The trouble with researching history is sometimes you just don’t find any answers to the questions you generate.
And so it is with this particular cold case. Documentation, if it still exists, is buried in musty archives. Articles concerning it have been reduced to electronic scans in the Library of Congress and other newspaper archives. There’s really no one to ask about this this case since the people involved have been dust for a very long time.
And it seems to have been erased from the collective memory of the town. Several local historians had never heard of it. I was a police officer in the town, and I’d never even had a hint of this. This might be understandable considering the relatives and descendants of the principal players in this little drama still live in the community.
So let’s go back to a night in the life of a small town.
It’s September 6th, 1908. In some ways, the town of Antonito, Colorado is the same today as it was then. Some of the buildings then, still exist today. Some are different businesses now. Others have become homes, and still others are gone. The streets back then weren’t paved. Instead of kids dragging main in pickups and Toyotas, horse drawn wagons moved about, the hooves of the horses and wagon wheels kicking up dust.
Trains rumbled through several times a day, bound for the mines and farms in New Mexico. A lot of money flowed through the town and where you have money, you have trouble.
Where you have trouble, you need a lawman.
The name of the town marshal on August 6, 1908 was Rafael Pena and his job was to keep the peace.
It must have been a long evening for him. The newspaper accounts say he was going home at about 11 PM. Perhaps he was tired and thinking of going to bed. Maybe he was hungry and looking forward to a late supper. But as he approached his home, he’d let his guard down.
A wood fence ran near the backyard of his house. It was big enough that a man with a gun could hide behind it.
Yards from his home, Marshal Pena was startled as the night calm was shattered by the sound of a gunshot.
There were two more shots, and one of them sent him forward with a grunt of pain and he fell into the dirt. Marshal Pena had taken a bullet in the back.
The account doesn’t say if he was married, living with his parents or by himself. But I could well imagine someone heard the shots and looked out. I wonder what they thought?
It would take him several hours to die and Pena would name his murderer. He would name a local man, saying Rumalo Atencio (some accounts use the first name of Rumolo) was the man who shot him.
Now, this is where I wish I had investigative notes or court records to look at. The papers say the suspect was tracked to his home, and there he was apprehended for the shooting of Pena. Did they (I assume the Sheriff) find footprints that they followed to Atencio’s door? The account also doesn’t say how long after the incident, the arrest happened.
The La Jara Chronicle reports the incident the following day, and notes that as they went to press they’d received word that Marshal Pena had died.
Charged with the death of the Marshal, Atencio pled “Not Guilty” and said that he could prove his innocence. His bond was set at ten-thousand dollars. That’s roughly three hundred thousand dollars in today’s money.
The record is unclear if he bonded out or if he sat in jail waiting for trial.
Let’s move forward to December of the same year. The District Court is in session in Conejos, and Romalo Atencio is on trial. The stakes are high. If found guilty of the murder of the lawman, he will most certainly be hung.
But he is well defended by Colorado’s former Attorney-General Eugene Engley of Alamosa and Octvannia La Aroza. They introduced evidence that Atencio was miles away from Antonito at the time of the murder.
This meant that Marshal Pena was mistaken in identifying Atencio as his assailant. This is possible considering it was dark and there weren’t a lot of street lights at the time. And in the dark and in pain, we don’t know just how good a look Pena got at his assailant. With the Marshal dead, it was a matter that couldn’t be cleared up.
It was just possible enough that Pena could be wrong. Since jury instruction always include the words “Beyond a reasonable doubt,” it took the jury a mere two hours to come back with a verdict of “Not guilty.” The state had failed to prove to the satisfaction of the the jury that it was Rumalo Atencio who did the shooting.
So, what did that all mean?
It means several things. Based on the evidence, either Atencio was indeed innocent or he got away with murder. If he was innocent, then that means that someplace out there was the true shooter and he’s never been found. And it means that this is a Cold Case, filed away someplace and never solved.
Either way you add it up, someone didn’t have to face the consequences of their actions.
But one never truly gets away with anything. The Bible warns us that there is an accounting for what we’ve done and it’s held before a judge who already knows the truth.
And He will render a verdict.
Since whoever shot Marshal Pena is most certainly dead, it’s a good bet that person has already faced that court and even now serves their sentence.
RESEARCH: There’s some coverage out there, but most of it says the same thing. The story was “picked up” by several papers and little changed in the telling.
Marshal Rafael Pena murdered – The La Jara chronicle. (La Jara, Conejos County, Colo.), 07 Aug. 1908. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn90051015/1908-08-07/ed-1/seq-4/>
Bond set for Atencio – The Idaho Springs siftings-news. (Idaho Springs, Colo.), 15 Aug. 1908. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn90051006/1908-08-15/ed-1/seq-6/>
Atencio Acquited – La Jara, Conejos County, Colo.), 11 Dec. 1908. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn90051015/1908-12-11/ed-1/seq-2/
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