No one knows better the danger that a tense circumstance can present than police in the United States. Constantly under pressure to control people who are guaranteed rights that provide them a wide latitude of no control, the scenarios that citizens can present range from the mundane to sheer terror, even for a trained professional. With that thought, we continue to reflect on moments in the history of law enforcement we wish we could get back, the sacrifices of those that have paid the ultimate price on our behalf.
Southeastern New Mexico Stock Growers Association
The State of New Mexico achieved statehood on January 6th, 1912. However, the effort to gain statehood in New Mexico went on for many years prior to that. One of the reasons they were delayed was the appearance of lawlessness that consumed parts of the State in its territorial era, during the 1890’s. One of the roots of that perceived lawlessness was the crime of cattle rustling. Ranchers throughout the region, particularly in Lincoln County were the victims of cattle theft from two different gangs. One, was a group from Socorro County, which lies directly west, led by a criminal known as Eli “Slick” Miller. The other, was a gang from Tularosa County, which sits directly south. This group was hard to define, and even harder to track. What was clear, was that a man by the name of Oliver Lee led them, he himself a bonafide cattle rancher, and even a part-time US Marshal. Lincoln County ranchers were sick of being victimized, losing not only money, but their ability to feed their families. The Southeastern New Mexico Stock Growers Association was weary, and early on in their joint venture of representation of ranchers, they brought abroad Albert J. Fountain, who was a politician in the territory, and was also not afraid to get directly involved with matters of justice. He was known as Colonel for his time in the Army, fighting Indians, and had experience chasing criminals, not to mention a lawyer by trade. He had an exact combination of skill sets that ranchers needed in the territory to protect their interests. He was hired as their chief investigator and prosecutor, and in the days of the territory, associations like this one were able to secure law enforcement status for investigative personnel such as Colonel Fountain. He also was granted a staff. He hired Ben Williams and Les Dow, and the three men went to work, conducting surveillance operations first on the Socorro Gang. This cattle theft issue will show us how lengthy organized crime investigations can take, and the limits that they push.
Colonel Albert Jenkins Fountain
It took approximately three years for Colonel Fountain and his men to put the case together against Slick Miller and the Socorro Gang, but by the end of 1894, Miller and his gang were finished, with Miller serving 10 years in prison for cattle theft. With the conclusion of the Socorro Investigation, he set his sights on Oliver Lee and the Tularosa group, or gang (depending on which documents you read). Colonel Fountain was a cattleman himself, in addition to all other titles he garnered, and Lee was an equally respected man in the territory, and even more revered than Colonel Fountain, the further south one travelled past what is now known as Three Rivers. While history doesn’t show a complete picture, it does appear that Lee was a cattle thief for as long as he’d been in New Mexico, and why he was given US Marshal status is anyone’s guess. It is documented in some sources that he gave up the Marshal star prior to his time in New Mexico, whether that is a fact or not, we’re not certain at this time. At any rate, he was also a deadly accurate shot, with both pistol and rifle, which led to people being intimidated, which led to respect, read fear, by others. Lee also had friends in high places, which would help him out tremendously later in the events that unfolded.
Dow and Williams had obtained statements from ranch hands, locals, and a host of other witnesses and victims to the Tularosa gang, concerning their cattle theft efforts. In addition, both men spent considerable time trailing both gangs, mapping routes, locating meet points, where cowboys would hand off stolen cattle, or leave cattle overnight for another part of the gang to recover and take the rest of the way. And in late 1895, Colonel Fountain believed he had enough evidence to seek indictments in Lincoln County against Lee and two dozen ranchers in Tularosa. It’s important to note at this point in the story that while Colonel Fountain worked the association, he resided at the far south-central town of Las Cruces. Lincoln County is closer to the center of the State, with Tularosa sitting between the two. This meant that Colonel Fountain would be traveling through enemy territory, twice, in order to finally get his man.
Colonel Fountain set out to Lincoln with his son, eight-year-old Henry, believing that no harm would be done to him with a small child in tow. Colonel Fountain and his son made it to Lincoln County, convincing the grand jury of 32 indictments, with two specifically against Lee and his right-hand man, William McNew, at which point he set back out for Las Cruces. Colonel Fountain and his son took the return trip in two legs. First, they stayed in Mescalero, the second night they made it to La Luz, which is just north of Alamogordo. On the third day, Colonel Fountain ran into the regular stage coach driver between Las Cruces and Tularosa, Saturnino Barela. Barela testified that Colonel Fountain asked him if he knew who a group of three male horse riders were, who had been trailing the Colonel throughout the trip back to Las Cruces. Barela did not know who they were, as they stayed a distance far enough away that no features could be made out Barela sensed there was trouble, and tried to convince Colonel Fountain to go back to Tularosa with him, and then ride with Barela in the morning back to Las Cruces. For unknown reasons, Colonel Fountain, surely a confident man did not heed the advice, and decided to continue his journey. Barela was the last person to see Colonel Fountain or his son alive.
On Barela’s return trip the following day, he took note of a wagon, much like the one Colonel Fountain had in tow, off the road in place known at the time as Chalk Hills. Barela contacted the Colonel’s home to see if he made it back yet, and stated what he saw on the road. The Colonel’s oldest sons put together a search party and they set out to find Colonel Fountain and Henry. The search party grew, as the US Army was called out, which discovered two distinct pools of blood, with some of Henry’s possessions draped in them, and Colonel Fountain’s wagon 12 miles off the main road. The Colonel’s paper from the case were strewn all over the desert floor, his property torn through, with the most valuable gone, and there were spent casings on the ground. Members of the posse could not locate the bodies, but they locate horse tracks that stretched towards property belonging to Lee. However, most of these trail impressions were trampled by cattle tracks, the closer the posse got to his property. One posse member, Carl Clauson found a trail that went directly into the south side of another of Lee’s ranches, at which point Clauson entered the ranch and asked Lee if he would help with the search for the bodies. Lee declined, making derogatory remarks about the entire Fountain family.
Later, a posse would be empowered to arrest Lee and McNew on the charges of Henry’s murder. In the first attempt, Deputy Sheriff Kent Kearney was killed during a shootout with Lee and his gang. Led by Sheriff Pat Garrett, that posse stood down. To silence justice, Lee implored his powerful friends who were politicians. They hatched a plan to create a new county, in the area where Colonel Fountain and his son disappeared, named after another politician. And that’s how modern-day Otero County came about, which presently covers the entire area that Tularosa had. The catch was that Lee’s friends were allowed to elect the Sheriff they wanted, who was friendly to Lee. The moment that Sheriff was confirmed, Lee turned himself in to Sheriff George Curry, three years after the disappearance of Colonel Fountain and his son Henry. He faced trial with McNew, and Jim Gilliland, another associate. McNew’s charges were dismissed. Lee and Gilliland were acquitted of the crime. They never faced charges for Colonel Fountain, only his son.
Later, Lee would become a State Senator and continued to operate his ranches until his death in 1941. McNew was never more than a rancher, he died in 1937. McNew killed Gilliland’s sisters husband. Lucy was her name, and in a letter, she wrote to the Fountains after that killing, she stated that her trial testimony was not accurate, and had she done her duty, it would have prevented her husband’s death. Gilliland went on to become a drunk in Hot Springs, New Mexico (Known as Truth or Consequences), and that he admitted to killing Henry to man named B.O. “Snooks” Burris, providing with a Masonic Temple pin, that he was known for carrying. The instructions were to give it to the Fountain family when he passed. The family declared the pin to be authentic, and in those days, this kind of gesture added up to a confession, posthumously however. One of the key players in staging Lee’s trial was Albert Fall, who you may know as a former State Senator in New Mexico who was brought in as Secretary of Interior in the Harding Presidency, later he was caught taking a six-figure payoff from an oil company in what became known as the “Teapot Dome Scandal,” which ultimately ruined Harding’s legacy after his own death.
The amount of people involved in telling lies throughout this whole ordeal show the kind of corruption it takes to bring down one true lawman, out for justice only, and not for personal gain. After Colonel Fountain’s disappearance, his enemies, most highlighted in this article, were quick to say that he had fled the country on his own because he’d been found in a “compromising” position with his own daughter. It’s exactly the kind of rumor some will say about another person who can’t defend their honor, and in this case, was killed to prevent him from doing the right thing. There’s no doubt that Oliver Lee and his gang were scoundrels, who had undue influence in politics of the era, scared the public at large, and were consequently empowered to do even worse than they were known for. We didn’t provide the Fountain family justice, and yet we owed them much more than that. While Colonel Fountain may not have had the traditional badge of a civil jurisdiction, he was representing the greater good for the people of New Mexico, who need the chains of corruption broken away for good so they could advance. It is even more painful that many years later, the skeletal remains of both Colonel Fountain and Henry were found among the white sands of the region.
In memory of Colonel Albert Jenkins Fountain and Henry Fountain.