Elfego Baca, Salazar case

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Over the years in writing this column, I have repeatedly dealt with episodes in the careers of three men — Billy the Kid, Kit Carson and Elfego Baca. While the first two names are familiar to most Americans, the last one is not, even though in 1958 Walt Disney came to New Mexico to film “The Nine Lives of Elfego Baca.” The quirky Elfego, at age 19, gained his reputation as a fearless gunfighter. A self-appointed deputy sheriff of Socorro County, he rode over to the town of Frisco Plaza, not far from the Arizona line, in November 1884 to challenge wild cowboys terrorizing the place for fun. What followed became one of the most famous shootouts of the Old West variety. After Elfego arrested one of the troublemakers and marched him off to jail, he was set upon by a large mob of cowboys.

Forting up in a tiny cabin, the “deputy sheriff” held off his attackers for 36 hours, during which time numerous shots were fired at him. Escaping unscathed, Elfego emerged as a legitimate folk hero. In later years, he worked as an Albuquerque lawyer (having passed the bar exam), a private detective, a casino operator and a newspaper editor. One of the more interesting sides of Elfego’s varied career concerns his association with rebel leaders of the Mexican Revolution, which broke out in 1910 and lasted years.

By 1913, a brutal and self-serving man, Victoriano Huerta, had seized power and was warring against opposing factions centered in Chihuahua. One of Huerta’s leading generals there was Jose Ines Salazar. The bandit figure Pancho Villa had recruited his own army and defeated Gen. Salazar and his forces at the town of Ojinaga on the Rio Grande. Salazar escaped across the river into Texas but was soon arrested by U.S. officials on charges of gun smuggling and violating the American border. Elfego Baca previously had some dealings with Salazar, and the general now hired him to take his case.

Gen. Salazar was held in the Santa Fe penitentiary for five months awaiting action by the judicial system. Elfego petitioned for his release, but that was denied and Salazar was sent to Fort Wingate near Gallup to be held in the Army detention camp there. Finally, on Nov. 16, 1914, Salazar was moved to Albuquerque to stand trial in District Court on a perjury indictment. Lodged in the Bernalillo County Jail at the edge of Old Town, he remained there only four days. Conflicting reports describe details of the ensuing jailbreak, but in general, the escape of Gen. Salazar occurred this way. The night of Nov. 20, Deputy Sheriff Carlos Armijo was on duty when two men in black masks entered suddenly and overpowered him. One of the assailants had yelled, “Give up, Armijo, or we are going to kill you!”

They next took the keys, then found the general’s cell on the second floor and released him. Salazar had evidently been expecting rescue, for he was standing with his bag packed, waiting.

Leaving Armijo handcuffed to a post in the yard, the three men jumped in an auto and roared into the night. Gen. Salazar made it to the railroad depot on First St. just in time to catch a train to El Paso. Having arrived, he walked across a bridge into Mexico. At the same moment as the breakout, 9:30 p.m., Elfego Baca walked up to a pair of lawmen, policeman George Craig and deputy U.S. Marshal J.R. Galusha, who were standing on a corner in downtown Albuquerque. They recognized him at once and Baca asked for the time. Both men looked at their watches and agreed that it was exactly 9:30. By his action, Elfego Baca had created a perfect alibi, establishing that he was blocks away from the jail at the time the perpetrators invaded it. Still, many people believed that he was the mastermind behind the plot to free Salazar. In fact, he was later tried for conspiracy, but acquitted. After serving a term as Socorro County sheriff, 1919 to 1920, Elfego Baca opened a law practice in Albuquerque. He died there in 1945 at age 80. The local press lionized him as “one of the last links to the frontier era.”