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Mendocino Outlaws: The Trial of Dr. Wheeler

The trials of George Gaunce, Harrison Brown, and John F. Wheeler promised to be the legal events for Mendocino County in 1880. Brown wanted his trial delayed. The district attorney did not, having chosen him as the defendant to be tried first. Wheeler declared his readiness to go before judge and jury. Ultimately Judge McGarvey ruled for the prosecution and on March 3rd, the People vs. H.E. Brown commenced.

After Dr. T. H. Smith described the excruciating deaths of Tom Dollard and William Wright on October 15th of the previous autumn, Samuel Carr took the stand to connect those deaths to Brown, Gaunce, and Wheeler. He began by reciting nearly word for word a letter Wheeler wrote and that Billings received in Bodie, California in the early summer of 1879. The letter called on Billings to make haste to Mendocino City for the purpose of working “a claim worth $15,000.” The potential claim would be the county sheriff after he collected tax money from the local citizenry. The letter said that Wheeler had one good man with him (Brown) and requested Billings bring a couple more (they turned out to be Carr and Gaunce) with him. Carr went on to describe how Wheeler furnished guns, ammunition, and other supplies once the outlaws were gathered together on the Mendocino coast.

In step by step detail, Carr recounted how their foursome spent the early morning hours of that fateful day, how they packed their belongings and moved a mile or two inland to a location in a burned out redwood overlooking a steep gulch. Carr told how Brown gave the order to fire on the Mendocino posse once they entered the gulch. In this testimony, he remembered that precisely eleven rounds were fired: four each by Brown and Gaunce, three by John Billings. One of those bullets struck Jim Nichols in the shoulder, wounding him. Several of the other rounds struck Dollard and Wright, mortally wounding them.

Carr also detailed the immediate aftermath of the killings. How the four outlaws tossed aside pounds of food and ammunition to lighten their horses’ saddlebags then dashed north through brush and stream crossings to within a mile of a cabin near Ten Mile River. At that point, Carr, feeling worn out, dismounted to rest. The others left him on his own with some provisions and directions to the cabin. Brown promised he would return to assist Carr. That was the last time Carr laid eyes on his comrades until the trial.

Witness testimony lasted three days. On Saturday, March 6th, counsel presented their summations. The judge charged the jury that same day. The twelve man body considered the verdict for forty minutes then returned to the courtroom. When called on, the foreman stated, “We the jury find the defendant guilty of murder in the first degree as charged in the indictment.” 

Gaunce’s trial got under way on March 8th. It lasted four days and culminated with a similar verdict. 

All the prisoners were still confined in the county jail when in mid-March both Gaunce and Wheeler went on a hunger strike. Both complained their meals had reverted to eggs and sausage only for days on end. Without any variety in their diet each decided to forego any food. This lasted five days. Presumably the hunger strike won some variety in the feeding of the prisoners.

Countless numbers of residents from Mendocino City had traveled inland to the county seat as witnesses in the trials. Those numbers increased for the proceedings in the case of the People vs. John F. Wheeler. On May 4th, the accused left cell No. 1 in the county jail for the opening of his trial for murder in the deaths of Tom Dollard and William Wright. Jury selection, defense motions, and opening arguments delayed actual testimony to May 7th. The Wheeler trial started as Brown and Gaunce’s did with Dr. Smith’s detailing the fatal wounds. Carr’s statements under oath revealed that he first met Gaunce in Virginia City, Nevada in 1878, about a year after the former’s release from San Quentin. Carr moved on to Bodie where he encountered Billings. Carr did not know how to read, but alleged that Billings recited a letter from Wheeler to him. He specifically recalled this as being in his room between eight and nine o’clock on a summer evening. Though illiterate, Carr claimed that the signature Billings supposedly read aloud to him, that of “Caesar’s _______,” was a false name that Wheeler used repeatedly on correspondences. Precisely how Carr, who could not read or write, knew this frequent signature to be Wheeler’s alias was not elaborated upon.

Carr’s testimony was interrupted briefly to bring Doc Standley to the witness chair in an attempt to connect the alleged Wheeler letter to Billings. Standley testified that when he stepped to the fallen Billings some thirty feet outside the cabin in Butte County, he turned Billings face up, the bandit gasped once then died. Standley found an empty purse and a broken knife in Billings’ pockets, but no letter, nor did he find such a document after searching the cabin. Doc continued by describing the shooting at Rattlesnake Creek and that the outlaws left much of their belongings behind at that locale; however, a letter was not among the items found.

Despite the lack of the letter, Carr vividly described the many times Wheeler purchased liquor, food, and equipment, including firearms and ammunition, for himself, Billings, Brown, and Gaunce once that foursome rode together on the coast. The guns and ammunition presumably being the same used to shoot and kill Dollard and Wright. Wheeler visited the outlaws, often in the middle of the night, where they camped east of Mendocino to discuss the potential robbery of the tax collecting sheriff. According to Carr, Wheeler visited them in the woods after 11 p.m. on the night of October 13th, a day and a half before the ambush of the Mendocino posse. On the witness stand Carr recounted Wheeler’s instructions to them. “We were to look well to our arms, keep them clean, and not be taken alive. If any of us should be killed the others were to disfigure the dead so as not to be recognizable. He [Wheeler] said we must all use our arms, they were the only friends we had. He talked about the meat [from the heifer they had butchered – the discovery of which led to their discovery by Constable Bill Host]. [Wheeler] said if it was dry enough he would take a sackful home with him. It was killed the day before. It was our meat. He said they hung people for stealing chickens in this country. He said they would try to arrest us for killing the heifer. He said he would let us know if any stir was made. That we must resist arrest to the death. That we must not be taken alive. He always advised shooting. The subject of shooting was talked of often. He advised that course. He said if any of the party should be killed, we must not leave anything on the body that could be traced back to him. That was the last time I saw him.”

Carr’s description of the ambush is the only detailed one that survived the event. He claimed not to have fired upon the posse, in part because he was armed only with a shotgun, but also implying that he stood opposed to doing so. In hindsight, this testimony appears the most self-serving of any of Carr’s statements. Carr asserted that after the shooting was completed, Brown told him that it had to be done to teach the posse a lesson. 

On the stand, Carr stated that he had never robbed a man in his life. This did not jibe with the facts surrounding the robbery and killing in Carr’s saloon that sent him to San Quentin in the first place. 

Under cross-examination Carr was forced to admit that when he was first in the county jail in early November, 1879, he told James Anthony that Wheeler was an innocent man so far as the shooting went. Carr swore, “That was said for effect. I was not under oath. That kind of business don’t amount to much. Was sick at the time. Am Irish. Am not a Catholic. Was sick and afraid of death. Through Wheeler’s advice, sent for Father Sheridan. Told Father Sheridan that Wheeler was innocent, and to tell his wife so. Made a confession to Father Sheridan. Wheeler wanted me to make a statement to the effect he was innocent, and send for Judge McGarvey, the prosecuting attorney, [Under-Sheriff] Seawell, and a notary public, and swear to it. What I said in jail about his innocence was said because I was under his influence. It was not true. I lied then. I am now doing this for myself and for the interest of the public.”

Still under cross-examination, Carr continued in reference to a visit Wells, Fargo detective James Hume made to his cell. “Hume told me Wheeler was a bad man, that he (Hume) wanted to convict all the guilty.”

Carr disclosed that he and other prisoners tried Wheeler’s case often in the county jail cells. He also admitted that as the Mendocino posse approached “I might have been a little frightened.”

The man who had turned state’s evidence also said of John Wheeler, “We have always been friends, and wanted to help him out. At another time we agreed to lay a good deal of the blame on Billings, he was dead and could stand it.” Carr added that each member of the gang was to receive one-fifth of the money stolen from the tax collector.

After Carr’s rambling stint on the stand, many of Mendocino City’s shop keepers and citizens took the stand to connect Wheeler to the purchase of the guns and ammunition used in the killing of Dollard and Wright. Testimony and closing arguments wrapped on Monday May 10, 1880. The jury deliberated approximately two hours. They returned with a verdict of murder in the first degree.

On Thursday, May 13th, the presiding judge, visiting from Sonoma County, opened the court session at 10 a.m. With John Wheeler standing before him, the jurist asked if the defendant had any reason why sentence should not be pronounced, Wheeler launched into an impassioned address, declaring his complete innocence of the crimes in which he had been charged and convicted.”

The judge listened patiently. He then pronounced a sentence of death by hanging, said punishment to be carried out on Friday, July 2nd.

(Coming soon: John F. Wheeler cheats the hangman.)

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