Murder On The Tonto Continued



Tonto Creek Adventures, Chapter 10

Continued from the June 21 Rim Review.

At the inquest, a large group of men gathered in Holder's store and testimony was taken from all persons involved. Those who examined the site of the murders found the horse tracks conformed to the story told by Santiago Vigil. He was asked if he could pick out the man who accompanied Zech Booth to the sheep camp. "Yes sir," he said, and when told to do so he walked over to John Booth and pointed at him. That day the jury pronounced their verdict. "We the jury of inquest summoned to enquire into the killing of W.W. Berry and Juan Vigil, after a thorough examination and enquiry into the cause find that Juan Vigil came to his death from gun shot wounds made by John Booth and Z. H. Booth on the 22nd day of December, 1903." [2]

That afternoon the dead youths were buried in the Gisela cemetery. It was Christmas Eve.

Constable John Chilson from Payson and deputy sheriff Ben Pyeatt took the two Booth brothers into custody and on to Payson. Since there was no jail in Payson offenders were chained to a large oak tree on Main Street. There the Booths were the objects of public ridicule until the sheriff from Globe could take them to the county jail.

Previous crimes committed by the Booth brothers did not help them in their plea of innocence. Together with a third brother, Nick, John and Zech had served time in the Yuma Territorial Prison. In November 1893 Nick and John had been sentenced to four years for burglary, and Zech five years each for burglary and grand larceny.

All together 16 indictments appear in the records of the Gila County Clerk for the three brothers, including illegally changing brands on cattle, burglary, assault with intent to kill, perjury and finally murder.

One of the local cowboys, "Slim" Ellison, related his unforgettable encounter with Zech Booth.

As a boy, Ellison and a friend were playing foxes and hounds and had been treed by some other playmates who were the hounds. They were as high as they could climb, and rocked the branch back and forth while those in pursuit mockingly threw sticks and stones at them. Suddenly Zech Booth appeared "with long blond hair like Buffalo Bill," wrote Ellison. "He wore a big black hat on the back of his neck, held by a choke strap. He also wore two pearl handled six guns and was ridin' a half broke hoss."

Zech Booth said to the would-be hunters gathered around the tree, "Want me to shoot them varmints for you?" With that he began shooting both pistols in the air around the two frightened boys. While Booth emptied the guns, his horse was prancing all about making it possible the intended misses could accidentally hit the boys. As he rode away he said to the boys on the ground, "Well, I shore done some pore shootin'. Guess my hoss was cuttin' up too much."

The "foxes" were so weak in the knees they almost fell out of the tree, but forever remembered how mean and downright dangerous Zech Booth could be. [3]

As the Booths were being escorted by a posse from Payson to the county seat in Globe, 80 miles away, they met William Berry on his way to retrieve the body of his murdered son.

It seems Wiley Berry had planned to go home to spend Christmas with his family in St. Johns, while Santiago Vigil and Juan continued to graze the herd. When Wiley did not arrive in St. Johns the parents wrote to him at Gisela. Postmaster John Holder intercepted the letter and returned it with a note telling the family of the tragedy.

This meeting along the trail was obviously painful for William Berry. He suppressed his emotion but could not help blurting out, "Are these the beasts who murdered my son?" The confrontation was momentary, and both parties continued on their way. [4]

William Berry arrived in Gisela to find the District Attorney had ordered both bodies exhumed in order to obtain additional evidence regarding the direction of the fatal shots. After a post-mortem, the body of Wiley Berry was returned to the Berry home for burial and the body of Juan Vigil was reburied in the cemetery at Gisela, where his headstone remains.

A double trial was held, the men being tried simultaneously before a single jury, and Zech Booth was found guilty of the murders. Due to one dissenter, a hung jury caused the release of John Booth.

Appeals for Zech dragged on until his date with death was finally set for 9 a.m. Sept. 16, 1905, and he was hanged at 10:44 in the morning. Booth appeared cool as he walked to the scaffold. The "Arizona Silver Belt" reported he seemed firm and even jaunty. In almost showman-like manner he turned to the crowds that peered over from outside the compound, and speaking loudly said, "Goodbye boys, goodbye everybody. A lot of people are here to see Zech go the route." Then Booth tipped his wide-brimmed hat 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." [5]

It was the last time anyone was hanged in Globe, Gila County, Arizona.

There is a sequel to the cold-blooded murder of Juan Vigil and Wiley Berry. When the Arizona Territory officially became the 48th state in the union on Feb. 14, 1912, supporters of women's suffrage won in the election the following autumn, six years before women were enfranchised nationally. At the next election, the autumn of 1914, Francis Munds won a seat in the State Senate from Yavapai County, and the murdered boy's mother, Rachael Berry, became the first woman in America to win a seat in a State House of Representatives. Rachel Berry was chosen to represent Apache County from her sheep ranch home in St. Johns and driven by the deep personal loss of her son 11 years before, her cause in politics became child welfare in Arizona. Thus the state of Arizona was positively affected by the tragic killings of Wiley Berry and Juan Vigil in Arizona's Tonto Basin.


[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.

[2] The Arizona Silver Belt, Jan. 7, 1904

[3] Slim Ellison papers, Brown collection. Rim Country Museum archives, Payson

[4] The Arizona Silver Belt, Jan. 7, 1904

[5] St. Johns was the sheep ranching center where the Berry's were prominent. Booth's remarks carry a note of scorn.

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