A New Mexico Murder Mystery Defies Solution

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ALBUQUERQUE, N. M. — Today, what’s left of the bricks and bars stacked on the hillside isn’t good for much more than shade for jack rabbits and something for the wind to whistle through.

But 116 years ago, these lonely, roofless fragments of walls–all that’s left of the old Sierra County Courthouse and Jail in Hillsboro–were witness to the most colorful, controversial and sensational trial in New Mexico history.

On May 25, 1899, ranchers Oliver Milton Lee and Jim Gilliland went on trial accused of murder in connection with the mysterious disappearance three years earlier of Col. Albert Jennings Fountain, a lawyer, New Mexico Republican leader, Indian fighter, outlaw chaser, and all-around mover and shaker, and Fountain’s 8-year-old son, Henry.

The trial lasted 18 days and was marked by the histrionics of opposing counsel, which included future U. S. Sens. Thomas Catron for the prosecution and Albert B. Fall for the defense; the enthusiastic participation of spectators, most of whom sympathized with the defendants, and coverage by reporters from big-time newspapers from other parts of the country.

Lee and Gilliland were acquitted. The bodies of Fountain and his son have never been found.

“Murdered!” blared the headline in the Feb. 4, 1896, edition of the Albuquerque Daily Citizen.

“Col. Fountain of Las Cruces is missing,” the smaller headline below it said. “He was probably murdered by cattle thieves.

“The southern country aroused over his unknown fate.”

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Henry Fountain Courtesy of kamarathomas.com

The disappearance of Fountain and his son and the subsequent discovery of their abandoned buckboard and bloody ground in the area where they were last seen did indeed stir up the New Mexico Territory.

Fountain, who had served as speaker of the New Mexico House and played a large role in the founding of what is now New Mexico State University, was a man of clout. If he had not carried such a big stick, it is likely he and his son would have come to no harm as they traveled along the White Sands on the way home to Las Cruces from the town of Lincoln.

But Fountain was a man to be feared. In his position as chief investigator and prosecutor for the Southeastern New Mexico Stock Growers Assn., he had spent the days before his disappearance at the Lincoln County Courthouse securing indictments on cattle rustling against various people, including Lee, Gilliland and an associate of theirs named Billy McNew.

On the road home from Lincoln, Fountain noticed three horsemen in the distance, sometimes riding behind the buckboard, sometimes in front of it, but always there and always far enough away that they could not be recognized.

Fountain discussed the three riders with Saturnino Barela, the driver who had the stage run between Las Cruces and Tularosa, when the colonel and young Henry met Barela near Chalk Hill, 40 miles north of Las Cruces.

Later, during testimony at the Lee-Gilliland trial, Barela said the colonel asked him if he knew who the men were.

Barela said that he did not know the riders and that he advised Fountain to turn around and ride with him toward Tularosa. He said he told the colonel they could go to Las Cruces together the next day.

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Albert Jennings Fountain Courtesy of wikimedia.org

Fountain was a former military man and a hard-bitten frontier fighter, and he had a Winchester rifle with him in the buckboard. He declined the stage driver’s offer.

The date was Feb. 1, 1896. With the exception of the men who did away with them, Barela was probably the last person to see Fountain and his young son alive.

“I found blood where we supposed the murder of Col. Fountain took place,” Pat Garrett, former sheriff of Lincoln County, testified during the Lee-Gilliland trial, according to the June 2, 1899, edition of the Albuquerque Journal-Democrat.

“I was accompanied by a posse. A bloody spot indicated at once that murder had been done. The ground was soaked and the blood had spurted. A few feet away, there was another small spot of blood.”

Returning to Las Cruces from Tularosa the day after he had met Fountain and young Henry, the stage driver noticed that the tracks of the colonel’s buckboard went off the road about five miles from the place he had last seen them.

When Barela got to Las Cruces and found out that the Fountains had not made it home, he raised the alarm.

Search parties fanned out over the rugged country between Las Cruces and Chalk Hill. They found empty cartridge casings; they found Fountain’s tie; they found the buckboard and the blood and some of the colonel’s papers. But they found no bodies. And the most promising tracks had been wiped out by a herd of cattle belonging to Oliver Lee.

Lee, Gilliland and McNew were the chief suspects because of the rustling indictments Fountain had secured against them and because the three men were cronies of Fall, a Democratic kingpin in New Mexico and the archenemy–political and otherwise–of Fountain.

Garrett, the killer of infamous outlaw Billy the Kid, was stirred out of retirement on a ranch in Uvalde, Texas, to take a hand in the investigation.

This article is courtesy of latimes.com

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