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Prospectors’ Shootout Leaves Questions

When the smoke cleared, two men lay dead, victims of a gunfight that erupted over mineral rights outside this former gold-mining town.

A day later, this usually sleepy town in the mountains 40 miles northeast of San Diego was abuzz about the shoot-out Monday evening between two bands of gold prospectors.

“It’s unbelievable that this happened in Julian,” said Beryl Farr about the gun battle that exploded in Horseshoe Bend, about 6 miles east of town.

Edward Lopez, 66, and Christopher Mark Zerbe , both of Julian, were killed in the melee.

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“But when you think about it, I guess this is the perfect place for it,” said Farr, who operates the cash register at the Mountain Spirits Liquor Store.

“In the old days, Julian was a gold-mining town, and I heard back then--I guess the 1800s or so--that people fought over gold all the time.”

Since there were no independent witnesses to the shooting and because authorities have learned about the incident only through the versions of the surviving gold diggers, many questions about the deaths remain unanswered.

“Everybody’s trying to get an accurate version of what happened,” said Deputy John Seiferth of the Julian Sheriff’s substation.

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According to authorities, an East County family of seven arrived at Horseshoe Bend about 7 p.m. Monday with plans to have a picnic, shoot target practice and pan for gold. But upon their arrival at the remote, federally owned site, the family--which authorities refused to identify--stumbled into Lopez 66, and Zerbe, who were also panning for gold on the same piece of property, said Lt. John Tenwolde of the Sheriff’s homicide division.

Julian residents said that Lopez was a “local fixture” who apparently had no steady job and spent most of his time wandering along the town’s main street. Zerbe, who also lived in the mountain town of 4,200, is virtually unknown to residents.

Apparently, the two groups argued over who had the legitimate right to pan for gold on the property, Tenwolde said. According to authorities, the two camps temporarily settled their differences, only to reopen the dispute shortly afterward.

Then Lopez got into a quarrel with a female member of the East County party and fired his rifle at the group, Tenwolde said. The East County group retaliated, firing their guns, which included two high-powered rifles, a 12-gauge shotgun, and an AK-47 semi-automatic assault rifle. Both Zerbe and Lopez fell, mortally wounded from the fusillade.

Life Flight was sent to the scene, but could not revive the victims.

No charges or arrests have been made in connection with the case, Tenwolde said. An investigation is continuing.


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