At an isolated California settlement, a band of thieves took all the loot they could. One assured his helpless victims, ‘For my part, I won’t hurt anyone.’ But their ruthless head man made no such promise.
Tiburcio Vásquez swayed easily in the saddle as he and his band rode up to Grogan’s Spring on Tres Pinos Creek one simmering August morning in 1873. Exhausted by a long night’s ride through California’s Coast Range, they watered their horses and made camp on the hill above the spring. Below them, a mile off, they could see their target: Andrew Snyder’s store and hotel in the isolated settlement of Tres Pinos. After spending the day resting and napping, Vásquez ordered his men to clean their firearms. Then, armed with a Henry rifle, a Colt revolver and a bowie knife, Vásquez mounted his horse and led his fellow bandidos toward Tres Pinos at a lope. What was about to happen would make newspaper headlines nationwide and establish Vásquez as America’s second most infamous Hispanic bandit.
Joaquin Murrieta, who rates as the No. 1 bandido, operated in California in the early 1850s, just before Tiburcio Vásquez started to make his mark. At the end of Vásquez’s life, the Chicago Tribune called him “the most noted desperado of modern times.” The judgment of The New York Times was harsher: “With the single exception of Joaquin Murrieta…Vásquez is the most thoroughly hardened ruffian that ever terrified a community in the state.”
He was born in 1835 to simple but honest parents in the seaside pueblo of Monterey. Like all native Californians of that era, the Vásquez family called themselves Californios, to distinguish themselves from Mexicans. Tiburcio came of age during the tumult, violence and racial animosity of the California Gold Rush. It stamped him indelibly. By the mid-1850s, Tiburcio was mixed up in Monterey’s infamous Roach-Belcher feud. After an October 1854 fandango house brawl in which Monterey constable William Hardmount was slain, Vásquez fled and became a fugitive. Between 1856 and 1870 he rustled, robbed and killed and served a number of terms in San Quentin. There he helped plan and carry out four bloody prison breaks that resulted in the deaths of 20 convicts.
Although viewed as a terror by most Anglos, Vásquez became a full-fledged folk hero to many Hispanics. To the poor Californios, peons and campesinos, Tiburcio was a godsend, for he always paid liberally for food, lodging and support. By nature Vásquez was gregarious, good humored and romantic in the extreme. He was handsome, educated and enjoyed reading poetry and Spanish novels. He loved dancing and writing love poems to pretty senoritas. His weakness for goodlooking women often brought him trouble. As a young man, he had run off with a ranchero’s daughter and in return received a bullet from the father’s gun. In 1871 he seduced the wife of a fellow gang member, earning himself a pistol ball in the chest from her enraged husband. By late summer 1873, his long trail of banditry and bloodshed had led him inevitably to that fateful day outside of Tres Pinos.
With Vásquez that August 26 were his first cousin, Teodoro Moreno, 29, and his most faithful follower, Clodoveo Chavez, 24, big and mus- cular at 6 feet and 200 pounds. Chavez was distantly related to Tiburcio and considered the bandit chieftain his uncle. Another of the gang was Abdon Leiva, a 28- year-old Chileno. Unbeknown to Leiva, Vásquez was having an affair with his pretty wife, Rosario. The final bandido was 29-year-old woodcutter Romulo Gonzales.
It was 5 p.m. when Leiva and Gonzales rode toward the store, while Vásquez, Chavez and Moreno stationed themselves near the road to halt the southbound stagecoach. Leiva and Gonzales had not gone far when the stage approached, having first dropped off the mail and newspapers at Snyder’s store. Vásquez recognized among the passengers atop the stage the assistant superintendent of the New Idria Mine, Thomas Williams, and his family. Tiburcio later said Williams had always treated him “like a gentleman.” He allowed the stage to go on unmolested.
By this time, Leiva and Gonzales had reached the store. Tres Pinos, named for three stunted pine trees on the creek, is now called Paicines. Twelve miles south of Hollister, it sat at the spot where the Hollister road forks, the east fork proceeding south through the Panoche Valley to the New Idria Mine, and the west fork, or river road, also going south, through San Benito and the Hernandez Valley to the Picacho Mine. A mountain range separates the two routes. Tres Pinos was a cluster of buildings on the Hollister–San Benito road, at its intersection with the New Idria road.
Andrew Snyder’s general store stood on the east side of the road; beside it to the north was Snyder’s two-story hotel, which he had leased to Leander Davison. Snyder kept two rooms in the hotel for himself and his family. Behind the hotel was a large barn that served as a feed and livery stable. Just north of the hotel, across the New Idria road, stood a saddlery and blacksmith shop. In the center of the stage road, directly fronting the hotel, was a windmill tower and water trough for stock. Like many roadside stores in California, Snyder’s also served as a saloon, stage stop and post office. There were a number of farmhouses nearby, and some 40 people lived in the area around the little settlement.
Leiva and Gonzales dismounted and stepped into Snyder’s store, which had two counters, one on either side, with storerooms in the rear. A dozen patrons were there, mostly to pick up their letters and newspapers. The young clerk, John Utzerath, was busy sorting mail. Leiva said to him, “Let us have some drinks.” Utzerath replied they had no hard liquor, so Leiva paid for two beers. Gonzales downed his and wanted another. Leiva later recalled, “Gonzales used to get drunk whenever he had a chance.” Leiva bought two cigars and convinced Gonzales to smoke instead of drink.
Fifteen minutes later, when all but a few of the customers had cleared out, Moreno dismounted and stepped inside. Tiburcio’s cousin wore a muffler about his face. Without ceremony he jerked his six-shooter and commanded, “Lie down!” At the same time Leiva and Gonzales pulled their revolvers. Utzerath had known Moreno well when they both lived in nearby Peach Tree Valley. Despite the bandit’s mask, he recognized him from his voice and mannerisms. The outlaw trio quickly hogtied Utzerath, Snyder and the two remaining customers —Lewis C. Smith, the local blacksmith, and a young man named Henry Murray. Those who attempted to raise their heads were pistol-whipped into submission. At that point Vásquez and Chavez rode up to the front of the store, leading a pack mule. Dismounting, Tiburcio stepped into the doorway. He was distinctively attired, in a large, sleeveless cloak with red flannel lining, and he clutched a Henry rifle. He said to his men, “Are you through?”
After receiving a negative answer, Vásquez ordered, “One of you fellows come out.” Gonzales stepped outside, leaving Leiva and Moreno to finish tying the victims and placing grain sacks over their heads. From the porch of the store, Vásquez spotted more people than he had expected. A number of men and two women were walking in and out of the hotel next door, several young boys were in the yard between the store and the stable, and a teamster was approaching in the distance on the Hollister road. At the same time, a Portuguese sheepherder named Bernard Bahury, having driven his flock into a nearby field, was walking toward the hotel, where he intended to spend the night. As he passed in front of the store, Gonzales yelled at him, “Halt and lie down!”
Bahury did not speak English and failed to understand the order. According to Snyder, Bahury recognized some of the outlaws. The sheepherder panicked and fled around the back of the store, with Gonzales in pursuit. Bahury circled the store, running back toward the road through the empty lot between the store and the hotel. As Gonzales turned the corner behind the store, he spotted Bahury near the front, scaling a picket fence that separated the lot from the road. He fired twice with his Colt Dragoon, and one .44-caliber ball struck Bahury in the mouth, knocking out his front teeth. Desperately wounded, the sheepherder staggered onto the front porch of the store. As he did so, Moreno raised his Dragoon revolver and shot Bahury in the chest, just below the neck, killing him. At that, Gonzales stepped onto the porch and growled in English, “I guess you will lay still now, damn you.”
In the meantime, Chavez spotted a 15-year-old boy, one of the sons of blacksmith Lewis Smith, near the stable. Chavez ordered him to lie down, and when the boy didn’t act quickly enough, he struck him over the head with his shotgun. Chavez then brought the boy into the store, bound him and put him with the others. By this time the teamster, George Redford, had pulled up in front of the hotel with a load of fence pickets from Hollister. He was deaf and oblivious to the robbery and the shooting. As he climbed down from his wagon, Vásquez and Moreno approached and ordered him onto the ground. Seeing their guns and not understanding the order, Redford fled for the protection of the barn, with Vásquez in pursuit. The bandit chieftain opened fire with his Henry rifle. His first shot killed an old horse in a stall near the barn door. As Redford entered the door, Vásquez fired again. The .44-caliber slug tore through Redford’s back, knocking him into the straw. He died instantly.
By now the little settlement was in an uproar. Inside the hotel were Louis Scherer, the Tres Pinos saddler; Leander Davison, the hotelkeeper; his wife, Elizabeth; and her brother, Ebenezer Burton. Also in the house were Andrew Snyder’s wife, Lucilla, and her sister-in-law, Elizabeth Moore. Several of them witnessed Redford’s murder. Louis Scherer rushed out the rear of the hotel toward the saddlery and blacksmith shop across the road, intending, as he later said, “to defend all I could.” Vásquez, rifle in hand, spotted him running from the hotel. Scherer, seeing the bandit was about to cut him off, turned and fled back into the rear door of the hotel. Glancing behind, he saw Vásquez racing toward the front door of the hotel. Scherer rushed toward the front room, accompanied by Davison, his wife and her brother. The front door was open, and as they reached it, Leiva suddenly appeared in front of the hotel, pistol in hand. “Keep in the house and you won’t be hurt,” he warned. “Keep in! Go in!” At that, both Burton and Scherer yelled to the Davisons, “Shut the door!”
Husband and wife each took hold of the doorknob and started to pull the door shut. Davison was to the right of the door and his wife to the left; Scherer and Burton were just behind them. At that moment Vásquez came around the corner and fired a shot that ripped through the door at an angle and shattered Davison’s heart. He fell backward against his wife and died in her arms. Vásquez, unfazed by his killing of two men, was determined the robbery would proceed.
When Vásquez spotted a youth attempting to flee on foot down the Hollister road, he told Leiva, “Go and bring that boy back.” Leiva leaped into his saddle and raced after the boy, catching up with him a quarter mile distant, near Tres Pinos Creek. He was the 10-year-old son of Lewis Smith. The frightened youth tried to turn over his money, $2. Leiva told him to keep it and brought him back to the store, where he had the boy lie down next to his father. By this time Tiburcio had returned to the store, where he told Snyder and the rest: “Boys, I am sorry to treat you this way. But if I should try to make my living by honest work, and the people should find out who I am, they would hang me inside of a week. The only way I have to make a living is robbing other people, and as long as you have money, I am going to have my share.”
The outlaws searched those in the store, taking their watches, jewelry and cash. Vásquez then demanded, “Who is the boss?” and Leiva pointed out Snyder. The storeowner later recalled, “He told me he didn’t want to hurt me, that he wanted my money, and that if I didn’t give it up, he would kill me.” Vásquez and Leiva then marched Snyder, his hands tied behind him, to the front door of the hotel. Ignoring the bloody corpse of Leander Davison and the hysterical screaming of his widow, Vásquez ordered Mrs. Snyder to bring out their money. She told him, “I am willing to give everything I have got, but don’t hurt anybody.” Leiva replied, “For my part, I won’t hurt anyone.”
She went upstairs and pulled out a bureau drawer with some $220 in silver coins, plus gold dust in a deerskin poke. The drawer was too heavy for her, and she slid it down the steps. Then she and her sister-in-law, Elizabeth Moore, handed it to the bandits. The robbers took Snyder back to the store and put him back on the floor with the others. At this point, a wagon pulled up, driven by John Haley, a teamster from Hollister. The outlaws rushed outside and at gunpoint ordered: “Git down! Git, you son of a bitch!” Haley replied, “Boys, if you think to scare me, you’ve got the wrong man.”
Vásquez and Moreno climbed onto the wagon box and hauled down Haley. The teamster began yelling for Snyder, but the outlaws tied him to one of the wagon wheels and took $4 from his pockets. Reentering the store, the gang ransacked it, taking clothing and other goods. Several of the band exchanged their trail-worn clothes for new coats, vests, trousers and boots. Vásquez attired himself in a brand new suit and black hat. Said Andrew Snyder: “They tied my hands so tight, my arms were swollen up to my shoulders. I spoke to Vásquez several times about it. It became very painful to me. He finally came and examined it and said it was too tight and loosened it up. I thanked him for it, as I was in great misery.”
While Chavez stood guard outside the store, the robbers tapped a keg of beer and helped themselves to a leisurely meal of crackers, cheese, canned oysters and sardines. Bellies full, they began loading booty and provisions onto the pack mule. By now it was 8:30 p.m., and the robbers had been in Tres Pinos for 2 1⁄2 hours. Leiva recalled, “Vásquez was then walking up and down, telling us to hurry up and get away.” Tiburcio sent Leiva and Chavez into the stable to take all the horses. As the bandidos stepped inside, they saw Redford’s body facedown near the first stall, and Chavez remarked, “My uncle killed this man.”
The bandidos took eight horses, two of them saddled, then mounted their own mustangs and headed up San Benito Creek at a fast clip, driving the extra mounts before them. The men in Snyder’s store managed to get loose, and John Utzerath ran on foot to a nearby farm and borrowed a horse. He then raced 12 miles into Hollister to raise the alarm.
By morning some 200 people had gathered at the scene of the tragedy. In Hollister the news went out over the telegraph wire. Accounts of the raid, dubbed the “Tres Pinos Tragedy,” created great excitement. Californians were used to deadly violence and often excused it, provided it took place in mutual combat or private quarrels. But the killing of innocent people in their homes, especially a husband slain in his wife’s arms, was beyond the pale. A typical editorial comment came from the Los Angeles Star: “This is one of the most terrible events that has transpired in our state since the bloody raids of the terrible Joaquin Murrieta.”
The Tres Pinos Tragedy had netted the gang only $2,200 in loot, but the killings there quickly gained Tiburcio Vásquez statewide, and then national, notoriety. Governor Newton Booth promptly offered a $1,000 reward for the capture of one or all of the killers.
Captain John Hicks Adams, the burly, rough- and-ready county sheriff from San Jose, led an extraordinary pursuit of the Vásquez Gang. Adams and his posse, 24 hours behind the killers, rode south after them into the remote reaches of the Coast Range. After most of the posse’s horses broke down, and a fellow sheriff quit due to exhaustion and cowardice, Adams pressed on alone. He sent word to Los Angeles County Sheriff Billy Rowland, and the two lawmen, leading a new posse, tracked the gang into Little Rock Creek Canyon. In a pitched gunfight on September 7, 1873, near what is now Little Rock Reservoir, Adams and Rowland routed the gang, but Vásquez vanished into the San Gabriel Mountains.
In the meantime, Abdon Leiva discovered his wife, Rosario, in bed with Tiburcio. He would have killed the bandit leader had not Clodoveo Chavez stopped him. Vásquez allowed Leiva to leave camp, and Leiva promptly surrendered to Sheriffs Adams and Rowland. Although he gave valuable information about the gang’s activities, lawmen were still unable to capture Vásquez. Now the bandido chieftain embarked on a series of bandit raids in the vast San Joaquin Valley. The most daring was his sacking of the village of Kingston the day after Christmas—one of the few times in the Old West when an outlaw gang robbed an entire town.
By the spring of 1874, Vásquez had hatched a grand scheme to raid Los Angeles and rob one of the city’s two banks. He holed up at the adobe house of “Greek George” Caralambo, in what is now West Hollywood. But before he could put the plan into effect, Greek George informed lawmen the bandit chieftain was at his adobe, romancing his sister-in-law, Modesta Lopez. Greek George was motivated in part by a huge reward: $6,000 dead or $8,000 alive.
Once again Tiburcio’s romantic urges would be his downfall. On the morning of May 14, 1874, a posse of highly capable lawmen from Los Angeles surrounded Greek George’s adobe. Vásquez jumped through a window but was brought down by a shotgun blast. First jailed in Los Angeles, he was taken to San Francisco by steamer, then by train to Salinas, and finally to trial in San Jose. Thousands of gawkers came to visit him in the jails. Men made him gifts of wine and cigars, while starstruck women, both Anglo and Hispanic, decorated his cells with flowers. When he was brought to trial for one of the Tres Pinos murders, the main witness against him was his cuckolded gang member, Abdon Leiva. Convicted and sentenced to death, Vásquez was hanged on March 19, 1875, by his nemesis, Sheriff Adams, before a huge crowd in San Jose.
In an era when most Hispanics were deprived of basic civil liberties and able to obtain only the most menial labor, rightly or wrongly, Tiburcio Vásquez came to symbolize their struggle for social justice. Today his name is recalled in the Tiburcio Vásquez Health Center in Alameda County and Vásquez Rocks Natural Area in Los Angeles County. There is even a high school north of Los Angeles named after him. And to this day, in the cemetery at Mission Santa Clara de Asís, admirers place fresh flowers on bandido Tiburcio Vásquez’s grave.
This article is adapted from author John Boessenecker’s Bandido: The Life and Times of Tiburcio Vásquez (University of Oklahoma Press, 2010). Also recommended: Lawmen & Desperadoes, by William B. Secrest.
Originally published in the August 2010 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.