Times Past

SLO County: Murder capital

Special to The TribuneJune 24, 2013 

San Luis Obispo County had earned the reputation of being the murder capital of California, but in the early spring of 1858, a group of businessmen decided to change all that. They were led by attorney Walter Murray, who would go on to found this newspaper. The group met at Murray’s home near the present-day Apple Farm.

The head of the “crime syndicate,” Irish-born Jack Powers, was out of town. He left San Luis Obispo native Pío Linares in charge.

Murray’s group might never have galvanized into a committee of vigilance if Pío Linares had not responded to the threat posed by this meeting. Linares led a gang to Murray’s home. His plan was to shoot through the windows, killing Murray and James Blackburn. The bandidos fired a number of rounds through the windows without result. Linares then urged his men to batter down the door and enter the darkened rooms.

His gang lost its nerve. Linares shouted, “Well, if you come here to fight, why don’t you go in? We are stronger than they!”

Linares once boasted to his cousin, Miguel Blanco, “Don’t you know that I have always been at the head of all revolutions in San Luis Obispo?” He lost face when his gang refused to enter Murray’s home.

He didn’t fully comprehend the extent of his rout.

Several months later, Powers, Linares and El Huero (“the fair-skinned one”) took a herd of select mustangs to San Francisco.

In the city on May 2, 1858, Powers entered the “Great March against Time” at the Pioneer Race Course near Mission Dolores. Powers bet $2,500 that he could ride 150 miles in eight hours, using relays of horses. Linares and El Huero served as his horse handlers for the event.

Powers won his wager, completing the course in less than seven hours before a cheering crowd of 10,000 people.

On May 10, 1858, the trio was back to its old tricks in Northern San Luis Obispo County. Two Basque meat cutters from Oakland, Bartolo Baratie and M. Jose Borel, had purchased the San Juan Capistrano del Camate Ranch near present-day Shandon. They settled on the ranch with Baratie’s wife, Andrea, and two vaqueros. Linares, El Huero, Blanco, Jesus Valenzuela (brother of Joaquin), Frolian Servin, Santos Peralta, Desiderio Grijalva and Luciano Tapia, who went by the name El Mesteño, arrived at the San Juan, claiming to be mesteñeros (men who rounded up wild mustangs).

The group asked for some food and lodging.

That night, the eight bandidos slept in a small adobe on the San Juan Creek along with the Basque’s two vaqueros, Luis Morillo and Ysidro Silva. They rode off in the morning. Linares wished to return and kill everyone on the rancho. The others objected to killing a woman and the vaqueros who were, after all, fellow Californios.

Linares’ horse threw him, and he rode to San Luis Obispo to nurse his injuries with some aguardente (native California brandy). El Huero took command of the group. Blanco returned to the ranch and shot Borel dead while he and Baratie were digging a well. Baratie was wounded and tied up with a reata, or lasso. The group forced Baratie to hand over $2,700 in cash, plus some jewelry and gold watches.

They then walked Baratie outside, where Peralta shot him dead in cold blood before the horrified eyes of his wife. El Huero ordered El Mesteño and Servin to take the two vaqueros into the hills and kill them.

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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