Cold Case File, Part three: Preliminary Hearing
In 1892, San Diego was two cities. The real estate boom of the 1880s had flipped the docile backwater into an emerging metropolis of 40,000 people. Downtown businesses had telephones. As did the tall Victorian mansions, sculpted like gingerbread, on the hills. Streetcars ran on electrical tracks to Logan Heights, the depot, and the ferry to Coronado. The island was flat as a board except for the Hotel del Coronado, which shone like a white sepulcher across the bay.
In 1892, Kate Sessions leased 30 acres in City (later Balboa) Park and promised to plant 100 trees a year — cypress, oak, eucalyptus — on the site, plus 300 per year in other parts of town.
Advertisements lauded the area as “Our Italy.” But as the boom faded and the Panic of 1893 loomed ahead, invitations to come West could no longer conceal the other San Diego.
In 1892, writes Walter Gifford Smith, the city had become a “wild town,” its “population drawn from the adventurous classes of the world.” Gambling reigned, from curbstone craps to Wyatt Earp’s three notorious halls for games of chance. “Painted women paraded the town in carriages” and formally invited gents to “high tea.”
Men wore guns openly. “Theft, murder, incendiarism, carousals, fights, highway robbery, and licentiousness gave…San Diego many of the characteristics of the frontier camp.” Perhaps this explains why, on October 18, the San Diego Union asked its readers to forgive the farmers of Otay Mesa for not hanging a double-murder suspect on the spot.
Wednesday, October 19, 1892. The San Diego Union published the results of the coroner’s inquest for the murders of John J. and Wilhelmina Geyser. Even before the preliminary hearing began, Coroner Keller, two doctors, and a seven-man jury determined that the elderly couple “came to their death by a blow or blows from the hands of one Indian named Joe.”
The article announced that the pre-trial would take place at Otay Friday morning. “Excitement is said to be increasing in that vicinity and it is barely possible that the preliminary examination will end the legal formalities.”
Friday, October 21, 1892. Early in the morning, deputy constables Thomas Smallcomb, Ray Johnson, and H.P. Whitney — “an old Ohio sheriff and a determined and fearless man” (Union) — backed Smallcomb’s farm wagon up to the county jail’s steel doors. They escorted three chained, Native American prisoners — Jose Gabriel, Pedro Armento, and Jose Barra — onto the wagon and headed south. The officers were armed and expecting trouble, since local newspapers, and just about everyone else, had already convicted Gabriel.
The wagon didn’t get far down National Avenue when an electric streetcar stopped at a corner. Men climbed out and joined a crowd already assembled. They wanted “to deliver the criminal for justice.”
As Whitney — “who had been there before” (Union) — and the others reached for their guns, Wesley Wenzell, a Democratic candidate for supervisor ran to the front of the crowd. Instead of giving a speech, he opened a box of cigars, handed them out, and said “remember me come election time.”
As Wenzell worked prospective voters, Whitney “laid whip to the horses” and the wagon sped away.
A larger crowd awaited the prisoners at Otay. Horses, mules, and buckboards lined both sides of Main Street. At least 35 to 40 ranchers and their sons stood in the shade in front of justice W. S. Clark’s office. “The crowd was very quiet as it followed the officers and their charges into the court room,” wrote the Union, but a “certain feeling of expectancy…could not be mistaken.”
The room was so packed, deputy prosecution attorney Frank W. Goodbody had to stand. Ranchers poked their heads through an open window. The three defendants sat immediately behind Justice Clark. They had no defense attorney.
After he arranged the papers on his desk and read the complaint, Clark asked Gabriel if he understood.
“Me no sabe,” replied the Native American, his head still bandaged from blows three nights before. “Put a rope around his neck’n he’ll talk!” shouted a man at the window.
“Order, gentlemen!” said Constable Smallcomb.
A court-appointed interpreter mistranslated Gabriel’s reply as “me no talk too much.”
First witness: Mary Piper, age 12. On Sunday, October 16, shortly after dark, she, her sister Katie, and young Lillie Lohman were heading home. About a half mile from the Geyser residence, Mary “heard Mr. Geyser hollering and I heard strikes.” She could recognize Geyser’s voice. “We heard the strike every time and heard the ‘halloa!’ right after.”
There were between “five and ten strikes,” but she couldn’t tell if they came from inside or outside the house. The girls raced home. “Something’s wrong over at Mr. Geyser’s,” they told their father, “a halloing…as if someone was killing him.”
After each sister testified, the judge asked Gabriel if he wanted to ask questions. He replied, “No, sir.”
Clark called the girls’ father, Fred Piper, to the stand. When he and Fred Jr. approached the house they saw a light in the bedroom. Near the front door, “we seen something lying there: two objects: we didn’t know what it was.
“It” looked like two bodies. Piper took them “to be drunken persons — Indians — lying there.”
Fred Jr. later testified that he said, “Those aren’t Indians, Pa.”
The Pipers went in through the kitchen door. Fred Sr. hollered to his uncle twice: “John J.! You in there?” The second time, “the light blowed out in the sleeping room.”
A man was “stirring around.” When he “tried to slip out the door,” between the bedroom and the kitchen, Piper grabbed him and called his son for help.
“We had quite a wrestle” in the kitchen. The man kept reaching for a pocket. “I first thought he had a revolver…but a knife he was getting; I guess he cut me a little…here on the hand [shows the court].
Fred Jr. pried the knife away. “After that we pulled him outside so we could see better to tie him.”
More Geyser Murders: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 4