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More on the La Veta murderers’ trial

Continued from last week

LA VETA — The trial for the alleged murderers of the La Veta Massacre in 1913, in which four mine guards were killed by striking coal miners, took place in 1915. The trial began Jan. 2, but after more than 1,000 men were interviewed, six weeks were expended in jury selection. Actual testimony began Feb. 15. The first to be on the stand were the county coroner and deputy surveyor. Then came the testimony of the sole survivor of the open car in which the mine guards had been driving from La Veta to the coal camp of Oakview. The survivor, William Gamblin, had a lot to say, though not exactly what he had said before. Details changed, names were changed. He spent quite some time explaining the actual events of shooting, when each of his companions was hit, where, and their words at the time. The straight forward story he had given to the state militia when it arrived became a poignant tale. For instance, he stated one man, shot and bleeding on the road, had said, “They have got me for sure this time, boys. Goodbye. Give my love to mother.” Wounded, Gamblin left two men lying dead in the road, another dead or dying, and the fourth probably dead, still sitting behind the steering wheel of the car. He made his way, with a grazed hip, west several miles before finding someone to assist him. Gamblin estimated 50 or 75 shots had been fired by unknown men standing beside and behind a dam above the road. He said the men in the car shot three or four times at most. Five bullets were later found to have struck the car. About this time the lead defense attorney, Henry Hawkins, asked Gamblin, “Don’t you know that Harry Bryan [the head mine guard] fired the first shot?” When Gamblin said Bryan had not, Hawkins repeated the question and added that those first shots frightened the “boys” on the reservoir dam enough they took shelter and returned the fire. For some reason, this was allowed, and from there on, it became an established fact that the guards had shot first and the strikers on the hill were merely defending themselves. This pretty much changed the entire focus of the trial. While many witnesses took the stand to relate their eyewitness statements of the strikers making their way, in small groups, onto the hill by the dam, some with rifles, others with handguns, fully visible, it had now become a matter of not murder, but self defense. The prosecution ended testimony of the La Veta citizens after five days. The last witness was Sam DeJohn, an Italian citizen. Unlike the other defendants, DeJohn had not been jailed but rather kept under armed guard at the Vail Hotel. DeJohn insisted the other strikers had tricked him into accompanying them, because he owned one of the rifles used. He was told the group was going hunting, and personally had refused to fire at the mine guards. He said he was threatened with his life if he did not shoot at the guards. DeJohn stated he was with brothers Ed, Charley and Dan Richards and Frank Kroupa. They were joined at the dam by Charley Shepherd. Dan took DeJohn’s rifle and gave him a Colt .45. He claimed these men were lying on the ground beside the dam shooting at the men and car below. The dam and reservoir banks had been fortified, evidently, because there were old tiles and other debris lining them, causing them to be higher. Attorney Hawkins told the court the defense had 35 witnesses to call. After noting George Zember had been dismissed, Hawkins made a lengthy defense statement about Harry Bryan firing the first shot, causing the strikers to take shelter and return fire. One of the witnesses was a brakeman for the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad. He was standing along the railroad tracks when the car full of mine guards passed not 10 feet away, and shortly thereafter, he heard two shots. Climbing onto a boxcar, he watched a man standing on the hill, shooting rapidly and reloading. Bitters said the man fired at least seven times within less than two minutes, and in fact, the entire fusillade lasted only a few minutes. Other local residents had also watched the proceedings, with different reactions and sightings. No two agreed on the number of shots fired nor the length of the battle. On the eighth day of testimony, Feb. 23, Dan Richards was called to the stand. Dan, 31, was one of the three brothers involved. Their father was a coal miner and they’d grown up in the camps, mostly in Huerfano County, becoming miners themselves. He owned a ranch on Middle Creek near Oakview camp, not far from his brother Charley’s place, and his younger brother Ed, 22, stayed with him. Dan was married with three children, had been a county deputy as well as the town marshal of Oakview. He was known as an excellent hunter and sharpshooter, as were his brothers. Dan told the court the six strikers who carried weapons did so expressly because of the mine guards. He said his group had heard 50 guards were coming to La Veta from Oakview and were afraid the guards would cause trouble and “shoot up the town” like some had done previously in Walsenburg. He said they were fully prepared to shoot the guards if they started something. He had some harsh words to say about Guard Bryan. Dan’s testimony was given nervously. He contradicted himself, but steadfastly insisted his men meant no trouble beyond protecting themselves and the town from the guards. Since the defense argued Bryan had fired the first shot, and since the defense was doing the questioning, Dan was soothed and put at ease. A point of contention here was the “confessions” Dan had made. He had spoken with the state militia and the county sheriff, Jeff Farr, and county prosecutor and others. While the reports of the court case always referred to the strikers as “the La Veta murderers”, pure and simple, the confessions were called “alleged”. Dan continued to insist the strikers had acted in self-defense against what they obviously considered trouble makers. They had made a stand by the road on the dam because they did not want to fight the guards in town where bystanders might be injured. Following Dan’s testimony, the defense rested. Only 11 of those 35 witnesses had actually testified. The next few days were spent with arguments and on Feb. 27 the case went to the jury. After 20 minutes of deliberation, the jury found the men not guilty. There was much jubilation amongst the spectators. The strikers’ families thronged them, crying and screaming. This was the first personal contact many of them had had since the murderers were locked in the Huerfano County jail more than 14 months before. The prisoners had been consistently abused, denied food, water, blankets and other necessities by Jeff Farr and his deputies. Alas, this was but one scheduled trial. Although they were acquitted of one murder, there had been four. The men were returned to the Pueblo jail. In December 1915, after two years in jail, the Richards brothers were allowed to go, under guard, to Rockvale where their father was dying. Then they were returned to their prison. Ultimately, there were no more trials. No one was ever found guilty of the murders. The Richards brothers spent, however, nearly three years in jail awaiting further trials. The trials never came, and they were eventually released.

Bertha Trujillo

  Bertha Trujillo, 97, from Gardner, Colo., entered her eternal home on Feb. 12, 2024. She was born in Gardner, Colo., on Sept. 30, 1926,

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