No ‘Pat’ Story

In 1908 New Mexico rancher Will Isaacks placed a stone bearing a carved cross at the site outside Las Cruces where Pat Garrett was killed. In the 1960s the Doña Ana County Historical Society installed the present-day marker, above. (Photo: The Friends of Pat Garrett)

If young rebel Billy the Kid forever rides into the sunset in my mind, the New Mexico sheriff who killed him and was himself shot down in even less dignified fashion 27 years later remains grounded in my head like a despairing morning that never reaches high noon. It was midmorning on Feb. 29, 1908, that Pat Garrett took a bullet to the back of the head, supposedly as he stopped to urinate on a lonely stretch of road 5 miles shy of Las Cruces, New Mexico Territory. His assassination continues to fascinate outlaw and lawmen aficionados, as it remains somewhat of an unsolved mystery and has triggered more than a few conspiracy theories. Of course, it isn’t as dramatic (just ask Hollywood) as Garrett’s shooting of the Kid in Fort Sumner on the moonlit night of July 14, 1881—an event that has also attracted generations of conspiracy theorists who contend Billy survived the night. But for me the Kid killing doesn’t hold a candle to the Garrett assassination for sustaining interest.

For one, Garrett was the Lincoln County sheriff in the summer of 1881 and simply doing his sworn duty when he hunted down and pulled the trigger on the fugitive Kid. Far greater mystery surrounds the 1908 shooting of Garrett, even though goatherd Wayne Brazel confessed to having killed the onetime sheriff in a tale of self-defense that might seem unbelievable today but was apparently credible to a jury, which on May 4, 1909, took only 15 minutes to return a verdict of not guilty.

In the August 2018 Wild West we ran Jerry Lobdill’s feature “How Jim Miller Killed Pat Garrett,” which earned its author the Wild West History Association’s 2019 Six-Shooter Award for best general Western article. Lobdill suggested how paid assassin Miller did the dirty deed as part of a conspiracy involving such Garrett enemies as William W. Cox, Oliver Lee and Carl Adamson. Perhaps his arguments swayed some readers, but David G. Thomas was not among them. Chapter 13 of his 2020 book Killing Pat Garrett, the Wild West’s Most Famous Lawman—Murder or Self-Defense? is titled “Debunking the Conspiracy Theories,” while his cover story in the February 2021 issue of Wild West is titled “He Shot the Sheriff” (the “he” referring to Brazel, not Miller).

“Deacon Jim” Miller certainly had a killer résumé, having been tried for murder twice and the prime suspect in a score of unsolved killings and attempted murders. What’s more, at the time of his murder Garrett was about to sell his two Doña Ana County ranches to Miller and Adamson, who’d agreed to pay $3,000 for them. But first they were supposed to buy the goats Brazel was grazing on one of the ranches. On that fateful February 29 Garrett and Adamson were traveling by buggy to Las Cruces to meet Miller and Brazel when they encountered the latter on horseback. Brazel got Garrett’s goat (figuratively speaking), and Garrett threatened him before the shooting, according to Adamson, though Adamson was not subpoenaed for Brazel’s trial the following year. Miller, argues Thomas, was waiting at a Las Cruces hotel at the hour Garrett was killed. Thomas provides plenty of details (including previously undiscovered information) to support his argument Brazel shot Garrett in self-defense (not premeditated murder).

Among other aspects, Thomas calls into question the many accounts claiming Garrett had exited the buggy to urinate and was found with his trousers unbuttoned. According to Adamson, urination was involved in the deadly story, but it was he, not Garrett, who’d stopped the buggy in order to relieve himself. More important is Thomas’ revelation that the Fornoff Report, a supposed summary of territorial Mounted Police Captain Fred Fornoff’s investigation into the murder, cannot be examined because it doesn’t exist. Thomas has plenty of answers but not all of them, in part because there’s also no surviving copy of the Brazel trial transcript. If you’ll excuse a little vulgar slang, the story of Garrett’s killing is, more than ever, a real pisser. WW

Wild West editor Gregory Lalire’s next historical novel, Man From Montana, comes out in April 2021. His earlier novels include 2019’s Our Frontier Pastime: 1804–1815 and 2014’s Captured: From the Frontier Diary of Infant Danny Duly. His short story “Halfway to Hell” appears in the 2018 anthology The Trading Post and Other Frontier Stories. This article was published in the February 2021 issue of Wild West.