Times Past

A brazen heist in a time of bandits

Special to The TribuneJune 15, 2013 

Only a hardy few dared travel El Camino Real between San Juan Bautista and Santa Barbara in the 1850s. Those who did risk their lives had a powerful incentive. Buying relatively cheap herds of cattle in the southern counties and driving the herds to Stockton or San Jose could make one a rich man. Alas, few were content with only one trip, so they would return with their saddlebags laden with gold to buy more cattle.

This gold attracted a series of bandit gangs. Irish immigrant Jack Powers’ gang was one of them. After being driven from Santa Barbara, they moved their base to San Luis Obispo. One heist illustrates their murderous methods.

Powers sent Nieves Robles north, as a sort of spy, to ride with Basque cattlemen Pedro Obiesa and M. Graciano on their cattle drive to San Jose. Robles sent word to Powers that the Basques planned to camp at the northern limits of what is now Camp Roberts.

Powers in turn sent a group of bandidos north. They encountered Joaquin Valenzuela at a fandango (party) at Joaquin Estrada’s Santa Margarita Rancho. Valenzuela declined to join the murderous enterprise, stating, “I have formerly been in such things, as you know. But I have given it up.”

The next morning, Dec. 1, 1857, Jose Antonio Garcia, as he recalled in his confession, witnessed one of the Basques riding along the road.

Bandits Pío Linares and El Huero (the fair-skinned one) approached the Basques. Shots were fired. Powers and El Huero went off to San Francisco with their share of the loot. When Garcia got to the road, he saw the two dead Basques.

Linares returned to San Luis Obispo to celebrate. In the cantinas and fandango parlors of “Calle Chorro” (Chorro Street), he openly boasted of the crime.

On Dec. 19, the body of Graciano was found north of San Miguel. Because Robles had been the last man seen with the Basques, Sheriff Francisco Castro arrested Robles.

Powers was immediately warned of the arrest.

He returned to San Luis Obispo and retained English-born attorney Walter Murray to defend his associate. Murray needed the money. Moreover, Murray believed the U.S. Constitution required an adequate defense for all accused criminals. Before a jury of nine Californios and three Yankees chaired by Jose de Jesus “Totoi” Pico, Murray won an acquittal.

The Anglo-Yankee populace was outraged. Murray later said the “astuteness of the villains in leaving no witnesses of their guilt” cleared the man.

Linares was emboldened by the verdict. He stabbed three men and chased John J. Simmler, the justice of the peace, all over town. A few days later, Simmler opened his “elegant” St. Charles Hotel. Rampant violence would be bad for business.

Simmler hoped to prevent another embarrassing skirmish with Linares. He invited the bandido to the opening ball at the St. Charles. But at that same moment, Murray and a group of Americans including Daniel Blackburn (later cofounder of Paso Robles) met at Murray’s adobe home on the upper end of Monterey Road near the present-day Apple Farm restaurant and hotel. The purpose of the meeting was to organize an effective force to suppress the rising crime wave in San Luis Obispo.

Murray had come to share Simmler’s opinion that the violence had gone too far.

Meanwhile, Powers had gone to San Francisco to enter a horse race. In his absence, Linares was the head of the gang. When he heard of the meeting at the Murray residence, he directed his gang to kill the gringos.

To be continued.

Dan Krieger’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.

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