Texas Ranger Meets His End on New Years Day 1940
Written and Photos Contributed by William G. Howell
a child I always heard the story of my grandfather killing a Texas Ranger in Shafter,
Texas. Although it was said to be in self defense, he was almost being lynched
for it. I always thought the stories were folklore and the wild imaginations of
my father to justify his drinking. As I got older and heard several slight versions
of the stories from different family members, I began to notice that the stories
were close in their versions and I began to believe that they were true. I think
much of this had to do with my experiences as a cop interviewing witnesses. No
one witness tells the same story but they are always similar. Finally one day
while on the job, I met another cop that I had never worked with and throughout
the shift began to talk about our families. As it turned out his father was from
the same area of Texas and he recalled similar stories. A few days later he returned
and told me that the stories that I had heard all these years were true according
to his father. In the coming years my continued research would bring me to a conclusion
that was, in part, based not only on stories told by my family and eye witnesses
that were still alive, but documented fact.|
Main St. in the early 1930's.|
In the foreground is the "Howell Package Store."
Main Street in April 2006. |
Again the "Howell Package Store" in the foreground.
its day, Shafter was a booming mining town with
Silver ore as the primary product of the mines. Judging from the newspaper accounts
of the time, Shafter had quite a social life. It was the typical boom town that
you would read about in old westerns. From my research it appears that the town
was basically run by the mining corporation. The law of the town was a Presidio
County Deputy Sheriff by the name of Robert Eustis Speed, who was called "Botas,"
because of the high riding boots that he always wore. Speed also worked part time
for the mining corporation in a variety of jobs but mostly security. He was also
said to have had the reputation of beating people, especially the Mexican mine
workers "just because." It appears that his favorite thing was to walk into any
of the several bars in town, pick out an individual whose only crime was being
drunk and beat that individual within an inch of this life, and then drags that
person off to jail. This fact was documented in an article written by a Sheldon
Wimpfen, who worked part time as a deputy Sheriff during the time. Robert E. Speed
was 60 years old at the time of this death. Enlistment records from the archives
of the Texas Rangers showed that in his younger years, he was a Ranger for about
My grandfather, William B. Howell, Sr., was for the most
part the owner of the only bar, "Howell Package Store," in Shafter that could
sell liquor in the town, seven days a week. This upset the mining corporation
because the miners would drink all day Sunday, which would affect their work in
the mines on Monday. This is probably the main thing that started the trouble
between my grandfather and Deputy Speed. One other incident that escalated the
problems between the two, started one day when Speed walked into the "Howell Package
Store," and beat a G.I. that was in the bar drinking and hauled him off to jail.
According to the stories, my grandfather stood his ground and told Speed that
he would never do that again in his bar.
Additional troubles between
my grandfather and Speed seemed to have started coming to a head around September
or October of 1939. This incident was somewhat confirmed, although not in detail,
in a newspaper article in the Big Bend Sentinel. It appears that my father (William
B. Howell, Jr.), and uncle (James A. Howell), were somewhere near the package
store with a family dog, when a shot rang out from the area of the local jail
which was just up the hill from the package store. The dog was hit and ultimately
died of a gunshot wound. What the newspaper never reported was that my father
was holding the dog at the time and my Uncle was standing next to them. The article
only reported the incident as an argument over the death of a family dog. It was
believed by my family that Speed was responsible for gun shot.
incident occurred in December 1939, shortly after nightfall. My grandfather sent
one of his employees to the gas pumps in front of the package store to turn them
off. He then went out himself and at that time and saw a green 1936 Dodge Coupe,
with three men in it. Driving the vehicle was Pedro Bustillos, who was the godfather
to my father and uncle. In the front passenger seat was Mariano Fuentes, a long
time employee of the Brooks Family, a very prominent family in Shafter at the
time of which Robert Speed had married into. Fuentes would in years marry the
godmother to my father and uncle. In the back seat was Speed.
that my grandfather called out to Speed, acknowledging his presence and then turned
his back to them as he walked back into the package store. Witness accounts state
that at that time shots from the vehicle then rang out striking my grandfather
in the back. My Grandmother, Father and Uncle, along with an employee of my grandfather
all stated that my grandfather was shot by Speed and the front passenger of the
vehicle. My grandfather suffered a through and through gunshot wound to the lower
right side of his back with a rifle and a shotgun wound to his back. A photograph
of my Uncle Jimmy, now 77, points out some of the bullet holes from that ambush
in front of the store. The holes remain in the door to this date.
Howell showing bullet holes|
|Later that evening,
Presidio County Deputy Sheriff's came to my grandparents home to claim the body
of my grandfather believing that he had been killed. To their surprise they discovered
that my grandfather was still alive. Unknown to them he had been treated for his
wounds by my great grandfather who although thought to be a doctor was actually
believed to be a "Healer." |
What happened next surprised me as I have
not been able to find anything that supports the actions of the local district
court. My grandfather received a summons from the district court of Presidio County.
In this action, my grandfather had all his weapons confiscated by the court. Why
has never been revealed. There was nothing to indicate any charges against my
grandfather, Robert Speed or the others in the vehicle.
that, my grandparents traveled to El
Paso, where my grandfather purchased two handguns. I am assuming for protection
January 1, 1940, rumors had circulated throughout the town that Speed had been
drinking and touting that he was going to kill Bill Howell. I know for sure that
in the morning Speed had picked up Mariano Fuentes, to show him some property
that Speed had recently purchased. Fuentes did not want to go with him because
Speed had been drinking. It is believed that Fuentes did not know that they would
end up at the "Howell Package Store," that afternoon.
There are two accounts
of what happen next in the bar. The first is that Speed walked in and stood at
one end of the bar with my grandfather at the other end. Speed was armed with
a 45 cal. Pistol that was holstered. Unknown to Speed, my grandfather had heard
the rumors of Speed's drinking and earlier statements that he would kill my grandfather.
He placed two 32 cal. revolvers underneath the counter of the bar near a back
door. My father, who was 12 years old at the time, was sitting on several cases
of beer at the end of the bar next to the back door. My Uncle Jimmy had just walked
into the bar from the back door at exactly 5:00 PM, as he remembers the whistle
from the mine going off. He had just asked my grandfather if there was anything
to eat, when he was told to go outside by my grandfather. While Speed stood at
one end of the bar a conversation took place between the two. Speed was said to
be fingering the holstered 45 cal Pistol at the time. My grandfather was heard
yelling out "No Bob," at which time several shots rang out. The second version
of what happened was similar only Speed was said to have drawn his pistol and
fired at my grandfather twice and missed.
In any case the end result
was the same as Robert E. Speed lay dead on the floor of the bar. Shot several
times in the front and back as I believe he spun around driven by the rounds hitting
him. It was said that one of the issues in the subsequent trial was the fact that
Speed's 45 cal. Pistol came to rest up right on the floor of the bar as if intentionally
placed there. Efforts by the court to duplicate the positioning of the pistol
failed. The other issue was that Speed had received a gunshot wound to the back.
It was alleged that my grandfather shot Speed in the back however no mention of
the other fatal wounds are ever mentioned by those making this allegations.
the shooting, my grandfather was arrested and taken to the county seat, Marfa,
about 40 miles north of Shafter. While in enroute,
he and the deputies that were escorting him were stopped at a place just outside
of town called, "Elephant Rock," where the intent of the mob was to lynch my grandfather.
If it were not for the efforts of my grandmother and an unknown local rancher
they would have completed the job. |
My grandfather was indicted, tried
and convicted of murdering Robert E. Speed. But the strange thing is that he was
sentenced to 5 years in prison and at the recommendation of the jury, the sentence
was suspended. In short, other that the time he spent in jail before he was bailed
out, no jail time was imposed.
| || |
left to right, my great grandparents William S. Howell (Healer), Mattie A. Howell,
and grandfather (William B. Howell., Sr.) the one who killed Deputy Speed. |
a year later, another uncle (Arthur O. Howell) who had been away from Shafter
all that time was approached by an individual who claimed to have been on the
jury panel. He was told that the vote for the conviction of my grandfather was
10 to 2. But he was also told that because Speed was not well liked by both the
Sheriff and Presiding Judge of the time, that the sentence was a compromise.|
Having read the newspaper articles of the time and getting copies of the
names of both the Grand Jury and Trial Jury, I have many questions. The one the
jumps out at me the most is the fact that relations to both the Sheriff, the Brooks
Family of which Speed was a part of, and the Presiding Judge, were on both panels.
According to the witness list not all witnesses present during the shooting were
interviewed. Attempts to obtain court transcripts or any reports of the incident
have proved to be in vain for a variety of reasons. This surprises me that such
records were not maintained.
father (William B. Howell, Jr.) and my uncle (James A. Howell) Photo circa 1930-32|
| My biggest question
is this; having retired from law enforcement I am somewhat aware of what happens
after the death of an officer killed in the line of duty. Why has there never
been an attempt by the Presidio County Sheriff's Department to include Deputy
Speed's name into the National Law Enforcement Memorial in Washington D.C.? If
he was the hero that his family claims and I have no doubt of that, why is he
not honored as he should be and in the manner that other law enforcement agencies
honor those that have paid the ultimate price?|
These questions have been
asked of those agencies involved and of family members on both sides. All that
prevails are unanswered questions and "Faded Memories".
- William G. Howell,
Estes Park, Colorado
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