By: Susan Montoya Bryan, The Associated Press Published 10:39 a.m. MT May 19, 2017 | Updated 2:50 p.m. MT May 21, 2017
A century-old document found inside a box of unachieved records in Doña Ana County is shedding a little more light on the shooting death of the Old West lawman who gained fame for killing Billy the Kid.
Dated Feb. 29, 1908, the nearly illegible handwritten coroner’s jury report refers to the investigation of the death of Pat Garrett, who served as sheriff in Lincoln and Doña Ana counties before being appointed as a customs collector along the U.S.-Mexico border. Garrett died earlier that day.
Historians have searched for years for additional official documents beyond court records and newspaper articles from the time that assigned blame for Garrett’s shooting death, since some have their own theories about who pulled the trigger.
Signed by several justices of the peace and coroners, the document states that Garrett was reported dead in Doña Ana County in the territory of New Mexico about five miles northeast of Las Cruces.
They found that “the deceased came to his death by gunshot wounds inflicted by one Wayne Brazel.”
Some historians have said that the one witness to the shooting never testified and records show Brazel was acquitted after a one-day trial in which his attorney successfully argued self-defense.
The document was found in November by Angelica Valenzuela, the records and filing supervisor with the County Clerk’s Office, as part of a preservation effort that involved records spanning the last half of the 1800s through the mid-1960s.
“She knew as soon as she saw it that it was worth gold,” county spokesman Jess Williams said of the signed jury report.
Pointing to the discovery, the county is seeking additional grant funding for its work to preserve historical records and make them more accessible.
“Our goal is to provide full access to the public,” said County Clerk Scott Krahling. “Since family roots run deep in Doña Ana County, our hope is that these documents enrich our stories and get more people excited about our history and culture.”
For now, the document is locked away in a safety deposit box. The county is planning a public unveiling ceremony on June 16 in the Commission Chambers of the Doña Ana County Government Center.
Arizona State University professor emeritus Robert Stahl is among those who have written in support of more preservation funding for the county.
“Once they are found, filed and made available, hundreds of historians, genealogists and just ‘plain folk’ will come from all over the world and spend millions of dollars each year to get their eyes on what you have,” he wrote. “You are sitting on a gold mine in more ways than one.”
Stahl estimates the value of the Garrett document in the tens — perhaps hundreds — of thousands of dollars if it were to be sold on the open market.
Local historian Christopher Schurtz is among those who have combed through the county’s records, which include everything from Old West files to the city of Las Cruces’ original plat.
“As a historian, I believe the more that the people who hold these records make this stuff available and the more that is preserved, the better,” Schurtz said.
As part of the effort, the clerk’s office plans to institute one-hour, supervised appointments for people interested in viewing archived historical documents.
The most significant items uncovered during the archival process will be turned over to the state records center in Santa Fe for long-term preservation, officials said.
Thousands of documents still have to be reviewed, Krahling said.
“We know some of what we have, and it’s pretty exciting,” he said.
Pat Garrett’s story
Originally from Alabama, Garrett first came to New Mexico in 1879.
He rose to fame when he was appointed sheriff of Lincoln County and led a posse that captured Billy the Kid, who was convicted of murder in Mesilla in March 1881.
After the Kid killed his guards and escaped, Garrett tracked him down at Fort Sumner, and shot him dead on the night of July 14, 1881.
Garrett failed to win re-election as Lincoln County sheriff and in 1896 was appointed Doña Ana County Sheriff to investigate the apparent double murder of Col. Albert Fountain and his young son, Henry.
Garrett’s investigation led to a conspiracy among area power interests who Fountain was about to indict for cattle rustling and other crimes.
Those Garrett implicated for Fountain’s murder were tried but acquitted, and it remains one of New Mexico’s most well-known unsolved crimes.
Garrett was not re-elected sheriff, but he remained in the Las Cruces area. In 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Garrett customs collector in El Paso. He had a controversial five-year run, and was not re-appointed.
By 1906, Garrett determined to focus on his Bear Canyon ranch, located on the east side of the Organ Mountains.
But he owed a lot of debt and back taxes, and reportedly began drinking heavily and gambling. He borrowed thousands of dollars from rancher W.W. Cox, whose ranch abutted Garrett’s.
Garrett agreed to rent some of his land to Wayne Brazel, who worked for Cox.
Brazel says he shot Garrett
On Feb. 29, 1908, Carl Adamson, who had agreed to lease Garrett’s land, accompanied Garrett to Las Cruces to work out the deal with Brazel.
According to Adamson’s account in the March 4, 1908, Rio Grande Republican, he had stayed the night at Garrett’s ranch and the two left that morning in Garrett’s buggy.
At the same time, Brazel left on horseback from Cox Ranch and at some point met up with them on the road. As Brazel rode alongside the buggy, he and Garrett began arguing.
Adamson said the three stopped along the road to urinate.
“While I was standing there, why I heard Mr. Garrett said ‘Well damn you, if I can’t get you off that way I will another and I will do it now.’ Or something like that,” Adamson said.
“After those words passed, I heard a racket and I just turned my head like that and when I turned it, Garrett was on the ground,” Adamson said.
The evidence showed Garrett was shot in the back of the head and then once in the stomach with a .45 caliber, his own shotgun lying conspicuously on the ground.
Brazel and Adamson left Garrett’s body covered with a blanket and went to Sheriff Felipe Lucero, to whom Brazel immediately confessed.
Brazel said he feared an enraged Garrett was about to kill him.
Lucero didn’t believe Brazel was capable of the crime, and Dr. W.C. Field, who performed the only exam of Garrett’s body, felt there were inconsistencies in Brazel’s version and the physical evidence.
When Garrett’s brothers arrived by train from Louisiana, they told the local newspapers that Garrett was likely the victim of a conspiracy.
A year later Brazel stood trial and, after a weak case presented by the prosecution, the jury quickly returned a not guilty verdict.
Garrett is buried in the Masonic Cemetery in Las Cruces.
Much of the historical reporting is from a story Christopher Schurtz wrote for the Sun-News in December 2010.
Editor’s note: The date of the historical Garrett document has been changed from an earlier version to the correct date — Feb. 29, 1908. Doña Ana County reported the date incorrectly in its first news release.