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A New Mexico Murder Mystery Defies Solution

THE ALBUQUERQUE TRIBUNE

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 102 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.

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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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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.

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.

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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.

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Despite his testimony in court about bloody patches on the ground, the trail was cold when Garrett got on it, and his role in the matter didn’t get up a good head of steam until more than a year after he was elected sheriff of Dona Ana County in the fall of 1896.

“In April 1898, I went to serve a warrant on Lee and Gilliland,” Garrett testified during the trial of the two men. “They objected and killed one of my men.”

Eventually, McNew, Lee and Gilliland were arrested.

McNew was charged with the murder of Albert Fountain but, because of legal maneuverings on both sides, never went to trial.

Lee and Gilliland were charged with the murders of young Henry Fountain and Garrett’s deputy, Kent Kearney. Judge Frank Parker moved the trial of the pair on the charge of murdering Henry to Hillsboro, a town near the Black Range country in southwestern New Mexico.

The crowds that poured into Hillsboro for the trial doubled, maybe even tripled, the town’s usual population of 200.

From the get-go, defense attorney Fall painted the defendants as small ranchers oppressed by the big ranching interests that Albert Fountain had represented and as the victims of a political vendetta perpetrated by bullying Republicans eager to undermine Fall’s power by going after his friends.

Fall’s cross-examinations confused some prosecution witnesses and revealed the unsavory pasts of many of them. He also won over the spectators and the press.

According to the June 10, 1899, edition of the Albuquerque Journal-Democrat, testimony that put a prosecution witness in a bad light was almost greeted by cheers in the courtroom.

“The sympathy of the local community, particularly the ladies, is now with the defendants,” the newspaper reported.

All this so frustrated the prosecution team of Catron, William Childers and Dist. Atty. Richmond Barnes that they sent a disclaimer to the Journal-Democrat that ran beneath most reports of the trial appearing in that newspaper.

“All newspaper reports, including the Associated Press, sent out from here about the trial of Lee and Gilliland are gross misrepresentations of evidence and facts generally,” it read.

The prosecution scored some points.

On June 1, 1899, Riley Baker, who had served as a deputy sheriff in the Sacramento Mountains of New Mexico, testified that Gilliland told him that “if the bodies of Col. Fountain and his son had to be found before anyone was convicted, no one would be convicted.”

If Gilliland did indeed say that, it turns out he was right.

The case against Lee and Gilliland was based entirely on circumstantial evidence. Without bodies, murder was tough to prove beyond a doubt.

At midnight on June 12, the case went to the jury. Seven minutes later, the jurors, apparently determined not to lose any more sleep over the matter, returned a verdict of not guilty.

So who killed the Fountains? Where are the bodies?

There are those, including historian A. M. Gibson, who think that even though Fall didn’t do the deed himself, he was behind the killings.

And what happened to Fall? In 1912, when New Mexico became a state, he switched from the Democratic to the Republican Party and won a seat in the U. S. Senate.

Later, after President Warren Harding appointed him secretary of the Interior, Fall was implicated in the oil-lease scheme known as the Teapot Dome scandal. He was convicted of accepting a bribe, imprisoned for a time and died in poverty in El Paso in 1944.

Some people say they believe that the men originally charged with the killings--McNew, Gilliland and Lee--are the guilty ones. If so, they took what they knew to their graves.


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