By Heidi Osselaer
Wayne Brazel was catapulted to notoriety on February 29, 1908, when he walked into the Doña Ana sheriff’s office in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and announced, “Lock me up. . . . I’ve just killed Pat Garrett.” Prior to that moment, Brazel was a nondescript cowboy living in the Tularosa Basin in the southern part of the territory, but the man he killed, Sheriff Pat Garrett, had left his permanent mark on history in the summer of 1881 when he gunned down Billy the Kid.
The investigation into Garrett’s death revealed he had been shot twice from two different angles, first in the back of his head and second in the stomach, while he was urinating on the side of the road outside of town. Although a medical examiner called his death first degree murder, a witness testified Wayne Brazel shot in self-defense. After fifteen minutes of deliberation, a jury acquitted him.
To date, at least ten books and dozens of articles, as well as Sam Peckinpah’s classic film, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, have featured the life and death of one of the Southwest’s best-known lawmen, but Garrett’s murder remains one of the West’s most intriguing and enduring cold cases. Few historians believe Brazel, a mild-mannered cowboy, was capable of murder. Instead he is viewed as a tool in a conspiracy to get rid of the lawman who was so effective in ridding southern New Mexico of outlaws.
Garrett was on the trail of the Fountain killers when he was murdered in 1908. Albert Jennings Fountain, a crusading Republican attorney and politician who vigorously prosecuted cattle rustlers in New Mexico, came up against a rival in the Democratic party, Albert B. Fall, who was backed by many of the powerful cattle barons in the region. The ensuing battle played out in the courts and the legislature until Fountain and his young son vanished on the White Sands outside of Las Cruces in 1896. Only their buckboard wagon, belongings and two pools of blood were left behind. Their bodies were never recovered.
Garrett arrested three of Fall’s closest accomplices, Oliver M. Lee, William McNew and James Gilliland, but no one was ever convicted of killing the Fountains. Garrett continued to investigate their disappearance for years, so many people theorize he was about to name prominent men as suspects, leading to his own assassination in 1908.
Most historians believe gun-for-hire “Killing Jim” Miller from Fort Worth, Texas, was brought to New Mexico by enemies of Garrett. Miller was lynched a few months after Garrett’s death, but no one has been able to prove that conspirators plotted to kill Garrett because no record of payments to the killer or killers was ever found. Until now.
New evidence gleaned from public records uncovered by the author while conducting research about Arizona’s deadliest gunfight, the Power shootout that took place in the Galiuro Mountains in 1918, show that just months after Garrett’s killing, thousands of dollars changed hands between several suspects over land in Doubtful Canyon, located on the border between Arizona and California. While no smoking gun, the new leads provide a basis for reopening this century-old murder mystery and renewed speculation about who killed Sheriff Pat Garrett.
Heidi Osselaer is an historian, educator and author. This article is a preview of a presentation she will make at the sixteenth Annual Western History Symposium that will be held at the Prescott Centennial Center on August 3rd. The Symposium is co-sponsored by the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral and is open to the public free of charge. For more details, call the Museum at 445-3122 or visit the sponsors’ websites at www.sharlothallmuseum.org and www.prescottcorral.org.
“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International (www.prescottcorral.org). This and other Days Past articles are also available at https://sharlothallmuseum.org/articles/days-past-articles.l. The public is encouraged to submit proposed articles and inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please contact SHM Library & Archives reference desk at 928-445-3122 Ext. 2, or via email at email@example.com for information or assistance with photo requests.