“Stand back! Clear the way!” San Diego police cleared a path for John Murray, handcuffed and manacled, through an angry crowd to the courtroom. Many were armed, all were mad — hungry mad — to string Murray up. As he shuffled along, he saw death in every eye and begged the guards to keep the mob at bay.
Once inside, Murray noticed a man who stared at him and wouldn’t blink. Taller than the rest, he was in his mid 20s, a good six-foot-three, thick mustache that dripped over his upper lip, coal-black hair parted down the middle: Keno Wilson, the new marshal of Oceanside.
Five days before, Murray shot Wilson’s brother Charley in cold blood. Observers said the marshal shot Murray a look that could harrow hell.
As Murray huddled between his legal counsels, judge Benjamin Hayes, 74 and frail, called the hearing to order. When he read the complaint, Murray stood up and shouted “Guilty!”
Hayes reminded him that this was a preliminary hearing. “Reserve your plea for Friday.”
“I don’t know the law,” Murray replied. “All I want is a fair shake.”
At trial, Wilson tried not to flinch as the first witness, Dr. Henry Hildreth, described Charley’s murder in cold, anatomical detail: “The shot was downward, must have lacerated the heart, both lungs, the left lung more seriously, and the left pulmonary artery, bronchial tube.”
Wilson took the stand. Asked his relation to the deceased, his eyes took dead aim at Murray. “He was my brother.”
Wilson recalled the incident. Shortly after midnight on July 4, 1889, he and Charley were on foot patrol in Oceanside. They heard rattling. “We went over to arrest these boys for breaking a glass lamp. Murray rode toward Charley, lamp and reins in his left hand, a pistol down his right side.
“Charley said, ‘Halt there! Throw up your hands! I will arrest you!’ Them was the words he said. Then [Murray] shot just over the horse and Charley fell.”
A year earlier, after Charley made him pay a $20 fine for disturbing the peace, Murray swore to “get the drop” on the Wilsons, and get even. Keno, said to be “pleasant but outspoken,” griped that he didn’t get even in turn.
After four hours of deliberation, the jury declared Murray guilty in the first degree. But his attorneys filed an appeal for tampering — the local newspaper influenced their decision — and Murray’s trial turned into several.
On July 24, Wilson went after Sylvestro “Pedro” Morales, a desperado whose “deliberate coolness” when robbing or shooting someone “is probably without a parallel in the whole range of criminal annals” (Daily Alta California). To onlookers, Wilson’s search became a crusade to complete unfinished business with Murray.
On July 23, a “half-breed” (South Oceanside Diamond) jumped from behind a bush on the main road near Oceanside. He aimed a .44 caliber revolver at a man on horseback and said “dismount!” The rider, obviously of some means, had a gold watch on a chain dangling from his vest.
The robber took the man’s money, horse, and watch. As he rode off, he turned and fired, inflicting a flesh wound.
Asked to describe him, the wounded man — who didn’t want to be named — said he was about five-foot-ten, 135 pounds, “not exceedingly dark,” early 30s. He had a pock-marked face, a black mustache, and a scar or birthmark over his left eye. And he shot left-handed.
On July 24, two riders came upon George W. Bunch bleeding in the dust near Mission San Luis Rey. He had at least two, maybe even three bullets in his gut. “Morales,” he said, “Pedro Morales. Headed east!”
That night someone matching Morales’s description robbed a man at gunpoint on the highway near Temecula.
Keno Wilson got the information and a rap sheet: Sylvestro “Pedro” Morales: 1881, shot a Jewish merchant “over an alleged insult”; sentenced to San Quentin Prison for seven years (at least half in solitary confinement); released February, 1889; stabbed a man at Almaden quicksilver mine; horse thief.
Since lawmen from San Diego, Orange, and Los Angeles counties had tracked down John Murray just weeks before, Wilson had no problem organizing search parties. But like California’s most famous outlaws, Joaquin Murietta and Tiburcio Vasquez, Morales enjoyed the protection “of his own nationality freely” (Sacramento Bee). The search also took many weeks, a newspaper said, because “for reasons best known to themselves,” those not in Wilson’s party “generally hunted on safe ground.”
On August 20, Morales rode up to José Morales’s (no relation) ranch at San Dieguito, on the northern outskirts of today’s Rancho Santa Fe. Sylvestro had been there before — his fight with George Bunch began at the nearby Juan Castro Saloon. He knew that José had a beautiful stepdaughter, Nymphia Brown.
José was in San Diego on business. Around noon, Sylvestro dismounted at the ranch house. He drew his revolver and aimed it at 17-year-old Nymphia, standing frozen on the porch. He “compelled her to mount his horse,” writes the L.A. Times. Then he “leaped to the saddle in front of her” and they rode off. Newspapers said Nymphia, a “fair-complexioned Mexican girl,” wore a black-and-white gingham dress with a white and blue nubia (a wrap) on her head, and that her shrieks echoed across the valley.
José Morales formed a search party. Near San Juan Capistrano, two of his men saw a black horse resembling Morales’s hitched to a post at a friend’s home. Sylvestro, Nymphia, and the friend were having a meal inside.
Sylvestro heard the horses approach. He got the drop on the men as they came through the door. “I’m a friend not an enemy,” said the first. “I just need a light for my smoke.” Morales gave him one, and they left, with Morales’s horse. When they returned, Morales and the woman had crept out the back and hid in dense brush up a hill.
To cover their embarrassment at losing him, the pursuers said Morales used the woman as a shield to escape. The San Diego Union added that the two pursuers were “an expert posse.”
Part 1: Young Keno | Part 2: Manhunt