09 April 2016

Soquel Canyon: A Murderer's Hideout 150 Years Ago

On 17 September 1854, on what is now Valley Boulevard in the City of Industry, but at that time generally known as the "Colorado Road" or "Valley Road" on the portion owned by rancher William Workman on the massive Rancho La Puente, according to the Los Angeles Star newspaper, "a horrid murder was consummated by three fiends in human shape."

James Ellington, who had recently moved to the community of El Monte, settled three years before by emigrants from the American South, and who lived on the east side of the San Gabriel River (at that time flowing in the channel now called the Rio Hondo), was out "to hunt some of his stock" which had wandered loose.  Later that afternoon, a young man looking for cattle, "found Mr. Ellinton lying on the ground wounded, and, as he supposed, nearly dead."

After help was summoned it was determined that Ellington was, after all, "perfectly dead."  The county coroner was not available because he was holding an inquest up at Tejon in the northern extremes of the county, so a Los Angeles doctor, Henry Myles, was brought out from a religious camp meeting in El Monte to hold the inquest, with six local residents serving as jurors.  It was determined that Ellington had been pierced "with fourteen wounds on his body, made by some sharp instrument like a sword or lance."

Myles reported that Ellington's revolver, some $300, and his hat were taken and a good deal of time was spent describing the latter, because it appeared one of the killers took it and left their own "very mean one, apparently belonging to an Indian, or low Sonorian—we hardly believe a Californians in the county could be found with a hat of similar quality," as described by the Star.  The insinuation clearly was that the murderer would be found with a fancy Parisian hat at odds with his "low" appearance as an Indian or Mexican.

The Los Angeles Southern Californian report on the murder of El Monte resident James Ellington, 21 September 1854.
The Southern Californian, Los Angeles' other weekly paper, issued its report, adding that Ellington was evidently first attacked about a half a mile from his house and then chased about that distance further east.  It repeated other of the details found in the Star, including the fact that one of the killers must have been "an Indian or some low Mexican."

The paper did add some details about the scene of Ellington's death and the evidence noted there, as well as the fact that "Californians and Sonorians were in the habit of coming about his house, and as he generally carried the above amount of money about him, in his purse, it is probable that the fact may have been noticed by them."  It also added that Ellington had planned on going to the same camp meeting where Myles was when called to conduct the inquest.

The following day, the 18th, a pig herder, Charles Moore, on the Rancho Santa Gertrudes, owned by Lemuel Carpenter, where La Mirada, Santa Fe Springs and other modern communities are now, repoted that "he was accosted by two Mexicans or Sonorians, and a boy, in a friendly manner, who asked Moore for some whiskey," as reported by the Star.  They also asked for a match and some string and, while one was cutting the latter, he struck out at Moore, hitting his hand as he raised it in defense.  Moore than jumped from his horse and ran "one of them firing four shots at him as he ran."

Moore noted that "they were armed with one six shooter and a large bowie knife with a black handle."  In addition, he continued, "one of these men wore a black fur hat, corresponding in size and shape to the one Ellington wore when he was assassinated the day previous."  Consequently, about ten men headed out to track down these three persons on Tuesday the 19th.

On 12 October, the county Grand Jury submitted its report, noting that there were five criminal cases it examined, but that "upon an investigation of the circumstances relative to the murder of James Ellington, there was no sufficient testimony to attach culpability to any person."  This was because the killers were still at large, nearly a month after the killing.

The next day, the 13th, Pinckney Clifford was murdered at a Los Angeles livery stable where he worked by David Brown, a former deputy constable as well as a petty criminal with a sordid history from his days in Texas and elsewhere in the West, who stabbed Clifford during an argument and was promptly apprehended, jailed and then examined by the town's justice of the peace.

On the 14th, a public meeting was held at the county court house and it was determined that, the law being ineffective, citizens should take the matter into their own hands, as had been done several times before, and exact justice on Brown.

After a quick "popular tribunal," at which it was determined that Brown was guilty, Los Angeles mayor Stephen C. Foster "appeared and wishes to be heard for one moment,  He mounted the table  . . . and [said] he was anxious, and he oped the people would be so too, to give them [the courts] one more chance at the speedy administration of the law."

Moreover, Foster promised the assembly that "in the event of the prsoner escaping by any quibbles or ticks, he would at once resign his office and be the first to go and inflict summary punishment upon Brown."  These words proved effective, as the group decided to follow Foster's recommendations.

The arrest of Felipe Alvtire and an Indian woman "in the hills between the Coyote and Chino Ranchos" as covered in the Los Angeles Southern Californian, 2 November 1854.
On 26 September, Ignacio Palomares, co-owner of the Rancho San José, comprising modern Pomona and surrounding areas, rode into Los Angeles with two prisoners, a man and a woman, who he captured "in the hills between the Coyote and Chino Ranchos."  The last two places were the Rancho Los Coyotes, today's La Habra and Fullerton areas, and the Rancho Santa Ana del Chino, which comprises Chino and Chino Hills, including part of Carbon Canyon.

Palomares, as reported in the Southern Californian on 2 November, stated that he "was out hunting some stolen horses of his, [and] encountered in the hills two horses, saddled; and in search the cause of their being there, he discovered" the man and woman, the latter "dressed in male attire."  The two tried to flee by "runing over the hill—immediately pursuit being made, they stopped."

The man, who gave his name as Felipe Alvitre, whose father was one of the early Spanish soldiers in California and whose family lived in Misión Vieja or the old Mission San Gabriel location in Whittier Narrows, near El Monte, handed over a revolver and a knife.  Alvitre also stated "that he was hiding on account of crimes which he had committed," including the killing of Ellington and the murder of a Chilean near the Rancho Coyotes and that a brother and an Indian were with him at both homicides.

When questioned further about the Ellington homicide, "Alvitre, in giving his reason for killing Ellington, said he 'thought he might as well kill him as not'."  As for the unnamed Chilean, it was "for some sharp answer made to him on the road."

Notably, the Southern Californian did not identify the specific location of the capture of Alvitre and the woman, but did report on the attempts of county jailer Francis Carpenter and a posse who were searching for Alvitre and "thoroughly examined the Canada of Santiago, (one of the principal lairs of the outlaws), but could discover nothing," though Carpenter identified Santiago Canyon east of Orange, as "on of the wildest of places, and affording the most complete faculties for security of any spot he has ever visited."

That paper did say "there are many other fortresses equally as well calculated to receive fugitives from justice, in which they can take refuge until such time as the coast becomes clearer".

The Star had an account of the capture with different detail.  For example it stated that the Indian girl found with Alvitre was named Inocencia (she was soon released from custody as having no involvement in the crimes) and that Alvitre's brother, Jose, a Mexican from Sonora named Martín and a 14-year old Indian named Miguel, who was employed by William Workman at Rancho La Puente were the others involved in the murders of Ellington and the Chilean, who the Star identified as Gorgonio Carrera.  The Alvitre brothers and Miguel were involved in Ellington's murder, while Martín joined them when Carrera was killed on the road from Los Coyotes to the house of Domingo Yorba in what is now Santa Ana.

As to Alvitre's capture, Palomares was joined by Ramon Ybarra, whose family owned Rancho Cañada de la Brea (Brea Canyon), Inocente Valdez and others.  More interestingly, the location where the arrest was made was given as "Cañada del Saucal" otherwise known as Soquel Canyon.

The Los Angeles Star's coverage of the execution of Felipe Alvitre, 18 January 1855.
After his capture, Alvitre was tried and convicted in the District Court in Los Angeles and Judge Benjmain Hayes sentenced him to be hung on 12 January 1855, along with David Brown, who was convicted at the same term of the court.  When Brown's attorneys were able to secure from the state supreme court a stay in the execution pending an appeal on the grounds of an impartial trial (after all, the mayor of Los Angeles threatened to resign and lead a lynching!), Alvitre's petition to the supreme court was, according to Judge Hayes, misdelivered.

Consequently, when the day of execution arrived, Alvitre was hung as the sentence dictated.  Enraged crowds gathered at the jail demanded that Brown be taken out and lynched.  Sure enough, Stephen Foster arrived, promptly resigned as mayor, and joined the mob that stormed the jail, seized Brown and hung him just a short time after Alvitre.  Incidentally, when a special election was held just after the episode, Foster was elected back to his office!

A recent post on this blog on the Chino Ranch Ride, held in Soquel Canyon from the 1930s to the 1980s, featured an early program that provided a fancilful history including the assertion that the canyon was a hideout for the legendary Joaquin Murrieta, who was said to have killed in 1853.  Though it is doubtful that writers of the program knew about Felipe Alvitre and his hideout in Soquel Canyon the year after Murrieta's demise, the assumption makes sense.

Soquel Canyon is often narrow and can be filled with plant life along its creek during wet years and it obviously served as an excellent hiding place for Alvitre and his female companion for almost a month in September and October 1854.

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