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Gold Prospectors Shoot It Out Over Panning Rights; Two Die

Times Staff Writer

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 rival parties panning for gold. During the battle, authorities said, the hills echoed to the sounds of gunfire from rifles, a shotgun and a military assault weapon.

Edward Lopez, 66, and Christopher Mark Zerbe, 34, both of Julian, were killed in the melee.

“It’s unbelievable that this happened in Julian,” said Beryl Farr, an employee of the Mountain Spirits liquor store, referring to the gun battle at Horseshoe Bend, six miles east of town. According to local records, Julian was a gold-mining center in the 1880s.

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Since there were no witnesses to the shooting and because authorities have learned about the incident only through the tales of the surviving gold-diggers, many questions about the deaths remain unanswered. No arrests have been made.

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

According to authorities, a family of seven from eastern San Diego County arrived at Horseshoe Bend about 7 p.m. Monday with plans to picnic, shoot target practice and pan for gold. But upon their arrival at the remote, federally owned site, the family--whom authorities refused to identify--stumbled into Lopez 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 spent most of his time wandering along the town’s main street. Zerbe, who also lived in the mountain town of 4,200, was less well known to residents.

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Grounds for Dispute

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 sides temporarily settled their differences, only to reopen the dispute shortly afterward.

Lopez argued with a female member of the family group and fired his rifle at the group, Tenwolde said. The group retaliated, firing their guns, which included two high-powered rifles, a 12-gauge shotgun and an AK-47 semiautomatic assault rifle. Both Zerbe and Lopez fell, mortally wounded from the fusillade.

A medical helicopter team 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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