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Killer, 72, Seeks to Be With Blind Wife : Devoted Old Cowboy Faces Rough Ride in Parole Bid

Times Staff Writer

The old cowboy stood in the prison yard, a prisoner perhaps as much of his time as of his crime.

For years, his bowed legs had hugged a horse as he roped cattle and moved them between winter and summer pastures on the great ranches of Nevada, while the world around him increasingly made him seem a remnant of the past.

Through the years, he had remained steadfastly devoted to his wife as old age stole her vision and her hearing.

Then, on Jan. 29, 1984, at the age of 71, he killed a man--shot him dead with two of three bullets fired from a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson.

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He insists that it was a clear case of self-defense, that the man he shot was drunk, had already fired at him with a .22 pistol and was raising his gun for another shot. But even the cowboy cannot cannot explain what he did next:

He drove the body to a remote desert area, where it was later found, burned beyond recognition, in the cab of the dead man’s truck.

Wife Alone and Ailing

So now Robert Lee Elliott, also known as Red, is locked away in the Northern Nevada Correctional Center, serving a life sentence, while his wife of 47 years is left lonely and alone.

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This case of an aging cowboy and his wife has now become a dilemma, a public puzzle in which the past is pulling at the present and mercy is tugging at justice.

Elliott, who is suffering from cancer and other ailments, has asked state officials to let him leave prison and return home to Katherine, who is 82, so that they may live out their years together.

“Robert Elliott’s case is a paradox,” says Max Neuneker, program director for the Nevada Board of Pardons. “He pled guilty to a very serious crime (but) he is a 72-year-old with deteriorating health. His wife is even older and in worse health.”

The trial judge and the district attorney have opposed releasing Elliott, but on Oct. 7, the pardons board, after hearing his plea--including his desire to donate one of his eyes to his wife--commuted his sentence. This made him eligible to go before the state parole board to ask for immediate release from prison.

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The parole board, which usually denies parole on first requests, is to hear Elliott’s case today.

“If this had happened 50 years ago, nothing would have happened to him,” says Stephen R. Wassner, the chief deputy state public defender who represented Elliott before the pardons board. “He was born in a different era and hasn’t been exposed to the changes of modern society.

‘A Buckaroo Ethic’

“One of the reasons the pardons board liked him,” says deputy public defender Robert T. Morris, “is that he’s got a buckaroo ethic. He’s part of the heritage people feel in Nevada.”

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Elliott and his wife had lived in Yerington, Nev., for 10 years, when in 1979, they moved their small travel trailer onto the property of Dale Keith Carrigan, to serve as caretakers and take messages for his sheet metal business. By the day of Carrigan’s death at Red Elliott’s hand, the business had failed and Carrigan wanted the Elliotts off the property.

Carrigan took Elliott into town that day for groceries, and they spent the afternoon and evening in a bar. “We had quite a few drinks,” Elliott told 3rd Judicial District Judge Mario G. Recanzone. “Finally, we went home. He helped me take one bag of groceries in and put it in my trailer, and I taken one and he went back and got into his (pickup truck) on the driver’s side . . . and I laid mine down and come on back to get another sack of groceries.

“So I got it and, well, on the way back he says, ‘Well,’ he says, ‘I want you out of here,’ and I told him I couldn’t get out right away, that I was going in the summer. I got my groceries and went on in, and he fired a shot . . . .

How Shooting Started

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“I went on in with my sack of groceries, put my gun in my pocket (and returned for more groceries). I seen his right hand move on the side . . . .”

In a prison interview with The Times, Elliott described what happened next this way: “I seen the glitter of the gun. I said, ‘Keith, please lay that gun down.’ He just kept on. I just pulled mine out and throwed three slugs at him.

“It was me or him, and I got him.”

Carrigan’s 1955 Chevrolet pickup was found burning in the desert early the next day by some transportation company workers. The body of the 33-year-old man was inside, charred beyond recognition. Elliott says he had no matches with him that night, even to start a fire to keep warm. A burned, .22-caliber pistol was found on the floorboard. Blood tests showed that Carrigan’s blood alcohol level was .222--more than twice the amount that indicates intoxication.

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Five days after the shooting, Elliott, who had wandered aimlessly without food or shelter in the desert winter, was found lying on a haystack, suffering from exposure.

Elliott says of Carrigan: “I wish that guy’d listened to me. He’d be livin’ and I’d be out there.”

From the time the authorities apprehended him later that week, Elliott has maintained that he shot Carrigan in self-defense. “I didn’t start the whole thing, you know, the problem between me and Keith,” the arresting officer recorded as Elliott’s first words.

No Bullet Found

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Police searched fruitlessly for a bullet or casing. Records do not indicate whether the weapon in Carrigan’s truck showed evidence of having been fired, as Elliott says it was.

Elliott eventually pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. It was a tactical move, defense lawyer Morris says, to minimize the risk of a more severe sentence.

“I could have maybe believed (self-defense) if you hadn’t taken the victim out and tried to incinerate him,” Judge Recanzone said last year in sentencing Elliott to life imprisonment. “You knew exactly what you were doing. You were trying to get rid of the evidence that you had killed a man.”

“Mr. Elliott takes responsibility for the shooting,” public defender Wassner says. “It’s a question of what kind of responsibility--heinous, waiting in the bushes, or an argument in which he defended himself.”

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Elliott’s only explanation of the events after the shooting was: “I was taking him to the sheriff and I panicked. I don’t know how I got out there. I know I had the sheriff’s office on my mind. I just went blank.”

Recanzone and William Rogers, the Lyon County district attorney, opposed an early release for Elliott.

Fled Dust Bowl

Elliott was born Dec. 21, 1912, the youngest of five children, in Scipio, Okla. During the Dust Bowl of the Depression, he joined the migration of Okies to California, where he worked as a cowboy before moving to Nevada. In 1938, he married Katherine Prosser. He was, he said proudly in the prison interview, her first husband, and she was his first wife. “We’ve had some ups and we’ve had some downs,” he said, “and we’ve seen some pretty good times.”

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Since 1965, he has cared for his wife. Now he suffers from prostate cancer, emphysema and skin cancer from his long days in the sun. They have never been apart for so long as they have since Sunday, Jan. 29, 1984.

The life sentence meant that Elliott would have to serve five years before he would become eligible for parole--until Feb. 10, 1989. But in August, he asked the pardons board to hear his plea:

“My most sincere, important and less selfish reason is that my wife, also one who is getting on in years, is quite blind. We have no friends or family who care, and she really does need someone to take care of her as she is quite blind. If I could be released in the near future, I am in hopes that doctors may find one of my own eyes suitable for a transplant so that she may enjoy the short time left to her on this earth, with at least partial eyesight. (There has been no medical consultation on a transplant as yet.)

Plea for Wife’s Health

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“The fact that what I have done weighs as heavily upon my wife, if not more so, as it does with me. Given her serious medical and clinical condition, I am quite doubtful if she can survive much longer.”

“I know we ain’t got more than a few years,” Elliott said in the interview moments before returning to the bright sunlight of the prison yard. “That’s why we’d like to get back and spend it together.”

Katherine Elliott remains in Yerington, where she lives alone in a small house on $400 a month from Social Security. Church friends check on her and drive her the 67 miles to Carson City to visit her old cowboy.

“Saturday, she was here,” Red Elliott recalled. “She said, ‘I love you.’ I said, ‘I know you do. I love you too.’ ”

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