On October 15, 1879, four gunmen, intent on robbing the county sheriff, ambushed a posse of civilians in the woods east of Mendocino. Store owner Tom Dollard was murdered on the spot. Townsman Jim Nichols rode for help with a bullet hole in his shoulder. Mendocino Lumber Company wagon driver William Wright lay badly wounded from multiple gunshots. By the time a relief posse, led by dentist and noted gunman John F. Wheeler, arrived on the scene, the four men responsible for the ambush had fled the scene. Thus began the most notorious and protracted criminal case in 19th century Mendocino County.
After Wright had been taken to Dr. Smith's office, most of the menfolk of Mendocino gathered in the schoolhouse to discuss what should be done next. The building buzzed with whispers and chatter about details of the shooting. A Committee of Safety was appointed, numbering about twenty men, including the two town constables, Mendocino Lumber Company Superintendent Chester Ford, and Dr. Wheeler. The latter advised against following the killers, saying they must assuredly be a desperate lot who would not hesitate to kill again.
As an end result of the meeting, the Committee of Safety decided to send Indians and, as Chester Ford put it, “half-breeds,” ahead to track the outlaws . The Committee would supply several men to ride out the Little Lake and Comptche-Ukiah roads to attempt to head off the suspects at the natural divides on those routes. Before the meeting broke up, word came that William Wright had died from his gunshot wounds. The Committee resolved to kill the outlaws if sighted.
That night, with little to no moon to illuminate the way, Chester Ford led a party of four who rode their horses out Little Lake Road, beyond the site of the shooting. River fog rose from Big River, engulfing the horsemen. From one minute to the next they couldn't see their own mount's head or be sure the shroud alongside was another rider or a cloudy apparition.
Miles beyond where they'd traveled to find Dollard and Wright, Ford and his companions halted near hay sheds on a low pass. Out of the mist stepped two men carrying rifles. Ford recognized one of them as Charlie Snow, who said they were guarding the road with the intention of shooting anyone who came along on foot.
Ford dismounted and stayed with Snow to keep watch through the night. The lumber company superintendent made sure that he kept a large redwood between himself and Snow because the latter held a loaded and cocked weapon. Furthermore, Snow had been stewing in a grudge for quite some time since losing his employment with the lumber company.
The night passed slowly, but no other riders or men afoot passed the sentry point. Nor did Snow discharge his weapon. After the fog rose with the dawn, Ford and others rode as far as twelve miles from town and back trying to find tracks from the outlaw's mounts crossing the road, but to no avail. Ford spent the night at the Half Way House and returned home the following morning, October 17th.
At E.W. Potter's store, Dr. Wheeler came in to chat and sat nonchalantly on the counter. Lawyer J.J. Morrow strolled in with something he'd found at the outlaw's camp, a label with Potter's trademark on it. Potter recognized the label immediately because he had sold four agate cups with the same markings to Wheeler in the last month or two.
Dr. Wheeler hopped down from the counter, saying, “Yes that accounts for it. The cups I bought here were stolen from my yard.”
Morrow told Potter that he'd found pages from the Christian Union newspaper in the same search of the outlaw camp. All three men knew that Mr. Potter often used the Christian Union to wrap up breakable goods. Wheeler said, “I am the worst abused man in the country.”
After Wheeler left, Potter told Morrow that he'd also sold Dr. Wheeler a coffee pot and pan recently. The dentist had mentioned then that the goods were for a cousin or uncle or both who would arrive soon to go on a hunting trip. Potter remembered wrapping those products in newspaper as well, but he couldn't recall exactly which paper. Potter and Morrow remarked to each other that neither had heard about cups being stolen from Dr. Wheeler's yard.
Merchants familiar with the shooting and the posse began talking to each other. At J.D. Murray's general merchandise store they found that Dr. Wheeler had purchased two Winchester rifles on the first or second day of September. It seemed to be common knowledge that Wheeler already owned a Henry rifle. Stories of his prowess with a rifle had made it into print in the Mendocino Beacon. The editor and publisher, William Heeser, perhaps the most trusted and well-respected man in town, had written about Wheeler coming home with three or four bucks in one day's shooting.
Murray checked his receipts further and found he'd sold the town dentist a Russian model pistol, central fire, and two hunting knives on the second of September as well as fifty cartridges for the pistol, fifty more for rifles, and three pounds of shot. With his curiosity piqued, Murray dug deeper in his records. Between the first days of September on into October he'd sold Wheeler over 400 rifle cartridges, the last 100 purchased just a day before Dollard and Wright were ambushed.
C.O. Packard, the druggist and storekeeper, returned to town with a puzzling discovery made at the shanty in the woods where the outlaws had stayed overnight. He located there a still full bottle of Rock and Rye whiskey. The bottle possessed his trademark stamp. Rock and Rye brand was a new commodity at Packard's establishment. He'd sold it to only one customer on the 9th, 10th, and 14th of October.
Someone also brought Packard a shard from a broken bottle found at the picnic grounds just east of town. Another Rock and Rye that the druggist had sold only to John Wheeler. Another Mendocino resident thought they might have seen the dentist at the picnic grounds in September, meeting with four strangers.
Hotel keeper Hamilton Bever recalled Wheeler coming to his establishment one August evening to talk with two out of town visitors. The pair stayed four days then departed on the northbound stage. After their departure, Mr. Bever discovered that one of them had left a coat behind. Not long afterward, Wheeler made an appearance at the hotel, treated the men at the bar to a drink and joked with some of the patrons. Ham Bever asked the dentist if he'd come to buy eggs, as he sometimes did, but Wheeler said no, he'd come to retrieve the coat.
Meanwhile, Wheeler met George Cortez, a well known tracker, on the street as the latter first reached Mendocino. Cortez apprised Wheeler that he'd been sent for, from Noyo, to pursue the outlaws. “You'd better not go,” Wheeler advised.
Cortez responded that he was duty bound to go. Wheeler asked what had been the reaction of people farther north to the killings. Before he received a response he added that he would ride with Cortez to track the outlaws. However, Wheeler wanted to take along a man named Foster, a fellow Cortez mistrusted. Wheeler tried to delay Cortez's departure by telling him to ride only as far as Observatory Hill, using that promontory to locate any campfire smoke then return to town and wait for Wheeler to accompany him the following day.
Wheeler was well aware of the vantage point to be had from Observatory Hill. Precisely one year earlier he'd read the newspaper editor's account: “Last Sunday we paid a visit to the observatory constructed by the Coast Survey, and received a kind invitation, though a little loathe to do so, and were tied with ropes to the elevator, and soon found ourselves swinging in mid-air, gradually rising above the tree and mountain tops. On arriving at the top of the structure we were loosened from our seat, and began the inspection of the formation of our 'wooden country.' From this elevation one has a beautiful view of our county… and one can see into Lake, Humboldt and Sonoma counties.
“The belt of timberland presents a beautiful appearance, and can be traced from Shelter Cove to Point Arena with the naked eye, the mountain ridges and small valleys presenting themselves very plainly to view.”
That wooded country of ridge backs and gulches, stretching from close to the coastline to the inland reaches of the county must have appeared a veritable Sherwood Forest to men who might rob from the sheriff and keep for themselves.
Cortez grew aware of townsfolk watching them, so he spoke in Spanish to Wheeler about his role as part of Deputy Jerry Donohue's posse. Wheeler responded in Spanish and Cortez believed this agitated the onlookers even more. He directed Wheeler first to Norton's Hotel then to Wheeler's own residence and his dental office where they sat on the lounge together conversing in Spanish.
In rapid fire language, Wheeler insisted that searching for such desperadoes could prove deadly business. Cortez grew more and more suspicious of the dentist's excited manner.
(The saga of the Mendocino Outlaws will continue. More stories like this at MalcolmMacdonaldOutlawFord.com)