Murder in the Tularosa
New Mexico's Most Infamous Mystery
By Richard Duree (Col. Richard Dodge, SASS 1750 Life)
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When Col. Albert Jennings Fountain drove his buggy down the familiar main street of dusty old Lincoln, New Mexico that late January day in 1896, vivid memories came back from years ago. He rarely came back to Lincoln and it had changed little in the last fifteen years. The same squat adobe buildings were still there. The wind blew the same dust from the rutted street, now showing puddles recently thawed from the winter’s chill. The courthouse had not changed, its twin outside stairways climbing to an overhanging wooden balcony. In that courtroom he had defended a scrawny young kid from a murder charge and lost. He remembered the sinking feel he had when the jury pronounced William Bonny, known as "Billy, the Kid," guilty, the only conviction from the recent bloody Lincoln County War.
That balcony was the same one from which Bonny had later escaped, killing Deputy Sheriff Bill Ollinger with his own shotgun and riding away on a stolen horse to further embellish his legend before being gunned down by Pat Garrett in a darkened bedroom in Pete Maxwell's home.
"Is that the place, Pa?" Eight year-old Henry broke into his thoughts. Henry had never been there, but he had heard the story. He had been thrilled to take the long trip from Mesilla, New Mexico with his famous father, even though he was nursing a mild cold. His parents had allowed him to join his father for a rather strange reason: No one would be evil enough to kill a child.
The colonel nodded. "That's the place, Henry. Billy the Kid was tried and convicted in that building. He didn’t have a chance with that jury. Well, let's get us a place to stay and some hot food. That'll feel good, won’t it?" He winked at the boy and pulled his two-horse team up in front of what passed for a hotel in Lincoln.
He climbed stiffly off the seat and reached for his Winchester, then carefully scanned the street. A paint horse and a bay were hitched in front of the courthouse. The street was deserted but for a lone cowboy who crossed the street down at the far end of town, pulling his hat down low over his face. Fountain noted dark brown pants, a brown wool coat, and a tan Boss of the Plains hat. He also wore a cartridge belt with a Colt holstered butt forward on his left hip. Nothing unusual, but he filed the image away.
Fountain helped Henry jump down from the wagon, retrieved his valise and a leather documents pouch, and followed the boy through the hotel's old wooden door. He took one last quick look around before closing it quickly.
The darkness inside was a sharp change from the cold winter sun. A fireplace in one corner of the room gave soft warmth from a small fire. Henry quickly moved to it and eagerly spread his hands to warm them. Fountain joined him for a moment before turning to the hotel's counter to check in. He arranged for his team to be boarded in the livery stable and carried their luggage to the sparsely furnished room. He tested the sagging mattress and sighed. They had been on the road for three days and still had the long trip home ahead of them. He picked up the Winchester and returned to the fireplace where a man with a weathered face and alert blue eyes was waiting.
"Hello, Colonel." Les Dow extended a hand; Fountain grasped it firmly in greeting. Les Dow was a Deputy U. S. Marshal and an experienced stock detective. They were here on the same mission to meet the grand jury the following morning. Dow had brought evidence to strengthen their case.
"The hide's safe in my room," he said. Fountain nodded and smiled grimly.
"Good," he said. "That should guarantee our case. Let's go get some of Mrs. Ortega's home cooking." He led the way out the door, carefully scanning the street again. Seeing nothing, the three walked quickly down the street to Mrs. Ortega's Mexican restaurant. Both men carried their Winchesters ready, scanning the street and windows ahead and behind.
They were on a dangerous mission. In the late 19th Century the Tularosa Basin of southern New Mexico was still very much a relic of the "wild west." Ambitious and powerful men vied for control of land and water, but also of political power and wealth. Large landowners and ranchers deeply resented the encroachment of small ranchers into territory they had long considered theirs by right of conquest. Each side of the issue was sharply divided and willing to have their way by any means necessary. Justice was based on who your friends or your enemies were.
The small ranchers and farmers were Democrats to a man; the large ranchers and powerful politicians supported the Republican Party. Fountain had been a jurist and politician for decades and was a strong advocate for the Republicans, having served in numerous public offices during his colorful career. He was a famous, powerful and marked man and now he was about to move against some very dangerous and determined men.
Fountain's adventurous life began when he managed to turn a European school tour as a teenager into an exciting around the world cruise that ended in San Francisco. He settled in Sacramento and became a reporter for the conservative Sacramento Union, a newspaper that was published until 1994. He had been sent to Nicaragua to cover the ill-fated Walker filibuster expedition and narrowly escaped being executed by Walker when his purpose was discovered.
Fountain was in Southern California when the Civil War erupted and he joined the California Column under command of Colonel Carlton. He participated in the march across southern Arizona and New Mexico as the Column pursued the invading Confederate Army across the southwest. He did not return to California, but remained in New Mexico and married a lovely Mexican woman from Mesilla, New Mexico. He joined the New Mexico Volunteer Militia and, in a skirmish with the Apaches, had been trapped overnight under his slain horse with wounds from two arrows and a bullet. Fountain was well acquainted with danger, hardship, and pain of injury.
Following the Civil War, he was administrator of public lands and property in the El Paso, Texas area and remained in Texas to become involved in the state's politics. He served in the state senate, at one time acting as president pro tem and was most noted for sponsoring legislation that reinstated the Texas Rangers as a professional law enforcement agency. Finally, he settled in his wife's home town of Mesilla, along the Rio Grande River, to raise a family and practice law. And there was plenty of law to practice. He became popular, moderately wealthy, and politically powerful with equally powerful friends and enemies. He was well known and respected with the Mexican and Apache people of the area.
The Tularosa Basin lies just north of El Paso and east of the Rio Grande Valley with the towns of Mesilla, Las Cruces and today’s Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. Its most prominent feature is the famed White Sands National Monument. Bordered on the east by the towering, pine-topped Sacramento Mountains and the east by the San Andres Range, all waters flow into the lowlands where they sink uselessly into the sand. It is a hard place, isolated and dry, blazing hot in the summer months, daring any man to conquer and thrive in it. The two forces of Apache and nature served to delay settlement in the basin far longer than the rest of New Mexico and its socialization took a good two decades to catch up with the rest of the country.
And yet, men did try to conquer the basin in spite of the challenges. One of the first was a cantankerous little Frenchman, one Francois Jean Rochas by name, "Frenchy" by choice. He settled in a lonely but well-watered spot at the foot of Dog Canyon at the foot of the Sacramentos, developed an irrigation system, raised fruit trees, and managed to stay there even in the presence of the Apache, who probably considered him harmless if not entertaining. Frenchy was to die by hands unknown for his water rights.
In the early 1880s, Texas was beginning to be over-grazed and crowded; the cattle industry was on the decline. Their only way out was to look for other pastures. When word eventually filtered in about the Tularosa Basin as being one of the last undeveloped places, they began to arrive with herds of Texas cattle into the basin, temporarily and uncharacteristically green. The Lees were one of the first, among them, Oliver Milton Lee, who was to become a major player in this, the latest episode of the "Wild West." Along the watered west facing slopes of the Sacramentos, the Texans began to recreate their displaced lives, complete with the beliefs, attitudes and behaviors that had been habitual to Texas cattlemen since before the Battle of the Alamo.
Lee quickly managed to establish what would become one of the largest cattle operations in the basin, some say by both honest and dishonest means, including paper, hot lead, and hot running irons. Part of his new spread included the land claimed by the newly departed Frenchy. He was famed, feared, and respected as a superior marksman with rifle and pistol and wasn’t reluctant to demonstrate his abilities. The basin became a neighborhood of hard men, most of them a combination of good and bad, willing to kill or be killed over a perceived slight or thwarted ambition.
But the green basin was not to stay green for long. Deserts rarely do. Drought soon set in. There had been just enough water to cause trouble in the first place and it became even more coveted - coveted enough to kill for. The stage was set and the characters were gathering for the drama that was to be the last chapter of the saga of the "Wild West."
Into the midst of the turmoil strode a brash, brilliant and ambitious young lawyer, Albert Fall, who was to make history for many decades into the future not all favorable. Fall quickly realized the rich opportunities for one such as himself, with his sharp lawyer's mind and ruthless cunning. When Oliver Lee strolled into his office one day, the two ambitious men formed the nucleus of a group of small ranchers that would become a powerful force within the Tularosa Basin.
As the 1880s passed, tensions in the basin grew and sides began to form. Men rarely went unarmed; gunfights and murders were not uncommon. People disappeared. Elections were rigged and outright stolen. Accusations and suspicions were everywhere. The larger ranchers eventually, as they had in the Great Plains, formed their protective association: the Southeastern New Mexico Livestock Association. Col. Albert Fountain was an officer in the organization and their attorney.
And he was about to wage a final battle, both legal and literal, that pitted him against Fall and Oliver in a desperate effort to settle the issue once and for all.
The morning after his arrival in Lincoln, Fountain and Dow appeared before the Grand Jury in the Lincoln County Courthouse that he remembered so well.
Several spectators were present in the courtroom, as interest in the proceedings was high. Among them Fountain noted the same man he had seen in the street when he arrived brown pants and jacket, tan hat, cross-draw Colt. The man made him nervous. He knew he was being watched. At one point in the proceedings, returning to his chair, he found a note on the table:
"If you drop this, we will be your friends. If you go on with it you will never reach home alive."
Without mentioning the ominous threat, Fountain pocketed the note and proceeded with his testimony. Fountain's document case contained scores of documents letters, affidavits, official records that were evidence for indictments against Oliver Lee and several others. When Les Dow presented his one piece of evidence, a steer hide with an obviously modified brand that he had taken from under Lee's nose, the jury responded by handing down a total of thirty-two indictments for Fountain to serve.
With their business done, Fountain bid Dow thanks and a safe farewell and began the long journey home on January 30. As on the trip to Lincoln, they stayed with friends along the way. Every one of them expressed concern for their safety, for they all know the stakes involved. At Dr. Blaze's place just outside Mescalero, New Mexico, he refused the offer of two Apache friends who wanted to accompany them as guards. Fountain's self-confidence and ego would not allow him to believe that he could not handle any situation that might confront him. After all, who would be evil enough to harm eight year-old Henry.
He proceeded south along the base of the Sacramentos. Soon he encountered an old Apache who led a paint pony. The pony was to be a partial payment for an assumed debt to Fountain and the Apache insisted they take it. Tying the pony to the back of the buggy, they proceeded onward. Henry's cold was getting worse.
Knowing the possible danger he faced, he continually scanned the horizon in front and behind them. He was sure he saw a couple of bearded horsemen behind him at least twice, but then they were gone. One of them rode a paint horse.
The second night was spent with an old friend, Dave Sutherland, in La Luz, New Mexico. Fountain gave his son a quarter to buy a treat; the boy spent a dime and tied the change, a dime and a nickel, into a handkerchief. The weather was turning colder and Fountain was determined to get Henry home as quickly as possible. The next morning, February 1, they started the long, lonely road across the basin, skirting the great expanse of the White Sands.
Constantly scanning the road ahead and behind, Fountain sighted three riders, two on dark horses on one side of the road, another on a gray on the opposite side. His hand dropped instinctively to the Winchester. In a moment, the riders disappeared. As the proceeded on, he encountered a friend, Humphrey Hill, and discussed his concerns before each continued on their opposite ways.
They stopped at Pellman's Well on the edge of that great expanse of white gypsum to rest the horses and eat lunch. Pellman was a friend of Lee's faction, so Fountain did not mention the riders. On the road again, he met Santos Alvarado, the mail carrier from Tularosa. Alvarado confirmed seeing the riders, who had turned off the road when they saw him and departed at a gallop toward the Sacramentos.
They continued on toward a spot where the road made a cut in a rise near a landmark called Chalk Hill, a small hill dusted by the wind-blown gypsum. Just east of Chalk Hill, the relay mail carrier from Las Cruces met them on his way to pick up the mail pouch left at Luna Wells by Alvarado. Saturnino Barela was a wild looking figure who considered the colonel to be one of his very good friends. He reported seeing same three riders, who had again turned off the road apparently to avoid recognition. Fountain was now very worried and expressed his concern.
Barela attempted to talk him into turning back to spend the night at Luna Wells and return with Barela to Las Cruces the next morning. Fountain considered for a moment, looked down at his son huddled miserably against the cold wind. Then he made the fateful decision.
"No, I need to be in Las Cruces tonight. I'll take my chances." He bid Barela farewell and slapped the reins on to Chalk Hill, just three miles away. No one, he thought to himself, would be evil enough to kill Henry.
The next morning an uneasy Barela started his return trip to Las Cruces from Luna Wells. Just past Chalk Hill, the tracks of the colonel’s buggy veered off the road. He stopped his team and followed the tracks off the road for several yards where he found the tracks of several horses. Panicked, he quickly returned to his team and sped as quickly as he could over San Augustin Pass to Las Cruces. His tale sent the town into an uproar.
The colonel's sons, Albert and Jack, desperately gathered several Mexican friends and headed in the gathering darkness for the pass, dreading what they would find. Others attempted to organize and equip themselves for an extended search and headed out with a buckboard loaded with supplies.
The next morning, February 3, the two parties met. Tragic discoveries awaited them. On the north side of the road just west of the cut they found where someone had crouched behind a large bush. Two rifle cartridge cases lay on the ground. A pony's hoof prints were nearby.
Where the buggy's tracks turned off the road, the tracks of the led pony showed that it shied away, as in fear. It appeared as though three riders had surrounded the wagon and forced it off the road, where they apparently stopped for a time. Hoof prints showed horses shuffling about. There were several cigarette papers lying around. The tracks of the colonel's buggy led straight east into the open desert.
The posse followed the tracks for several miles, finally discovering the buggy abandoned and stripped bare. Henry's little hat was there, as was the colonel's tie. A robozo that the colonel’s wife had given him was neatly folded under the seat. The ominous note was there, too.
Someone had been evil enough to kill a child.
The tracks of several horses led further east. A camp showed where three men had camped; a depressed spot showed where a blanket had lain with something heavy on it. There was a child’s right shoe print. The trail continued on eastward to the broken lands at the south end of the Sacramentos and Oliver Lee's ranch. The riders had separated and their tracks were lost in the rocky foothills and the tracks of a small herd of cattle. In the descending darkness and oncoming snow, it was a frustrated and exhausted group of men who finally returned to Las Cruces with nothing to show for their ordeal.
A week or so later, a skilled frontiersman, John Meadows, followed up on the search. He found two pools of blood on the ground near where the buggy had been forced off the road. It appeared that the colonel had been shot initially, but that the blood had been contained inside his overcoat and spilled on the ground when he fell off the buggy's seat. There was a considerable amount of blood in both spots. He also found Henry's handkerchief with the two coins tied in it, the nickel blackened by powder burns. There were signs that a blanket or tarp had been placed on the ground and something heavy placed upon it.
The bodies of Fountain and his son were nowhere to be found. The killers had managed to dispose of them without a trace. To this day, their location is a dreadful mystery. One can only imagine the terror of the young Henry as his father was killed beside him and his treatment at the hands of the killers must have been unthinkable to us now.
The furor caused by the murders lasted for many years. Rumors, accusations, assertions, suspicions, and opinions made for lively discussions for years. The governor of New Mexico posted a large reward for the identification, arrest and conviction of those responsible. The famed Pat Garrett was called in to investigate. The Pinkerton Detective Agency sent their foremost investigator and though the two men did not always get along, they did work together grudgingly. They had a lot of information to go on and eventually settled on Oliver Milton Lee and two of his cowboys, Jim Gililland and Bill McNew. It was known that all three were within easy riding distance from the murder scene at the time of the murder and Lee's leadership of the anti-Fountain movement was well known, as was his reputation as a marksman.
It took two years for Garrett to bring the murder indictments against Lee. His first attempt to arrest Lee was met with a barrage of gunfire in which deputy Kent Kearney was killed and Garrett was forced to withdraw after securing a promise from Lee to turn himself in which he did, with his attorney, the aggressive Albert Fall, in tow.
The trial was moved across the Rio Grande to Hillsboro, New Mexico and a grand circus it was. Most of the jury did not speak English and required a translator for the unfamiliar court proceedings. They were at the mercy of the sharp-witted Albert Fall. The translator was bamboozled and it is still mystery what the jury heard from him. The outcome was that charges were dropped against McNew; Lee and Gulilland were acquitted.
And so New Mexico politics went on its merry way, a blood sport to this day according to some. Oliver Lee returned to his ranch and over the next four decades went into politics and became a prominent, powerful citizen. His Dog Canyon Ranch has been rebuilt and preserved and you can visit the ranch house at Oliver Milton Lee State Historical Park up Dog Canyon Road from Route 54.
Over the years, many theories have been advanced about the killers' identities. Lee, despite his political success, was always considered the prime suspect. Another theory is of hired killers who scattered after the deed was done, a common Texas practice in the old days. There have even been deathbed confessions claiming to have been the killer.
Albert Fall, like Lee, followed his ambitions and worked his way into federal politics, even to the extent of switching from the Democrat to the Republican Party when it suited his interests. He became Secretary of the Interior under President Harding and was charged and convicted of corruption in the infamous Teapot Dome Scandal, a controversial decision to this day. It is very interesting that the person accused of making the $100,000 bribe, California oilman, Edward Doheny, was found not guilty.
Pat Garrett, no longer the self-confident and formidable lawman of earlier years, attempted to become a peaceful rancher. Worn from the stress of the Lee investigation and trial, he quickly fell on hard times and was as unsuccessful at ranching as he had been in convicting Lee. He was murdered by another rancher when a difficult situation over leased land turned worse.
Today, the Tularosa Basin remains a hot, dry, difficult place, but far different from the basin of Fountain's and Lee’s time. The United States military has taken over the place and the White Sands Missile Range occupies most of the southern end of the basin. Holloman Air Force Base lies just on the east edge of the White Sands, just south of Alamogordo. The Trinity Site where the Manhattan Project's test explosion lies to the north end.
A marker identifies the spot along I-70 about 25 miles east of Las Cruces where Fountain's murder was discovered. Many descendents of both Fountain and Lee still live in the area and the subject of the murders are rarely discussed these days, lest tempers flare and old memories and animosities kindled anew. The ghosts of the past still play a part in the life of the Tularosa Basin, last stronghold of America’s Wild West.
This is one of those stories that remind us how recent the "Old West" really was. Oliver Lee died in 1941; Albert fall lived until 1944, both within the lifetime of many active Single Action Shooting Society members who are now Silver Seniors, Elder Statesman, and Grand Dames.
Gibson, A. M.; The Life and Death of Colonel Albert Jennings Fountain; University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, OK, 1967
Harkey, Dee; The Life of a New Mexico Lawman - Mean as Hell; University of New Mexico Press; Albuquerque, NM, 1948
Owens, Gordon R.; The Two Alberts: Fountain and Fall; University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, OK; 1967
Recko, Corey, Murder on the White Sands: The Disappearance of Albert and Henry Fountain; University of North Texas Press, Denton, TX; 2007
Sonnichsen, Charles L.; Tularosa: Last of the Frontier West; University of New Mexico Press; Albuquerque, NM; 1960