Murder by C.
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
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.
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.
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.
left Jim, if indeed he was the shooter, no choice but a rifle. But what kind of
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.
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
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.
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
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.