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The Prosser Ranch Murder of 1921

Fred Prosser arrived in the Spy Rock region of Mendocino County rather late in life. Past sixty when he purchased the former Hayden ranch around 1920, he took to the cattle business like an old hand. On Saturday, September 10, 1921, he set out on horseback to check on his 2,000 acre holdings. He packed a rifle and enough food for lunch. His first stop turned out to be a spring that fed water to a cattle trough. The spring had stopped running and Prosser intended to figure out why. 

A native of Nova Scotia, Frederick Prosser had resided in Madera, where he married, then San Francisco, before acquiring the Spy Rock range land. At the end of that September weekend, Prosser's horse wandered riderless back to the barnyard. Family employees set out in search. Eventually, word went out beckoning Mendocino County Sheriff Ralph Byrnes. 

Mr. Prosser was no stranger to desolate, rugged country. Scarcely two months before he had led a group of students from Martinez on a two week camping trip in Sierra County. 

On Monday, September 12th, a party of searchers that included Sheriff Byrnes found Fred Prosser's body beneath a pile of brush and dead wood within a gully in a remote area of his ranch. At least two bullet holes had penetrated Prosser's back.

One of the most unpleasant chores in this sad case fell upon an employee of the rancher. A Miss Fately had to author a telegram to Prosser's daughter in Oakland, informing the young woman of her father's death.

Through speculation from the hired help, Sheriff Byrnes had an idea as to the identity of the culprit. He tracked the fellow to Blue Rock then caught up to him at Cummings. The suspect was a Navy deserter named Jack Wilmont, still a few weeks shy of his twentieth birthday. He had worked at Prosser's ranch a short while. 

After his capture, Wilmont told the sheriff and a group of reporters what had happened. On the fateful day he had joined Prosser to clean out a plugged spring. They stopped for a lunch break around noon. Prosser shared the food he'd packed in his saddlebag with young Wilmont. The latter gobbled his share quickly then moved off out of sight to get a drink from a pool.   

As he returned from getting that drink and washing his hands, Wilmont took note of Prosser's rifle leaning against a tree trunk. Maybe it was the heat of midday, the sweat on his brow, or the hot metal on the rifle as he picked it up, but a sudden compulsion overwhelmed Wilmont. He levered the weapon, spotting the rounds inside. The young man raised the gun, butt end against his shoulder, then fired. The bullet struck Mr. Prosser in the back. 

The older man spun part way around. “Boy, you have shot me.”

Wilmont pulled the trigger again. Prosser slumped while saying, “My God, I am being killed.”

Wilmont told the reporters and Sheriff Byrnes, “Then I let him have it some more. When I got through shooting I was sick in my stomach. I went to the ranch and told the folks there that Mr. Prosser had told me I could go hunting.”

“I was afraid to touch the body and left it where it was. Next day I went back on horseback and tied a couple of half hitches around his leg and the horse dragged the corpse down where I buried it. I did not know where I was going to go. I just wanted to go somewhere.”

A Michigan native, Wilmont had disliked school from an early age. Once when he played hooky, his stepmother grew so frustrated with him that according to Wilmont she threw a kitchen knife at him. The utensil supposedly lodged in his skull until successfully removed. 

Young Jack did a three year stint in a reform school, where he was known as Gerald Gray, before enlisting in the Navy. After deserting, he struck out for northern California where he found employment at Prosser's ranch.

In the weeks following his arrest, Wilmont exhibited limited remorse, if any, when speaking to jailers or journalists. He recalled “a funny feeling” at the time of the shooting, but referred to the killing as an accident. A consensus of public opinion held that the young man appeared mentally unbalanced. In late October, a doctor examined Wilmot's skull, finding no abnormalities. The physical exam cast doubt on the young man's claim to have had a butcher knife lodged in his head in childhood.

At his November trial Wilmont took the stand on his own behalf. Defense attorney Will Van Dyke asked Wilmont why he worked for Prosser for only one week. The defendant paused for a moment then said, “Some trouble came up and I was forced to quit.”

Van Dyke continued, “What was that trouble?”

In a murmur the jury could barely hear, Wilmont responded, “Murder.”

“How did that happen?” Van Dyke asked.

Wilmont appeared perplexed. He remained silent for a full minute, maybe more, then words gushed out of him like an unplugged fountain. With his eyes darting about the courtroom and his hands covering his nose the defendant described the killing so fast the phrases and sentences proved difficult to understand     

At the trial's conclusion the jury found Wilmont guilty of murder. In deliberations over the sentence, the jury voted ten to two in favor of hanging several times within the first hour and a half. Eventually, they settled on a sentence of life imprisonment at San Quentin.  

In 1932, claiming he suffered from tuberculosis, Jack Wilmont appealed to the governor for clemency. Wilmont described himself as an artist and poet, though San Quentin authorities recorded his occupation as printer. The clemency appeal was denied. In 1937, Wilmont applied for parole then again in 1940. Finally, in 1953, after thirty-two years at San Quentin, along with thirty-six other prisoners, Wilmont won a commutation from Governor Earl Warren. His whereabouts after release remain a mystery.

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