A Range War Simmered With Murder



The Booth brothers of Gisela were bad hombres. John, Zechariah and Nick had all served time in the Yuma Territorial Prison for robbery and perjury. Public records at the Gila County seat show they had 18 different indictments between them for everything from switching brands on neighbors' cattle to assault with deadly weapons.

Finally, John and Zech were charged with the murder of two youthful sheepherders. The crime occurred in Brushy Hollow near the mail route out of Gisela.

The Booths were goat ranchers, and resented the semiannual sheep drives that came over the Sierra Ancha and through the Tonto Basin, eating the range grass local folks claimed for their livestock.

It was three days before Christmas, 1903, several years before the Tonto National Forest was established to control overgrazing, and before the Reno-Heber Sheep Drive was agreed upon by both cattle and sheep ranchers. In its time that would contain the sheep within limits as they migrated. Tension was high because the slow-moving sheep consumed so much valuable grass as they moved south in the fall and north in the spring.

Zech Booth and his brother John rode up to the sheepherder, Santiago Vigil, who moved out from camp with his flock of sheep.

"I want you to get those sheep out of here right now," he warned, but Vigil told him he would have to see the boss back at camp. The herd was owned jointly by W. W. Berry Sr. and Joseph Udall of St. Johns. "The boss" was William Wiley Berry Jr., the 20-year-old son of the owner, who had taken leave from college to help drive the sheep to the Valley for the winter.

Young Berry and his helper, Santiago Vigil's 16-year-old son Juan, were finishing breakfast and preparing to ride into Payson for supplies. Suddenly the Booths appeared, and within moments both boys lay on their backs beside the fire, dead with multiple bullet wounds in their breasts.

Zech turned himself in, insisting he was alone in the shooting. He was trying to protect his brother John, who was married and had seven children. He also believed his plea of self-defense would get him off the hook, insisting Wiley Berry threatened to kill him and then shot first.

The local ranchers who carefully investigated the scene were not convinced.

Horse tracks made it clear there were two horsemen, and 19-year-old Curtis Neal had seen John Booth ride by his place early that morning on his bay horse, heading toward the sheep camp. Suspicions were raised further by Santiago Vigil's story of two men threatening him, his hearing rapid-fire shots after the Booths headed for the camp, and the fact that the murder scene appeared altered.

The bodies were not lying where Santiago had first found them before he fled for help. Berry's rifle was under his body, yet Santiago had seen it some feet away from the body. Berry still had food in his mouth, obviously caught off guard while eating.

The inquest was held in John Holder's store at Gisela, and Santiago Vigil was able to identify John Booth as being with Zech when they came to him that morning. The preliminary hearing was held in Payson after Christmas and lasted several days.

Justice J. 0. Hill, who had also served as coroner, presided. The prisoners were kept chained to the big oak tree on Main Street, which was the only jail Payson had to offer. The decision was to indict both John and Zech Booth for murder, and they were taken to the county jail in Globe.

Because Zech had always been tricky, the court removed him to the Maricopa County Jail in Phoenix to await the grand jury, which convened in June. No bail was set for Zech, but bail was set for John, whose friends and family raised it. And he went free. After the grand jury indicted them both, a dual trial was held and Zech was convicted of the murders. However, the jury was hung over John's guilt and acquitted him.

Zech was sentenced to hang, and for the next few years a series of appeals failed. At last, on the morning of September 16, 1905, Zech Booth climbed the scaffold in the jailhouse yard. He seemed pleased with the crowd that lined the nearby rooftops and hung over the high fence.

"Goodbye, everybody," he called. "A lot of people are here to see Zach (sic) go the route."

Before stepping into the enclosure Zech tipped his hat to the crowd and called, "Remember me to all the people up around St. Johns. I'm an innocent man. What I did was to protect my property and rights, my life and my home. I'm going to meet my dear old mother in heaven."

Within moments, "his body shot down like a plummet," reported the newspaper, "the fall of seven feet breaking his neck instantly ..."

It was the last time anybody was hanged in Globe, Arizona.

Now, "for the rest of the story." The grief of Wiley Berry's mother Rachael Berry motivated her to become an advocate for child welfare and education. She joined with Francis Munds to help pass woman's suffrage when Arizona became the 48th state of the Union in 1912, six years before the federal government passed woman's suffrage. In 1914 she became the first female in the United States to be elected to a state house of representatives, the same year Francis Munds was elected to the state Senate and five women were elected to county offices.

Until her death at 89, Rachael Berry was a political force in Arizona for child welfare, the unexpected good result of a tragic murder in Tonto Basin.

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