Killing Pat Garrett, The Wild West’s Most Famous Lawman—Murder or Self-Defense? by David G. Thomas, Doc45 Publishing, Las Cruces, N.M., 2020, $24.95
Jerry Lobdill’s article “How Jim Miller Killed Pat Garrett,” published in the August 2018 Wild West (and online at HistoryNet.com under the title “The Real Killer of the Sheriff Who Shot Billy the Kid”), won the Wild West History Association’s 2019 Six-Shooter Award for best general Western article. Lobdill writes of a conspiracy planned by William W. Cox, Oliver Lee, Carl Adamson and others to kill Garrett and explains how paid assassin Miller most likely traveled by railroad and through Soledad Canyon to reach the designated ambush site some 5 miles east of Las Cruces, N.M. Wayne Brazel, who was in a dispute with Garrett, confessed to the killing, but Adamson, the sole eyewitness, related a tale of self-defense (even though Garrett was shot in the back of the head while urinating). Attorney Albert Fall handled the courtroom defense, and the jury was out only 15 minutes before returning a verdict of not guilty. Based on his extensive research, however, Lobdill reached this conclusion: “It wasn’t Wayne Brazel who did the dirty deed. It was Killin’ Jim Miller by way of Soledad Canyon.”
David Thomas, who also did extensive research (a dozen years’ worth) and wrote Killing Pat Garrett as part of the Mesilla Valley History Series, has reached a different conclusion. Thomas had access to more than 80 letters Garrett wrote to his wife and also “discovered a multitude of new documents and details concerning Garrett’s killing, the events surrounding it and the personal life of the man who was placed on trial for killing Garrett.” The author includes a great many quotes (“I wanted as much as possible to tell Garrett’s story in his own words”) and supplements the text with 102 images, including four never-before published photos of Garrett and his family.
Not until Chapter 12 does Thomas reveal—though he drops plenty of hints earlier—what he thinks about this often-debated (in New Mexico and beyond) case. For one, the prosecution investigated the claim Miller had been hired to kill Garrett and found nothing to support a murder conspiracy. Thomas concludes it was indeed Brazel who killed Garrett, and that it was premeditated. “Brazel had extensive familiarity with the law regarding self-defense,” the author writes. “He had personally seen it work twice in his life.…He was waiting for a provocation from Garrett sufficient to justify shooting him.”
With that, readers will want to peruse all the facts that led Thomas to his conclusion and to scrutinize Chapter 13, “Debunking the Conspiracy Theories.” In his Appendix D, Thomas provides a helpful 10-page timeline starting with Patrick Floyd Jarvis Garrett’s birth in Chambers County, Ala., on June 5, 1850, and ending in November 1952, when the Garrett family remains were moved from Las Cruces’ Independent Order of Odd Fellows cemetery to the town’s Masonic Cemetery.
So, has the murder (Garrett was killed on the morning of Feb. 29, 1908, and Brazel was acquitted on May 4, 1909) finally been solved? Well, Lobdill feels he proved Miller did the dirty deed, and Thomas makes a strong argument it was truly Brazel who pulled the trigger. Other historians/researchers will likely continue to assert the killer was neither of those two men. Expect the debate to continue.