life, Garrett was in desperate financial straits. No longer Sheriff, he had also been fired from his customs job in El Paso in 1905 and had turned to ranching as his main source of income. As good as a peace officer as he was, he did not have nearly as much luck ranching. A few months prior to Garrett’s death, Brazel and his business partner, Print Rhode, approached Garrett with a proposition. Brazel and Rhode would lease a portion of Garrett’s ranch for grazing purposes for a period of five years. They also would pay some cash up front to sweeten the deal for the desperate Garrett. The cash which was reportedly provided by Cox. Cox was also related to Rhode, having married his sister. Garrett, no doubt realizing his financial peril, agreed to the offer.
The lease quickly went sour. Brazel and Rhode moved in a herd of over one thousand goats onto the property. Garrett became livid as apparently he had been told that only cattle would be grazing on the property as opposed to the much more destructive goats. He filed suit against Brazel and Rhode in attempt to have lease voided. The suit was thrown out by the Justice of the Peace in Organ. At the end of his life, it seems as if Pat Garrett was on a long, slow losing streak.
Enter Carl Adamson. Adamson, from Texas, approached Garrett with another offer. He reportedly had some cattle that he was moving through the area from Mexico and wanted to purchase Garrett’s ranch as a stop while moving them to market. Garrett realized this could be his financial savior, but still had the problem with the lease with Brazel and Rhode and their damned goats. Garrett explained the situation and Adamson reportedly offered to purchase some or all of the goats from Brazel and Rhode. Apparently, the men were unable to reach agreement as to the sale price on the goat herd and the deal fell through. Garrett, desperate, agreed to a meeting between the men in Las Cruces in the hope that a successful mediation could be reached. So, on the morning he was killed, he and Adamson boarded Garrett’s horse drawn wagon at Garrett’s ranch. Garrett had two items with him: his Burgess shotgun and a check in the amount of $50.00 from New Mexico Governor George Curry. They made a quick stop in Organ to water the horses.
Garrett and Adamson ran into Brazel in Organ and, according to witnesses, Garrett and Brazel began arguing almost immediately about the goats. The three men continued their journey to Las Cruces, heading westward along the Alameda arroyo, Brazel on his own horse and Garrett and Adamson on the wagon. According to both Adamson and Brazel, the arguing between Garrett and Brazel continued. Sometimes Brazel rode next to the two men, but also sometimes kept his distrance, and when he was near the arguing would begin again. According to Adamson, at one point Brazel spoke briefly to a horseback mounted cowboy some distance ahead of the wagon. The unknown cowboy then rode off.
Adamson would later say that he needed to urinate and stopped the wagon in the Alameda arroyo. Garrett apparently had to go also and he jumped off the wagon and walked a few steps away, still arguing with Brazel. Adamson said that while his back was turned to the pair, he heard two shots ring out in quick succession and turned to see Pat Garrett fall dead. Brazel would later state that he believed Garrett was going for his gun and, fearing for his life, he shot Garrett down. Brazel turned himself in to the Sheriff and was charged with murder.
Here’s where things get interesting and, in my opinion, shows that the fix was in. Cox quickly secured Brazel’s release on bail. Albert Bacon Fall, the most notorious defense attorney in the territory and close friend of Cox, was retained to represent Brazel. Adamson testified at the preliminary inquiry, but not at the subsequent trial, though he was available as a witness. The trial lasted one day. The prosecuting attorney did not seem to zealously present his case. He put physician William Field on the stand.
According to Dr. Field, who reached the site a few hours after the killing, Garrett was found lying on his back, arms outstretched to his sides and one knee drawn up, with a blanket or robe partially covering his corpse. The fly in his trousers was unbuttoned and he was wearing one riding glove, the right one, and his left hand was bare. Garrett’s Burgess shotgun was lying on the ground, disassembled and incapable of being fired, still in its leather holster a few feet from his body. Dr. Field noted no disturbance to the sand around the holster, as one might think would occur if someone suddenly dropped the weapon onto the ground. That is, unless it was placed there, which is what Dr. Field believed had really happened.
Dr. Field also performed the autopsy on Garrett. Garrett had two gunshot wounds. The first and fatal shot was a bullet that had entered at the bottom rear of Garrett’s head and exited above Garrett’s right eye. The second bullet entered the front of his abdomen and was found by Dr. Field lodged in one of Garrett’s shoulders, meaning the bullet had traveled upward after entering through Garrett’s body.
Interestingly enough, Field was never asked by the prosecutor to explain Garrett’s wounds or his other observations at trial. Adamson did not testify at the trial. Brazel testified that he feared for his life and shot Garrett down while Garrett was going for his own weapon. The jury deliberated for about fifteen minutes before pronouncing Brazel not guilty, apparently believing the self-defense claim. Cox would later purchase Garrett’s ranch from his widow, further consolidating his New Mexico land and ranch empire.
The physical evidence at the scene is inconsistent with self-defense. The first shot into Garrett came from behind, killing him instantly. The second shot most likely came while Garrett was falling or already on the ground, as it moved upward through his body from his abdomen before stopping in his shoulder. But with his trousers unbuttoned and one glove removed, his head tilted forward, it becomes clear that Pat Garrett was killed at a time when all men are most vulnerable. He was killed while urinating. The shotgun was later placed next to him to bolster Brazel’s self defense claim and the blanket was draped over him to preserve some of his dignity.
Reportedly, within a week of Garrett’s murder, law enforcement officers found a Winchester shell casing not far from where Garrett was killed. Some surmise that someone waited in ambush, possibly the unidentified cowboy that Brazel spoke with. Deathbed confessions by people in the know in the mid-20th century would identify that cowboy as Print Rhode, Brazel’s business partner and Cox’s brother-in-law. Print Rhode would later kill a man, another brother-in-law, in Arizona. After being convicted, his case was, in a most unusual manner, transferred to New Mexico where Cox was able obtain a pardon from the governor. It’s certainly possible that Rhode was out there that day and could have been lying in wait for Garrett, but it’s also possible that the shell casing had nothing to do with Garrett’s murder or had perhaps been planted there by the investigating officers. Modern forensics could help put the issue to rest, but those facilities did not exist in 1908.
A big question is whether Adamson was in on the scheme or whether he was just someone who knew when to keep his mouth shut in the company of dangerous men. Adamson was related to James “Killer” Miller, a Texas assassin who would later be lynched after engineering an assassination that bore a striking resemblance to Garrett’s murder and Miller was rumored to have done the same in the past. Some speculate that Miller may have been the man waiting in the brush to kill Garrett. Without any hard evidence, it is merely speculation.
Besides financial gain, Cox had other reasons to want Garrett dead. About ten years before his murder and while still Sheriff of Dona Ana County, Garrett had investigated the disappearance of Colonel Albert J. Fountain and his young son near White Sands. Fountain, who at the time was the Third Judicial District Attorney, had obtained indictments against associates of Albert Fall (Oliver Lee and William McNew) and others a few days prior to his disappearance and Fall is thought to have engineered Fountain’s disappearance. Cox was also believed to be possibly involved in Fountain’s disappearance. Subsequent to Garrett’s thorough investigation of the Fountain case, Lee and McNew were tried for Fountain’s murder (though no bodies were ever found) and they were represented by none other than Albert Fall, who would later go on to defend Brazel in Garrett’s murder trial. Can you guess what the verdict was in the Fountain case?
Based on the evidence, Brazel’s claim of self defense can be ruled out. Pat Garrett was murdered, plain and simple. You don’t shoot a urinating man in the back of the head in self-defense. Garrett’s Burgess shotgun was not capable of being fired in the condition in which it was found. Garrett’s killer knew Garrett was a dangerous man and took no chances in dispatching him. It really comes down to who pulled the trigger on Garrett. Even money is on either Brazel or Rhode. Most people who knew Brazel thought him incapable of murder, but it is obvious that Rhode was more than capable and had also apparently tried to goad Garrett into a fight during their court case for the lease. A longshot guess is James “Killer” Miller, but I think this is nothing but sensational speculation. But as to a wider and larger conspiracy, all signs point to W.W. Cox and, possibly, Albert Bacon Fall. However, other than some innuendo and hearsay, not much directly connects Cox and Fall to Garrett’s murder, but these men were adept at engineering heinous plots and getting away with it. In all probability, there was a conspiracy that existed to murder Pat Garrett. However, the size and extent of that conspiracy has been lost to history and will likely remain one its great mysteries.
Rest in peace, Pat.
Interesting New Mexico trivia: Wayne Brazel was supposedly the uncle of Mack Brazel, the man who reportedly first discovered the infamous Roswell UFO crash site in 1947.
C. J. McElhinney is a criminal defense attorney in Las Cruces, New Mexico. An erstwhile history major in college, he switched his major to Government when he realized he would have to take less math to graduate.
Gardner, Mark Lee. To Hell on a Fast Horse. New York: HarpersCollins Publishers, 2009.
Kutz, Jack. More Mysteries & Miracles of New Mexico. Corrales: Rhombus Publishing Company, 1998.
Nolan, Federick. The West of Billy the Kid. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.
Recko, Corey. Murder on the White Sands. Denton: University of North Texas Press, 2007.
To visit Pat Garrett’s murder site:
Take Highway 70 east out of Las Cruces. Get off at the Mesa Grande Exit and make a right. Turn right onto the first street. On your left, you will notice a dirt road on the left before reaching the Mesa Grande housing subdivision. If you don’t have a 4 wheel drive, park your car here and walk south along the road. As you walk south, you will see some large power lines on the left (to the east) and some smaller power lines to the right (west) of those larger power lines. Follow the smaller power lines south—a bumpy dirt road runs underneath them. You will walk into Alameda Arroyo and will soon approach a steep rise to the south. The death marker is located on this beaten dirt road just underneath one of the power line poles. If you go in the summer, watch for rattlesnakes and bring sufficient water. I estimate approximately a 30 minute hike from the main road. GPS Coordinates are 32.366203 N, -106.717152 W.
All written materials, pictures and video contained herein are © 2010 by C. J. McElhinney (Material may be reprinted or reproduced by permission only)