Sunday, October 16, 1892
Thomas Smallcomb got the news around 11:00 p.m. Trouble up at the Geyser’s. A double murder. The deputy constable flicked the reins and steered his two-horse buckboard east on Otay Valley Road. The lights were off at the Guatelli winery, where Anton charged two bits to fill half-gallon demijohns and gave free samples every half-hour. A slight breeze rustled the rows of moonlit vines.
After he passed Fred Sousa’s farm, Smallcomb turned south. The wagon jostled up dirt-clodded Chester Grade to the “Big Mesa,” where the Geyser farm overlooked Otay Valley.
A double murder? Smallcomb, a 31-year-old part-time lawman, had never heard of such a thing, let alone investigated one. He could break up brawls at Otay’s two saloons on Main Avenue or track down the occasional horse thief, even into Mexico if need be. But he wore the badge to supplement his income as a farmer. He had little training in law enforcement, forensics, or the darker reaches of human nature.
A double murder. The thought gave him a chill, as did the clear night air, which, if it got any colder, would reveal his uneasy breathing.
At the top of Chester Grade, 500 feet above the valley floor, Smallcomb headed north on Heritage. When he turned east on Lone Star Road, he saw something strange a quarter mile away. Flames? Geyser’s cottage was on fire? Someone doesn’t tend to it soon, the whole dry tableland could go up.
Smallcomb heard loud voices around the fire — frightened or angry, he couldn’t tell. As he drew nearer, the blaze became a crackling bonfire, maybe 70 feet from the house, where shadows moved back and forth to keep warm. Many shadows.
Smallcomb arrived at Geyser’s just after midnight. A mob rushed the wagon. “Get a rope!” men shouted. “String him up, NOW!”
At least a dozen or more local farmers and their sons, hastily dressed, some drunk, demanded instant justice. Many sounded like they were babbling in tongues.
As the crowd parted, groans came from a barefoot man face down on the gravel walkway. He had no hat, no coat, and pants rolled up to his knees. His hands were tightly bound behind him, diamond cinched: the rope hog-tied his feet and neck. Any move jerked his head back.
Smallcomb couldn’t make out the man’s face. Blood streaming down gray hair and forehead covered his eyes. Fred Piper, owner of the nearest farm, stood over him as if posing with a trophy kill.
“Gabriel!” someone said. “The Injun did it!”
Fists and clubs rose up. Shouts peppered the escarpment. “Caught in the house! STRING HIM UP!”
As his eyes adjusted to the light, Smallcomb noticed two bodies in front of the south-facing door: a man and a woman — the Geysers? Their corpses lay in opposite directions: hers to the west, just short of the doorstep; his, the east. Crimson pools congealed beneath their battered skulls.
Between her head and the kitchen door two clubs lay side by side.
Smallcomb barely recognized John J. and his wife Sophia Wilhelmina Geyser. He’d known them since they came from New York County, Nebraska, four months ago, to live near their nephew, Fred Piper. Like many farmers on the mesa, they were German immigrants. Smallcomb had learned to pick out the English words through their thick accents. Everyone called 66-year-old John J. “the old man.” Silver-haired Wilhelmina, 72, was “Anna.” They never missed a service at St. John’s, the German Lutheran church, just down Cactus Road toward the border.
The right side of Geyser’s head had caved in. Gray matter spilled from beneath a six-inch flap of skin. A second blow to the base of the neck looked as lethal. The deputy constable checked the body. Still warm.
Smallcomb didn’t know the prisoner. But whoever “Gabriel” was, he’d almost been pummeled enough to be corpse number three.
“What’s the matter with you?” Smallcomb asked.
“Mr. Piper, he beat me,” Gabriel replied in Spanish.
“How often were you struck?” asked Smallcomb.
“I don’t know how many times. I have it bruised in different parts — cut.”
“Why did you kill the old people?”
“I NO KILL THEM,” Gabriel snapped. “I think two Indians kill them and send me up here so I be blamed.”
Smallcomb found coin purses in each of Gabriel’s pockets (the red one, right front, 40 cents, the other, $10), also a comb, cigarette paper and tobacco pouch, and a small glass similar to Guatelli’s free samplers.
Gabriel’s bloody shirt quivered. He asked for the coat he left under the fence behind the barn.
“No!” men shouted. “Let him suffer! He deserves much worse than a little cold.”
Smallcomb wouldn’t cover Gabriel or fetch his shoes or let him turn over to alleviate the pain in his busted-up right shoulder. And when the prisoner asked if he could urinate, the crowd roared a collective “No!” amid clusters of expletives.
Around two a.m., deputy coroner Herbert J. Stetson and court reporter Fred H. Robinson rode up. The arrival of these officials freed Smallcomb to inspect the crime scene.
Even from where he stood, and lit only by the bonfire and flickering lanterns, Smallcomb could tell the evidence had been tampered with. He couldn’t see drag marks leading to the bodies but wondered why they were neatly positioned so close together. And there was blood on the doorstep. Shoeprints — like a worker’s boots, not bare feet — pocked the dark splotches. The farmers swore that no one went inside. Numerous prints said otherwise.
The cold night air thinned out the crowd, many of whom adjourned to the fire for warmth.
Given the hostility toward Gabriel, Smallcomb, Beckley, and Piper could only make a quick search to collect evidence. They picked up the two clubs near the doorway. One, a three-foot, roan-colored stick, probably greasewood; the other, a long two-by-four, scantling timber, had blood-splattered fingermarks.
Like the bodies, the clubs lay side-by-side as if placed there — to help investigators? Had one of the farmers found them somewhere else — inside the house, by the barn? — and set them in plain view? Crimes like this were so rare, maybe the farmers didn’t understand the need for an untouched crime scene.
More Geyser Murders" Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4