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Garrett Murder

by C. F. Eckhardt
Nearly everybody knows that Sheriff Pat Garrett of Lincoln County, New Mexico Territory, shot and killed a 21-year-old bandit named Henry McCarty, who usually went by Billy the Kid, in Pete Maxwell’s bedroom at Fort Sumner in July, 1881. What most people don’t know is that Pat Garrett was himself murdered in Doña Ana County, New Mexico 27 years later. The murder of Pat Garrett is one of the many unsolved mysteries of the West.

Garrett had been sheriff of several New Mexico counties, including Lincoln and Doña Ana. He also operated a ‘private detective’ company which traced and recovered stolen cattle, ‘taking care of’ the thieves,’ usually by leaving them full of holes. At one point he worked as a detective for Southern Pacific Railroad. While he was working for SP he was stationed for a time in Seguin, Texas. His youngest son, Jarvis, was born in Seguin.

No matter what he did, Garrett never really made much of a success at life. In 1908 he was running sheep on rented land in Doña Ana County. That he’d made a number of enemies there was no doubt—anyone who works in law enforcement makes enemies. It goes with the job. However, Pat was not a likeable fellow—even a lot of other lawmen didn’t like him—and he apparently made enemies in just about everything he did.

Garrett and two other men were in a wagon at a particularly desolate spot in Doña Ana County, either on the way to look over some sheep or on the way back from looking over some sheep Garrett was trying to buy. The stories differ. The wagon stopped and Garrett got down to relieve himself by the back wheel. As he stood, someone fired a single rifle shot. It struck Pat Garrett in the back of his head, just at the base of his skull. He was dead when he hit the ground.

Wayne Brazeal, who was along on the journey but was no friend of Garrett’s, rolled the dead man over and fired a single round from his pistol into Garrett’s chest. He then mounted a horse, rode into Las Cruces, confessed to murdering Garrett, and was arrested. However, he was acquitted of the crime since the third man testified that Brazeal shot a corpse—Garrett was already dead from the rifle shot to his head when Brazeal shot him.

Who fired the shot that killed Pat Garrett? There’s never been a positive answer to that. In my discussions with Leon C. Metz, one of Garrett’s many biographers—though probably the most thorough of them—the name Jim Miller kept cropping up. Jim—known as ‘Deacon Jim’ because, given an hour or so to prepare, he could deliver a half-hour Hellfire-and-brimstone Methodist sermon on any subject in the Bible; and as ‘Killer Miller’ because he would kill anyone for $50—is known to have been in the Las Cruces area about the time Pat was killed.

Jim Miller, though, preferred to use a shotgun. Specifically, he used one he could conceal beneath his long frock coat. Garrett was armed that day, both with the .44 caliber Colt he’d used to shoot Billy the Kid and with a long-barreled 10-ga shotgun. Jim would have had to get in close to use his favorite weapon—entirely too close. Garrett probably knew Jim by sight—most West Texas and New Mexico lawmen did—and if he’d seen Jim Miller coming he would have used his own shotgun. He had a definite range advantage with the longer barrel.

That left Jim, if indeed he was the shooter, no choice but a rifle. But what kind of rifle?

A man’s head is an uncertain target, particularly at considerable range. People move their heads. They nod, look around, tilt them—all of which makes a head a bad target. Besides, at 150 to 200 yards, a man’s head is not a big target. It appears about the size of a small English pea. In these days of high-velocity rifles with telescopic sights, it would be fairly easy to target a man’s head. In the days of open sights, the front sight would completely obscure a human head.

Considering the landscape in that particular part of Doña Ana County, an assassin would need to be anywhere from 150 to 200 yards from where the wagon stopped to be concealed. At that sort of range the actual target would be ‘where the suspenders cross’—just about between the shoulderblades. It would be a one-shot kill, because the bullet would penetrate the heart.

The most common caliber of rifle all across the West at the time was the .44 Winchester Central Fire or .44-40. Winchester produced the M1873 and M1892 in that caliber, Marlin likewise produced a rifle and carbine in that caliber, and there were several imports in that caliber. While a .44-40 carbine or rifle was a very good weapon at close range—out to 100 yards or so—beyond that range velocity dropped dramatically and the bullet did too. A .44-40 carbine, sighted in for 100 yards, would hit nearly a foot below point of aim at 200. Therefore, the base of the skull would be the proper aiming point in order to hit a man Garrett’s size ‘where the suspenders cross.’

However, there were a couple of new kids on the block by 1908. A new weapon made its debut in the West 14 years earlier—the Winchester M1894. By 1908 its most popular caliber was .30 WCF—the famous .30-30. A year after the ’94 came out, Winchester produced the M1895, chambered for, among other calibers, the .30 US cartridge, also known as the .30-40 Krag. Compared to the trajectory of the .44-40—or even its slightly more effective brother, the .38-40— either of the new cartridges was a wonder. The Krag was originally a black powder cartridge, pushing a 200 grain bullet with only 40 grains of powder, but the bullet was much more ballistically efficient than the fat, flat-nosed slug of the .44-40. When the loading went to smokeless powder things improved a lot. With a muzzle velocity of in excess of 2000 fps, the Krag round was extremely flat-shooting. The .30-30 was designed originally as a smokeless-powder round. It had a selection of slugs, anywhere from about 140 grains to 180. With any round, it had a muzzle velocity of 2000+ feet per second. This meant, in both cases, that bullet drop at 200 yards would be inches, not a foot or so—and not many inches at that.

Theory: The assassin chose to use one of the new rifles chambered for a smokeless powder round to avoid giving away his position after he fired. He was used to the old reliable .44-40, sighted for 100 yards. He was aware of how far the .44-40’s slug would drop at 200 yards. He compensated for the drop by aiming at the top of Garrett’s head. However, he was using either a.30-30 or a .30-40, also sighted for 100 yards. Either through force of habit or because he had never fired the weapon at 200 yards and did not know how little the bullet would drop at that range, he drew the same bead he would have drawn with his .44-40. By some chance Garrett did not move his head. The bullet struck him at the base of the skull, killing him instantly.

Of course, Miller was never tried and convicted of Garrett’s murder. In fact, it would have been difficult to find a jury that would have convicted anyone of Garrett’s murder. He’d made so many enemies in New Mexico that most of the citizens breathed a sigh of relief at hearing he’d been killed.

© C. F. Eckhardt
"Charley Eckhardt's Texas" December 9, 2008 column

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