Taken from a page in the Hatfield-McCoy saga, a bitter feud between neighbors in Tonto Basin almost led to murder.
Gila County sheriff detectives say Ronald Hughes Johns and Loren Eaton often threatened each other with physical violence in a long-running dispute about property lines.
“They tormented each other,” said GCSO Det. Jamie Garrett.
Finally, on the morning of May 5, Johns reportedly fired at Eaton twice, striking him once in the face and fatally wounding his most-prized horse.
What prompted the shooting depends on whom you ask.
Johns said he thought Eaton was going for his pistol, so he pulled out his shotgun to defend himself.
Eaton said he was just walking to his horse pen when Johns shot him for no reason.
It took detectives more than a month to piece together the stories, with Eaton’s jaw wired shut from a large bullet wound.
Detectives believe a little before 8:30 a.m., Eaton was walking from his home to his horse pen, just south of Johns’ home. To access the pen, Loren has to walk down the narrow, dirt Desert Rose Drive, which passes in front of Johns’ residence.
The easement on Eaton’s property provides access to four or five other homes in the area, Garrett said. This easement is what the men fought over and what ultimately almost killed Eaton.
Eaton told detectives that as he was walking to the pen, Johns shot him without warning. The whole thing happened so fast, he was unable to go for his own gun.
Johns, who was working between two of his vehicles off the road, said Eaton walked down from his home and started bragging that he had received his gun back.
In a previous incident, police took Eaton’s gun away after Johns said Eaton had threatened him with it. However, the county attorney’s office dismissed those charges and Eaton received his .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol back on April 28, which he was wearing at the time of the shooting.
“They had long-standing back and forth orders against harassment,” on each other, Garrett said.
Johns told investigators he thought Eaton was going for his gun so he grabbed his shotgun, from atop one of the vehicle’s engines and fired off two shots.
There were no witnesses.
Eaton was the first to call police on his cell phone, mumbling incoherently as he staggered back to his home, leaving a bloody trail on the dusty road. Johns also called police, saying he had shot his neighbor.
When sheriff’s deputy Wayne Dorsett arrived on scene, Eaton was in his driveway, badly wounded.
Eaton was flown to a Valley hospital, where he underwent surgery.
“He is very lucky to be alive,” Ratliff said.
“Especially without any brain damage,” Garrett added.
Police did not realize Eaton’s painted pony had been shot until four or five hours later when the horse was found lying on the ground. Veterinarian Drew Justice said the wound to the left flank was fatal and the horse was put down.
According to Johns, he acted in self-defense and shot Eaton as he was facing him only eight feet away.
But evidence suggests Eaton was shot from behind, with the shotgun pellet entering near his ear and out his jaw, said GCSO Det. George Ratliff.
“Ron Johns’ story did not make sense,” Ratliff said.
On May 31, police arrested Johns, charging him with the attempted murder of Eaton, aggravated assault, recklessly killing a horse and misconduct involving weapons.
Detectives tried to do a follow-up interview with Johns, but he evoked his right to remain silent.
Ratliff and Garrett say the evidence supports Eaton’s story, but it is up to the court system to make the final decision.
On Oct 18, a case management conference was held in Globe, as Johns is still in custody. The next hearing will be Nov. 15 at 9:30 a.m. No trial date set has been yet.