Murder On The Tonto



Tonto Creek Adventures, Chapter 10

One of the most infamous murders along the course of Tonto Creek centered around the conflict between ranchers and itinerant sheepherders.

That conflict is legendary in Arizona, but never was the tension greater than at the beginning of the 20th century. Frustration had been mounting on the part of cattle growers over the increasing number of sheep being driven across their range. Fired by this growing anger in 1903, two ranchers from the little community of Gisela murdered two young sheepherders.

Sheep raising had been a major industry north of the Rim Country on the Colorado Plateau from the 1870s. Towns like St. Johns on the Little Colorado River were centers for sheep owners, among them William Wiley Berry and his wife Rachael. It was their custom each fall to bring thousands of sheep from northern Arizona to winter forage. These large migrations took a zigzag path over the Mogollon Rim, across the Sierra Ancha, into the Tonto Basin and through the Mazatzal Mountains to the Salt River Valley. The herders would shear the sheep in the desert, see them through the spring lambing, and then begin the long drive back north in April or May.

Cattle ranchers had verbal agreements among themselves about the boundaries of their ranges, for there were no fences, and the unwritten law was to keep your livestock off the other fellow's realm. Almost all the grazing areas were government lands, and the ranchers knew they had no legal right to them. The sheep migrations were considered an intrusion on the cattlemen's agreements, although they tolerated the sheepherders as long as they passed on through and did not deviate from their traditional routes.

The sheep moved very slowly, eating the forage lean as they went, and making less than five miles a day in good weather. An added annoyance for ranchers occurred when the shepherds burned off the grass as they moved so upon their return succulent new shoots would be there for the sheep. The problem was that several of the most prominent native grasses had shallow, surface roots, and the burning killed them.

By the turn of the century the strain between cattle and sheep ranchers was about to precipitate a range war. It was common in those days for cattlemen to harass and shoot up the sheep camps, driving the herders off with their flocks. Thus, when the Berry family's flock of sheep was grazing its way south in 1903 tension was high with local ranchers. Twenty-year-old Wiley Berry, son of the owner and home on a break during his college career at Brigham Young University, had set up camp a few miles southeast of Gisela in Brushy Hollow Canyon. Assisting him were the herders, 42-year-old Santiago Vigil and Vigil's 16- year-old son, Juan.

About 8 on the morning of Dec. 22, Santiago had left the two youths in camp eating breakfast and drove the sheep north toward Cocomunga Canyon to begin their day's grazing. Two men rode up, dismounted and motioned for Santiago to approach them. They were Zechariah Booth and his older brother, John, who raised angora goats at their nearby ranch. Vigil had seen Zechariah on his distinctive gray horse once before, and recognized him. Zech Booth hunched down under a juniper tree with his rifle across his knees while John stood beside his horse.

"I want to speak to you," Zechariah said, and as Vigil approached him he stood up. "Stop right there. I want you to drive this herd back across the canyon. This is my range, and I want to keep the grass for my own animals."

Santiago Vigil responded that the men would have to talk to the boss. He was just working for him, and Booth would find the boss back at the camp.

"Where is your camp?" asked Zech, and Santiago pointed in the direction. The men said no more, but mounted and rode off toward the sheepherder's camp. [1]

Santiago Vigil then returned to tending the sheep, and in about 20 minutes he heard five or six loud gun shots in succession, followed in a couple of moments by two or three more shots. Vigil began to run, and as he crested the ridge he saw two men riding away from the direction of the camp. While he did not know their names he recognized the horses as those of the men who had accosted him shortly before. Cutting across the rough country Vigil reached the camp in about 25 minutes. There he found both boys lying on their backs, dead. Berry was just a foot from the fire, the food from breakfast still in his mouth. This small bit of evidence made it clear Wiley Berry did not have opportunity to swallow, as he would have done if Booth's later claim of self-defense were true.

Juan's body was 10 or 15 yards away. After covering his son's body with canvas, Santiago noted Berry's Winchester rifle was several feet away from his body and to one side. He mounted the horse and rode to another sheep camp four miles away, tended by herder J. H. McCleve. McCLeve sent one of his men with Vigil back to the scene of the murder, while he rode to Payson and filed a criminal complaint against Zech Booth for the killing of Wiley Berry and Juan Vigil. Upon returning to the site Santiago found that the bodies had been moved into new positions.

The next day Justice of the Peace J. O. Hill from Payson, arrived in Gisela to hold a coroner's inquest. The jury rode to the scene and reviewed the evidence, then put the two bodies on horses and packed them to John Holder's store in Gisela. When testimonies were heard by the coroner's jury, Zech Booth was determined to eliminate his brother John from any implication in the shooting. John Fox Booth was 44 years old with a wife and seven children. Zech had no wife or children to protect, and believed he could carry the burden of the murders on a claim of self-defense. The several juries who heard his story were well aware that when there was no eyewitness to a killing other than the killer, as often happened in this remote country, the defense always insisted the victim had shot first. The panel listened to Zech Booth's story, but the inconsistencies were glaring. Furthermore the jury knew that Zech had plenty of time to rearrange the scene the way he wanted it rather than the way Santiago had first discovered it.

To be continued.

The continuation of Tonto Creek Adventures, Chapter 10: Murder on the Tonto will appear in the June 28 Rim Review.


[1]The details of the encounters and the murders are gleaned from the testimonies of Santiago Vigil, Zech Booth and other ranchers from the area during the subsequent hearings and trials.

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