One of the most memorable stretches of road I’ve ever driven (one I drove two or three times a month for a year in the mid-1980s) is U.S. 70 in New Mexico between Las Cruces and Alamogordo. From Las Cruces the road climbs into the foothills of the scenic Organ Mountains, threads through San Agustín Pass, descends into the Tularosa Basin and heads straight and true (hopefully like the projectiles from nearby White Sands Missile Range, the testing of which can close down the highway) past White Sands National Monument and Holloman Air Force Base before bending north into Alamogordo (which means “fat cottonwood”). Aside from the modern military installation, the scenery always took me back in time—sometimes to the very creation of the glistening, wavelike white sands of the world’s largest gypsum dune field, but mostly to the sites of two infamous unsolved murders.
On Feb. 1, 1896, near a rise named Chalk Hill amid the White Sands, unknown persons waylaid the buckboard of prominent Las Cruces attorney and politician Albert Jennings Fountain, almost certainly murdering him and his 8-year-old son, Henry (the bodies were never found). The presumed motive was to keep Fountain from exposing certain suspects as cattle rustlers. To investigate the double murder, Doña Ana county officials hired a new sheriff, Pat Garrett, best known as the Lincoln County sheriff who had killed Billy the Kid in 1881. Garrett determined the three most likely suspects, but none was convicted (see “The Mystery of the Fountains,” by Jack F. Moore Jr., in the February 1998 Wild West, as well as Corey Recko’s 2008 book Murder on the White Sands: The Disappearance of Albert and Henry Fountain).
Jump ahead to 1908 for unsolved murder No. 2. Garrett, no longer a sheriff, was back in the area, ranching in the San Agustín Mountains in the midst of old enemies. On February 29, while pausing for a bathroom break during a wagon trip to Las Cruces on a lonely stretch of road through Alameda Arroyo (5 miles from town and not far from present-day U.S. 70), Garrett, according to an examining doctor, took a bullet to the back of his head, then another to the abdomen as he lay dying. Despite the circumstances, stockman Wayne Brazel claimed to have shot Garrett in self-defense and was later acquitted of murder. In our cover story author Jerry Lobdill argues the killer was actually paid assassin Jim Miller, as part of a well-planned conspiracy. Lobdill makes a strong argument “based on a preponderance of existing evidence,” though not everyone will agree.
Mark Lee Gardner, author of the 2011 book To Hell on a Fast Horse: The Untold Story of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett and the August 2011 Wild West article “Pat Garrett: The Life and Death of a Great Sheriff,” has a different suspect in mind. “I still lean toward Print Rhode as Garrett’s murderer, which is what I write in my book,” he says. “Of course, each scenario put forth, including mine, is nothing more than informed speculation (and usually not that informed). No one to date has brought forth conclusive evidence to prove their pet theory and likely never will. However, I will say that if we refuse to accept Brazel as the shooter, there is more evidence of sorts implicating Rhode than anyone else. Two nephews of Rhode named him as Garrett’s killer, and a trigger-happy Rhode murdered his own brother-in-law over a land dispute in Arizona two years later. Whether or not it was Brazel or someone else, there is one thing that is certain: Brazel did not tell the truth about how Garrett was killed. The physical evidence chronicled by Las Cruces doctor W.C. Field clearly indicated Garrett was shot in the back of the head, apparently while urinating.”
In his 1974 biography of Pat Garrett author Leon Metz insists there was no conspiracy, and neither Miller nor Rhode pulled the trigger: “That Brazel’s plea of self-defense was not consistent with the facts does not mean that he was lying about killing Garrett; it simply meant that he was lying about how he did it.” As for this editor, I’m not sure. Perhaps if I took another long drive on U.S. 70 and gave it some thought… WW
Wild West editor Gregory Lalire wrote the 2014 historical novel Captured: From the Frontier Diary of Infant Danny Duly. His article about baseball in the frontier West won a 2015 Stirrup Award for best article in Roundup, the membership magazine of Western Writers of America.