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Sunday, June 22, 2014

UNSOLVED MYSTERY: Who Shot Sheriff Royal?

Sheriff A. J. Royal of Pecos County: Murdered with no official suspects
I have never understood why so many movies have been made using bogus stories when there are so many great and true stories waiting to be told... or great questions to be asked. Here is a real Old West “Who done it.”

One great unsolved mystery was the death of Sheriff A. J. Royal of Pecos County. This was a man who needed killing so bad that there were a half-dozen good prospects as suspects in his assassination. Most of them were lawmen, and a few were Texas Rangers. And as time went on, the mystery only deepened and the list grew.

Sheriff Andrew Jackson Royal was a bad ‘un. A stunning mixture of politics and rapaciousness, he routinely threatened the citizenry and misused and abused his power as Sheriff. He was known to use his pistol like a flyswatter on pesky citizens. Sometimes he used the butt, other times bullets. His deputies were often bad men like Barney Riggs who were the stereotypical western thugs who used their badge of office to lord over everyone.

Deputy Barney Riggs (center) and gang

 Inmates such as Jose Juarez sometimes disappeared from Sheriff Royal’s jail never to be seen alive again. Royal routinely tried to arrest any citizens who were a threat to his political machine, with trumped up charges. After an intense manhunt to capture Victor Ochoa, a notorious Mexican revolutionary, U. S. Deputy Marshal George Scarborough left the prisoner in Sheriff Royal’s custody. Opportunistic, Royal then illegally released Ochoa from his jail, an international criminal, who promised to get him the Hispanic vote.

When he ran for re-election in 1894, Royal posted armed “deputies” at each polling place to intimidate his enemies. His legacy was a rotten muskmelon in the veritable armpit of Texas, so it is no surprise that the people of Pecos County unseated him when they got a chance. A petition, signed by Judge Williams, W. P. Matthews, John Odom, Jim and Morgan Livingston, Howell Johnson, R. B. Neighbors, Shipton Parke, and George Miller was fired off to solicit the help of the Texas Rangers. The people of Pecos wanted their county back.
Judge O. W. Williams of Pecos County. The honorable judge once got in a brawl with Sheriff Royal and had to threaten to kill him if he did not stop gouging his eye out.

History reveals that these men intended to remove Sheriff Royal one way or another. These were the men he had threatened repeatedly, and these were the men whose names have popped up over and over in the accounts of his assassination.

Not long before he was killed, Royal had nearly beaten Herman Koehler, the County Treasurer, to death. Koehler was the peaceful owner of a saloon which happened to be competing with his. After Royal lost his bid for re-election, he threatened to kill a bunch of his political adversaries and refused to give up his office, and that’s when the Rangers were called in.

As usual, when the Rangers appeared, all quieted down. Royal had to concede and move on. But he did it with loud threats and his enemies were afraid for their lives. The whole town was on the edge of its seat. Rumors ran as wild as mule deer bucks in the rut. Someone was going to pay.

We know now after so many years that rumors would persist, in various forms, that suggested a prominent group of townsmen had gathered and conspired to have Royal killed out of fear, and the conviction that they would never be able to sleep in peace again. Royal was mad, he was known to kill with little regard for the law, and he had assured them he would. It was kill or be killed. The Rangers were in Pecos for the second time in a few weeks, but on an impossible peace- keeping mission.

A powder keg was about to blow as the Rangers arrived in Pecos. Already Royal was named in several indictments by the Grand Jury. He was the complainant in as many more. All we know for sure is that one mid-morning a couple of Rangers stepped out of the courthouse, leaving another asleep in their quarters, and a mysterious gunman confronted Royal in his office as he was finally cleaning out his desk. With two men sitting beside him, the assassin got his attention, then leveled a shotgun and blew Royal away. And no one was ever indicted or prosecuted for the murder. Nobody had an idea who it might have been.

So I thought it would be fun, if not instructional to list the suspects… and we can take a vote. Don’t let my captions sway you, your guess is as good as anyone’s, and probably much more objective than most of the folks involved.
Bass Outlaw lived up to his name, even though he served as a Texas Ranger. But he could not have murdered A. J. Royal.

Years later, some informed parties seemed to agree that the deed had been done by a Texas Ranger. But which one? Two of them had an alibi, having gone down to the saloon to whet their whistles. One legend said it was Bass Outlaw. That would be handy to pin it on him, as he was the most famous “bad” Ranger. It’s something he might have done. But he was already dead by then.

The Rangers who could most obviously have been involved were those assigned to Pecos during that period, and most of them had stellar careers; Sgt Carl Kirchner, Pvt Joe Sitter, Pvt William Schmidt, Pvt Ed Palmer, and Pvt J. W. Fulgham.

Sgt Carl Kirchner, Texas Ranger, was in command at Pecos when some ugly stuff went down.

And then there were the leading citizens, Royal’s known political enemies, all signors of that petition, whom he planned to kill; Judge O. W. Williams, W. P. Matthews, (the County Clerk) Shipton Parke (County Commissioner), Morgan Livingston (County Commissioner), and Howell Johnson (former County Attorney and newly elected Justice of the Peace), any combination of which would have had the motive and the means to eliminate Royal.
Ranger William Schmidt... The only thing suspicious about him may be his name... recalled by a co-suspect thirty years later.

Any of Herman Koehler’s relatives would have been justified in doing Royal harm, as poor Herman never recovered from his beating and died soon afterward. There were numerous Mexican American families who had lost loved ones mysteriously to Royal’s regime. There were the witnesses for the State during his prosecution for assault, his merciless pistol whipping of defenseless Elza White; and R. L. Anderson, James Livingston and Shipton Parke(again!), who served on the Grand Jury which indicted him, as well as  R. N. Baker, and Frank and Francis Rooney. Royal had sworn vengeance on all of them. Not one to be hesitant to bite the hands that fed him, he owed several of them large sums of money. One was Herman Koehler, and it seemed he had decided to reduce his debt by reducing his debtors.

And then suddenly A. J. Royal was dead.

Old man Charles A. Crosby, County Clerk and a political ally who shared an office with the Sheriff, was right there, but nearly blind and not likely to have shot the Sheriff so boldly, as there was no means of escape, and he easily could have missed and brought destruction upon himself. Apparently Crosby and Royal had their backs to each other, Crosby facing the door. “Back to back they faced each other…” Another possible assassin could have been another man supposedly loyal to Royal, the recently resigned Justice of the Peace H. L. Hatchette, who failed in his bid for County Attorney. He was also in the room at the time of the killing. From his position, Hatchette reportedly could not see the killer standing in the doorway, but said Crosby could have.  But Crosby could not see and claimed he did not recognize the voice of the killer...”And if you don’t believe it’s true, go ask the blind man, he saw it too.”

It is perhaps a coincidence, or a sinister design that most of the possible suspects in the assassination were in or around the courthouse when the crime was committed. If they were in fear for their lives, why were they all there? Within moments after Crosby came out in the smoke-filled hall and announced the Sheriff’s death, Judge Williams was there, and later recalled seeing Johnson, Parke, both Livingstons, both Rooneys, John Odom and Rangers Palmer, Schmidt and Kirchner. When it comes to suspicion for murder, “the more the merrier.” Of course if they knew the killer, or were aware of his mission, they would be quick to respond so as to appear innocent...

Judge Williams admitted that he had a shotgun on the premises, hidden in a vault, (as did others, who were expecting violence) but when he inspected it, it was still loaded, although it looked as if it had been fired … but not that day-  in his estimation...

Several of these men had already come to blows with the defeated sheriff. There is no question that the critical mass of all of this enmity evolved into murder. The question still remains… who shot Sheriff Royal?
Captain John R. Hughes on the bottom right, Joe Sitters on the upper left. Both had no love lost for Royal, but both had impeccable careers as rangers.

By the time Captain John Hughes had sent his Rangers to Pecos for a second time, there is no doubt that Sheriff Royal had become a royal pain in the Ranger behind. It would not be like Hughes to send his men in without a plan… even a contingency plan. Conveniently, the statements afterwards provided everyone present with an alibi. Meanwhile Royal got tucked away, shot down in cold blood and nobody cared. Nobody was even indicted, much less prosecuted. All these Rangers and yet nobody had a clue, nobody went and tried to track the killer. It is all too much to digest.

I believe it may well have been the Ranger rumor mill which has fed this event and its aftermath for so long, and which was able to officially conceal the actual crime. Locals always pointed to the Rangers as the culprits. In fact few of them had any problem with his assassination as Sheriff Royal was so despised and feared. In his old age, Judge O. W. Williams, himself a possible suspect, claimed he had gotten a written confession from one of the Texas Rangers, who wanted to get his guilt off of his conscience. He said his name was Smith…
Ranger Frank Schmid. We do not know exactly where he was at the time of the killing.

This might have been several Rangers serving in west Texas in that period. If we allow the old judge to slur his speech a little, Smith could easily have been Schmid or Schmidt.  That immediately brings Frank Schmid to the fore, as well as William Schmidt, who was supposedly the Ranger making the rounds at the local tavern with Sgt Kirchner.

It seems many believed that either the Rangers killed Sheriff Royal or were helpful in some way towards his demise… or the cover up of his assassination.

Killin' Jim Miller

But what most writers seem to ignore was the obvious suspect, and I do not understand why. Killin’ Jim Miller, the legendary “Deacon Jim” should have been a prime suspect. Everything about the killing pointed to him; Professional, surgical, in the back, with a shotgun. And Miller had a decent motive. It is true he may have been the hired assassin, and killed the Sheriff for the money, but he also had a dog in the hunt. Here is where the thing smells to high heaven…

Jim (James Brown) Miller was absolutely active in this very area. Recommended by the good church going folks of Pecos, he started out as a deputy under Sheriff Bud Frazer of Reeves County.  But he killed a Mexican prisoner who supposedly “tried to escape” (a kind of euphemism among the Texas Rangers since the McNelly days) and Frazer became leery of him. He was fired. Since then he had been in a running war with Bud Frazer and his family next door in Reeves County for years.  There were several gun battles. Frazer was a dead shot, but never suspected that Miller, scoundrel that he was, was unsporting enough to wear a bullet-proof vest. With the help of Mannie Clements and Martin Q. Hardin, (both related to John Wesley Hardin) Miller made Frazer and his family miserable if not fear for their lives.

Sheriff Bud Frazer. Shared the same fate as Sheriff Royal, although he had more chances to avoid it. When it came to enemies, he picked the very worst in the West.
After Royal’s mysterious death Miller finally killed Frazer (shotgun, back of the head) and he tried to run off all of Frazer’s kin, including Barney Riggs, Sheriff Royal’s number one hatchet man. They never faced off, but there is no doubt about their sentiments. And here the smell begins to eke out: one of the witnesses, and thus on hand and useful to his defense, was none other than George Scarborough. Yes, Deputy U. S. Marshal Scarborough. The same Deputy U. S.  Marshal who had been repeatedly frustrated with Sheriff Royal and his corrupt regime. The outlaw Ochoa had been Scarborough’s prize until Royal traded his freedom for votes. We will never know the connection, but this one coincidence tells me there are more.

Deputy U. S. Marshal George Scarborough, who must have wanted to wring Sheriff Royal's neck. He knew Jim Miller well... and later served as a witness for the defense in his murder trial. Imagine, sticking up for the murderer of a fellow lawman... who basically assassinated him from behind.

Whatever his motivation, or the legalities, Killin’ Jim Miller was cleaning up the Pecos Valley.  And he may well have been in cooperation with some local lawmen, like U. S. Deputy Marshal Scarborough, who could not do what he would do. Later Miller was believed by Captain Hughes of the Texas Rangers to have assassinated Pat Garrett, another bad egg who made many enemies and owed everyone a lot of money. Miller was often hired to settle scores with notorious corrupt lawmen, when there was no legal satisfaction available through proper channels. This we know… This is what he had done in Oklahoma when he was finally caught by vigilantes, who would gladly do what lawmen would not… hang him.

So… cast your vote. Fortunately, this canvas is non-binding. But I am curious what you guys think about this wonderful, smelly, unsolved mystery of the west.

NOTE: I owe much of the credit for this article to Clayton W. Williams, and his book Texas' Last Frontier.


Anonymous said...

It was one of the Rooney brothers.

Anonymous said...

peruna says:

My bet would be Scarborough, or an accomplice of his
like Miller. Good stuff, Russell