History isn’t always made by the well known. While the likes of Bat Masterson, Bob Ford, and Poker Alice helped forge the San Luis Valley, let’s not forget the lesser known who are regulated to fading newspapers and ancient postcards.
Such a person was Jose Ortiz. I seem to recall my father saying something about him, but not much else. It wasn’t until my first tour with the Conejos Sheriff’s Office that I found out the full story. We had a picture of his hanging in the lobby of the Sheriff’s Office, and Sheriff Toby Madrid knew the story.
I’m relating it pretty much as he related it to me, but done it in the context of my next novel, The Judas Tree, through the character of Detective Will Diaz.
The hanging occurred in July of 1889.
Jonesy and I went in, and the girls went to spend money. The Sheriff had seen us pull up and was standing at his office door, the usual cup of coffee in his hand.
“Sheriff,” I said. “Let me introduce you to one of my best friends. Michael Jones of the LAPD. Jonesy, my boss, Sheriff Tony Madril.”
Jonesy put out his hand. “Sheriff. My friends call me Jonesy.”
They shook hands. “Jonesy, it is then. Will talks highly of you.”
“Sheriff, you and I both know that if Will says it, it’s one hundred percent bull. But it is nice to know he thinks highly of old friends.”
“Down here to go hunting?”
“That’s the idea. We’re getting some of the old team together. Too bad everybody couldn’t come.”
“What did they call you guys? The Regulators?” the Sheriff asked.
“Yeah, we gave them hell back at Ft. Riley. We gave them hell in Germany and Iraq, too.”
Jonesy was looking at the pictures in the lobby. One of the images was of a hanging, and it had caught his attention.
“Now, there’s something you wouldn’t see in an LAPD substation.”
“His name was Jose Ortiz,” the Sheriff said.
The picture was of a short man standing on the gallows. There was a rope around his neck. He was mere heartbeats away from leaving this world.
“It wasn’t the only hanging in Conejos County, I’m sure, but the only one that I know of that was the result of legal action. Truthfully, this might have been more a legal lynching.”
“What happened?” Jonesy asked.
“There was a guy who ran a toll road and had some mining claims between Capulin and Platoro by the last name of LeDuc.
“Anyway, the last time anyone saw LeDuc, he had been visiting with Ortiz. When he failed to make several appointments, the Sheriff and friends went looking for him. They found him dead and partially buried behind Ortiz’s cabin. His head had been busted open with an ax.
“This guy,” the Sheriff went on, tapping the picture, “was caught a couple of days later wearing LeDuc’s suit and carrying his fancy watch. When they accused him of murdering him, he claimed he was innocent, and that LuDuc had given the stuff to him.
“We’ve all heard that defense before, and just like today, they didn’t believe him. From what I’ve heard, the hanging was a circus. The whole county turned out for it, and this picture was taken by a photographer who made it into postcards.”
“Why did he kill him?”
“Apparently LuDuc had some gold nuggets, and money on him. Ortiz went through his clothes, found them, and while LuDuc was asleep, killed him for it.”
“Wow!” Jonesy studied the picture. “You said this was more a lynching. What did you mean by that?”
“A few months before the hanging, the governor passed a law that hangings happened only at the state pen in Canon City. Conejos is a long way from Canon City, and the judge and sheriff claimed to know nothing of the new law. The incident was allowed to die down.”
It was the first time I’d ever heard the whole story behind the picture.
Jonesy studied the picture for a moment. “Anyone know what his last words were?”
“They were ‘Adios, Amigos’,” the Sheriff said.
Jonesy shook his head. “Definitely won’t see that at LAPD. Might offend somebody.”
“History is a close thing here. And if we’re smart, we learn from it and don’t make the same mistake twice,” the Sheriff said.
“History is close to me, too,” Jonesy said. “One of my ancestors ended up on the wrong end of a rope. Weren’t any courts involved there.”
Here’s a link to an old article from the Colorado Springs Gazette.