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History- Murder and Mayhem


Two Old Persons Beaten to Death and Third in a Dying Condition

LA VETA, November 20— Our town was thrown into a state of intense excitement at 8 o’clock this evening through the report that a brutal murder of a family had taken place some three miles from here. The parties reported murdered were John Brown, a ranchman, his wife and daughter. by Nancy Christofferson So read the news of Nov. 23, 1876 in the Colorado Chieftain. La Veta was a brand new town, just named in August and just incorporated in October. The murder followed another shocking death just two months earlier when state legislator Silverio Suaso was struck down with a grubbing hoe at Francisco’s Plaza and died of his wounds. Colorado had been a state for only a few short months. The article goes on to relate how the Brown’s son, also named John, had been out hunting cattle with Henry Gribble, but the twosome returned in time to discover young John’s sister, Mrs. Venie Rice, sprawled in an irrigation ditch. When Gribble leapt from his horse to go to her, a stranger appeared nearby and cursed him, telling him to get away. He

then shot twice at Gribble, and began striking the woman with his revolver and kicking her. Her brother finally caught up and told Gribble to go into the house to get a gun, which caused the stranger to remount and ride away. The young men soon found the body of John Brown Sr. lying dead in the corral, bludgeoned to death. Entering the house, they were greeted by the sight of Mrs. Brown on the floor, partly in the fireplace, and also beaten to death. The only good news was finding Mrs. Rice’s three or four month old infant screaming but unharmed. Help was summoned immediately and La Veta’s two physicians, the Drs. C.A. Washington and T.A. Barber, went to the scene. “Officers of the law”, including newly hired Town Marshal W.M. McOmber (who was removed from office just three months later on a charge of drunkenness) quickly called for a posse and “a large number of citizens on horseback and in wagons” answered the call. They fanned out in all directions searching for the murderer. He was not found. Two days later, on the 22nd, Mrs. Rice regained consciousness and shared the details of the horror story with the doctors and lawmen at her bedside. The next day she was deemed well enough to give testimony for the coroner’s jury. She said the stranger had ridden up to the family’s log home and asked to spend the night. Brown went outside and was on his way to the barn to get hay for the horse. When he entered the corral, the stranger pulled a new, shiny revolver from a red “scabbard” and demanded money. After asking Brown’s name, the stranger said, “No Brown, it is Bernard”. Then he struck the “aged man” repeatedly with the butt of the gun. He entered the house where Mrs. Brown – Sarah – was preparing dinner. She too denied having money, saying “We are poor people.” He hit her with the revolver, knocking her down. He then turned to Venie Rice, who was holding her baby. He struck her once in the head, which threw the infant to the floor, and turned back to Sarah, who was getting up, and hit her hard. He returned his attention to Mrs. Rice, hit her again and she ran screaming from the house. She threw herself into the ditch. Meanwhile the stranger evidently continued to beat Sarah until she was dead. The stranger had ransacked the house and found some money (about four dollars) hidden in a trunk. He followed Venie outdoors and that’s when her brother and Henry Gribble appeared. John and Sarah Brown were from Union County, Georgia. They had lost nearly everything they owned during the war, and had moved with their friends and neighbors comprising the Georgia Colony to Huerfano County to improve their fortunes. They had lived two and a half miles east of town, on Valley Road, since 1871. It was decided by the coroner’s jury the deaths were brought about through mistaken identity. Earlier in the day of the murder, the Brown’s neighbor, either of the brothers Homer or Virgil Barnard, one of whom was the targeted “Mr. Bernard”, had been in town telling of a successful cattle sale he had made, earning him some $1,000 or $1,200. Thus the stranger must have gotten directions to the Barnard place and found the Brown’s humble cabin instead. About an hour after the murder, friends carried the body of Brown into the house and placed him on the bed beside his wife. There, his son broke down at the sight of the fractured skulls of the “aged couple”. “The old gentleman is over sixty years of age, while his wife was about fifty-five,” the newspaper reported. The coroner’s jury had ruled the death caused by a “person unknown”. The murderer had disappeared and was not found in the vicinity despite the many people searching the bushes and arroyos. A “special detective”, one Charlie Sturms, was set on the hunt. Somehow, someone discovered the murderer was Marquis Gonzales. This man was located in New Mexico and arrested by a detective, maybe Sturms, maybe not, in Santa Fe and thrown into jail awaiting extradition back to Colorado. However, in June 1877, the governor of New Mexico, citing a technicality, refused to extradite the prisoner. This announcement threw La Vetans back into their frenzy to exact justice, and town and county magistrates vigorously completed more paperwork calling for Gonzales’s return to Huerfano County. Special entreaties were made to Governor Routt in Denver to convince his counterpart in Santa Fe to return the criminal for his just reward. It may have worked – local lore tells us the murderer of the Browns ended up at the end of a rope, decorating a piñon tree.