Death of a “bad” man along the San Pedro, Part 2

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By John Hernandez

It was believed that Sontag and Evans were heading to Evan’s mining claim at Sampson’s Flat. A posse of eight men was formed which included Southern Pacific Detectives Will Smith and Frank Burke, Deputy Sheriff Andy McGinnis of Modesto, Constable Warren Hill of Sanger, Fred Witty, V.C. Wilson of Tucson, Arizona and two Yuma Indian trackers, Pelon and Cameno Dulce brought by Frank Burke who was a Deputy Sheriff in Yuma, Arizona.

Victor Coke Wilson had been a Lieutenant in the Texas Rangers. In 1885 he was appointed by President Grover Cleveland as Chief of the Mounted Custom House headquartered in Tombstone, Arizona. In 1890 Wilson was appointed a Special Agent for the Southern Pacific Railroad covering Arizona and New Mexico. He was known as an exceptional man hunter.

Sampson’s Flat had a bad reputation for being a rendezvous for outlaws especially cattle thieves. Sontag and Evans knew the country well and had many friends in the area.

On the way to the Evans’ mine, the posse approached the Young ranch house. They were looking forward to resting and a warm meal. They were not expecting any trouble. They had dismounted and Wilson and Deputy McGinnis walked towards the front door.

Burke headed to the watermelon patch to pick out a big one. The others approached the house on foot. When Wilson and McGinnis got within ten feet of the front door, the door suddenly opened and Sontag and Evans came out running and shooting.

McGinnis and Wilson were felled immediately by shotgun blasts. The posse was taken by surprise!

Sontag and Evans fired first with shotguns and then switched to their Winchesters. The horses had stampeded and run away while the posse members scrambled hard for cover. Fred Witty was shot in the neck but was able to find cover. Constable Hill was shot at but was standing behind his horse that took the bullet for him.

The Indian scouts made it to a ridge above the ranch house and were able to fire a few shots. Burke had gotten off a shot with his Winchester and believed he had hit Evans. Sontag and Evans ran back into the house and out the back door.

They had escaped again! Two gunmen had bested eight at the “Battle of Sampson’s Flat.” Fred Witty was the brother of George Witty who was wounded at the Evan’s cabin.

Frank Burke escorted Wilson’s body back to Tucson. More posses were formed and searched the hills for the killers who continued to elude them. George Sontag was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

He was transported to Folsom prison. He would be involved in an escape attempt with four other inmates in which three prison guards were killed. Sontag and another inmate were wounded. George would be pardoned by President Roosevelt in 1908.

He went on speaking tours denouncing the criminal life. A book was written about his life and a movie made about his exploits with the Sontag and Evans gang.

Detective Tom Burns joined Samuel Black in Camp Badger a small village about 40 miles from Visalia, California. They were posing as woodchoppers and attempting to gather information about Sontag and Evans from the local populace. One night they were returning to their cabin from an evening at the local saloon.

As they approached the cabin, two men rose up from behind a tree stump and a stack of wood near the cabin and fired on Black and Burns. Black was hit immediately and went down. As the firing continued, Burns ran the opposite direction of the gunshots back to the saloon as fast as he could, jumping a high fence that was in his way.

Black was able to crawl into the cabin while being fired on. He somehow managed to fire a few shots in return. He was badly wounded in the legs and one of his hands. Help eventually came from the people in town alerted by the shooting and Tom Burns.

By then Sontag and Evans were gone. Evans had heard from people he knew that Black was looking for him. Evans decided tosurprise Black instead. A newspaper reporter quoted Burns as saying “You may say if you like, that I was scared out of my wits!”

Tom Burns joined up with U.S. Marshal George Gard who had formed a small posse. Southern Pacific Railroad Detective John Thacker called on Gard believing the former Los Angeles Police Chief and L.A. County Sheriff had the experience to catch Sontag and Evans.

A plan was laid out to organize a small posse in secret. It was believed that a smaller posse was less noticeable and could travel faster. The other members of the posse were Deputy Sheriff Hiram Rapelje, a noted sharpshooter and bounty hunter and Fred Jackson an officer from Nevada. The posse only traveled at night.

During the day they would lie in ambush along trails or homesteads Sontag and Evans were known to frequent.

On June 11, 1893 Gard’s posse was sheltered in a vacant house about a ½ mile from the Stone Corral and 18 miles east of Visalia. The posse had been hunting the bandits for a week and was using the comfort of the house to get some rest.

It was also a place that the train robbers were known to use, so two men stood guard while two slept. Close to sundown they spotted two men approaching the house on foot.

One was armed with a rifle and the other carried a shotgun and a rifle. Burns knew Evans and when he looked out the window, he told the other posse members, ”those are the men we have been looking for.”

Evans spotted the movement of Rapelji by the door, aimed his rifle and fired. The “Gunfight at Stone Corral” began.

The story will continue next month. And if you missed Part 1, you can find it online at

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