The Wild West In The Rim Country

Chapter 15: Sheep Camp Murders

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The prolonged range war between sheep ranchers and cattle or goat ranchers raged in the Rim Country until after the turn of the 19th century.

As many as 400,000 sheep were driven over the Heber-Reno sheep driveway twice a year. This was a traditional route that had been followed for decades. However, there were no boundaries marking the limits where the sheep were to be kept and flocks often strayed onto rangeland claimed by cattle ranchers. The sheep moved very slowly and consumed much valuable grass when they moved south in the fall and north in the spring.

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Stan Brown photo

Memorial marker in the Gisela Cemetery for Zech Booth. Of interest is the reference to his being buried in Phoenix. However, most records say he was buried in Globe. The cemetery refused to allow his grave among others in cemetery and so he was buried outside the cemetery precincts.

Furthermore, sheep pulled the grass up by its roots, while cattle merely clipped it, leaving the roots. This provoked repeated violent encounters between the two interests, all too often resulting in murder. Such was the case when John and Zechariah Booth, goat ranchers from Gisela, took the lives of two young herders. [1]

The Booth brothers were bad hombres in the eyes of Gila County law officers. John and Zech, together with their brother Nick, had all served time in the Territorial Prison at Yuma for robbery and perjury. The records at the courthouse in Globe indicate they had 18 different indictments between them for everything from switching brands on neighbors’ cattle to assault with deadly weapons. The Booth brothers strongly objected to the sheep drives that crossed near or on range they claimed for their goats, and their anger came to a boil three days before Christmas in 1903.

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Stan Brown photo

Marker for the grave of Juan Vigil in the Gisela Cemetery.

A professional herder named Santiago Vigil was in the employ of sheep owners William Wiley Berry and Joseph Udall of St. Johns. Vigil was driving the flock south over the Sierra Anchas, helped by his 16-year-old son Juan and the ranch owner’s son Wiley Berry. Wiley was 20 years old, and had taken leave from his studies at Brigham Young University to experience the sheep drive. By December 21 the trio had set up camp in Brushy Hollow, just off the mail trail over the Sierra Anchas between Gisela and Young. The next morning Santiago left the boys in the camp and herded the sheep some distance away to Cocomunga Canyon for the day’s grazing. In short order he was confronted by Zech and John Booth, who warned loudly, “I want you to get those sheep out of here right now!” 

Vigil told them they would have to see “the boss” back at camp about that, meaning young Wiley Berry.

“Where is your camp?” asked Zech, and when Santiago pointed the direction the two men rode off saying no more.

It was about 20 minutes later that Vigil heard five or six gunshots, followed in a couple of moments by three more shots. The herder began to run toward the camp, and as he crested the ridge he saw the two men riding away from the direction of the camp. He recognized the horses from the two men who had accosted him earlier.

Once in the camp he found both boys on their backs, dead. Berry was just a foot from the fire, food from his breakfast still in his mouth. This small bit of evidence made it clear the attack was sudden and Berry did not even have time to swallow. Mounting one of the horses, Vigil rode to another sheep camp four miles away and alerted fellow herder J. H. McCleve, who then rode to Payson and filed a criminal complaint against Zech and John Booth. One of McCleve’s men rode with Vigil back to the scene of the murders, where they pulled Berry’s body away from the fire and covered both boys.

While Vigil was alerting McCleve the Booths doubled back and altered the murder scene to appear as though the shooting had been in self-defense. Zech Booth then rode to Gisela and turned himself in, insisting Wiley had threatened to kill him and had shot first. The defendants in almost all shootouts in the wilderness, where there were no other witnesses, were claimed to be in self-defense. With no one to contradict it, and given the mentality of the times, they almost always went free. In an attempt to protect John, who was married and had seven children, Zech claimed he was all alone.

However, the posse of local ranchers who carefully investigated the scene were not convinced. The horse tracks made it clear there were two horsemen. Another rancher had seen John Booth ride by his place that morning headed toward the sheep camp. Santiago’s witness to the threats, hearing the gun shots, seeing the men on horses that matched the description of the Booths, the fact that the scene appeared to be tampered with, and the food in Berry’s mouth all raised suspicions.

The inquest was held in John Holder’s store at Gisela, where Santiago Vigil identified John and Zech Booth as the men who confronted him. Then just after Christmas the preliminary hearing was held in Payson by Justice J. O. Hill. The prisoners were indicted for murder and were kept chained to the big oak tree on Main Street until they could be taken to the county jail in Globe.

It was while lawmen escorted the Booths through Tonto Basin on their way to Globe that they encountered Wiley Berry’s father. He was on his way to retrieve the body of his son from the Gisela cemetery and take it home for reburial.

“Are these the beasts who murdered my son?” asked Berry senior as the two parties paused. The answer was short and the grieving father kept his composure as both went on their way.

Zech Booth was removed to the Maricopa County jail because of his tricks in the past, where he awaited without bail for the Grand Jury to convene in June. John went home on bail raised by his family, and after both were indicted a dual trial was held in Globe. John was released because the jury was undecided in his case. Zech was convicted and sentenced to hang. For several years he filed a series of appeals, all of which failed. At last on the morning of Sept. 16, 1905 he climbed the scaffold in the jailhouse yard, pleased with the large crowd that had lined up on nearby rooftops to watch. “Goodbye, everybody,” he yelled. “A lot of people are here to see Zech go the route.”

As he stepped onto the trapdoor under the noose, he 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.”

The local newspaper reported that within moments of his bold statement, “his body shot down like a plummet, the fall of seven feet breaking his neck instantly ....”

It was the last time anybody was hanged in Globe. [2]

 NEXT TIME: The Mysterious Demise of Al Sieber, Chief of Scouts

[1] U. S. President Wilson had issued a proclamation in 1898 allowing for sheep driveways to be set aside, but no action was taken in the Tonto Forest until 1908 when the foresters established boundaries for the Heber-Reno domestic Sheep Driveway across the Sierra Anchas. It was designed to keep the sheep within a given range, and keep them from interfering with the cattle range. [2] The full details of this story can be found, along with extensive references, in Stan Brown’s essay in The Journal of Arizona History for Autumn 1999, page 293-306.

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