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Hanging of Perfecto Padilla
By Robert Torrez
Former New Mexico State Historian
On the morning of September 24th, 1896, two condemned prisoners were led out of the Rio Arriba County jail in the northern New Mexico village of Tierra Amarilla. Moments before, the two men had received the Last Rites from the local priest, and one can imagine how they must have shuddered as they stepped out into the crisp northern New Mexico air and viewed the gallows on which they were to pay the ultimate penalty for their crimes.
A few minutes after ten in the morning, Perfecto Padilla ascended the steps of the scaffold, and was hanged for the murder of a prospector who had disappeared in the mountains of northern New Mexico two years before. Moments later, Rosario Ring stepped under the gallows and suffered the same fate for killing a man during a drunken brawl the previous year.
Reports indicate Ring “died game.” He gave speeches in Spanish and English, and explained how he had committed his crime while under the influence of whiskey and “cautioned his hangers against drinking the vile stuff.”
Court records show Ring, who had several aliases, and Celestino Romero, a companion who was subsequently acquitted, were charged with shooting Carlos Ulibarri in the back during the course of a drunken brawl at Tierra Amarilla on September 16, 1895. The trial record leaves little doubt that Ring had killed Ulibarri. Ring himself admitted his guilt, and protested only the severity of his sentence. One report noted Ring was a hard-core criminal who was suspected of various other violent crimes, including the death of his own wife. A popular opinion was that Ring’s execution had “removed a naturally bad [and] murderous man from earth.”
Perfecto Padilla, on the other hand, protested his innocence to the very end. Padilla was about forty years old, a smallish, timid-looking man who does not seem to have been capable of the cold-hearted murder for which he was convicted. Married, with two children, he farmed a small parcel of land on shares near Cuba, New Mexico, in southern Rio Arriba County. By all indications, he was rather typical of the many small farmers who lived in this region of New Mexico.
So how did Padilla end up dangling from a rope that fateful day in September of 1896? Was there any truth to his protestations of innocence? A review of the historical record indicates that he may have had a point!
Perfecto Padilla was convicted of killing John Vipond, a prospector who was last seen alive on July 29, 1894 by Bernard J. McGinnis, William Feyerheim, and several others with whom he was prospecting along Rio Gallina in southern Rio Arriba County. Vipond separated from the main party with the view of rejoining them later, but they never saw him again. At first, they were concerned that something had happened to Vipond, but unable to find any evidence of foul play, concluded he had decided to venture out on his own.
Vipond remained missing, however, so in late September a search party was organized and they began combing the hills in the vicinity of where Vipond was last seen. On October 4, the search party finally found the remains of a man which had been scattered and mutilated by animals. These included a human skull which had been “crushed in on one side,” and a prospector’s pick with blood and hair on it. Nearby, they also found a Winchester rifle, a pistol, clothing which they recognized as belonging to Vipond, and a letter addressed to Vipond from his brother,
With this evidence in hand, Governor William T. Thornton issued a $250 reward offer on October 10, 1894 for the arrest and conviction of Vipond’s “unknown murderer(s).” Two days later, McGinnis and Feyerheim, two of the men who had last seen Vipond alive, filed an affidavit which stated that one Perfecto Padilla and a young boy had come into their camp a few days after Vipond disappeared and that Padilla was “driving” two of Vipond’s burros. They claimed to have questioned Padilla about how he got the burros and forced him to turn the animals over to them.
The same day J. D. Bentley and Frank Plountenex also filed an affidavit in which they claimed to have heard Padilla had spent twenty or thirty dollars at a store in Cuba on or about August 5. They also claimed John Vipond had cashed a fifty dollar draft a few days before he disappeared.
An arrest warrant for Padilla was issued the same day these affidavits were filed. By October 20, Padilla had been arrested and taken to the county jail at Santa Fe by Santa Fe County Deputies Juan Delgado and J.W. Harris.
Padilla was held without charges at the Santa Fe County jail until February 1895. At that time it was apparently determined that since Vipond had been killed in Rio Arriba County, he should be transferred to the Rio Arriba County jail at Tierra Amarilla. He was held at Tierra Amarilla until Rio Arriba grand jury issued an indictment against him for the murder of John Vipond on November 6, 1895. Court records do not explain the one year delay between his arrest and indictment, nor do they explain why Padilla was taken back to the Santa Fe jail on May 11, 1895 where he remained for almost four months before being returned to Tierra Amarilla.
Within a week of his indictment, a jury trial was convened and Padilla convicted of first degree murder. On November 23, the court imposed on Padilla the only sentence allowed by territorial law of the time – death by hanging.
District Attorney Jacob H. Crist’s case against Padilla was based on four principal factors. The first was testimony by H. Noel, proprietor of the store when Padilla bought supplies with the money he allegedly took from Vipond. District Attorney Crist spent a lot of time attempting to convince the jury that Padilla could never have earned the cash he spent at Noel’s store, and must have therefore acquired it from Vipond.
Additional critical testimony came from McGinnis and Feyerheim who testified they had seen Padilla “drive” Vipond’s burros into their camp a few days after Vipond disappeared. Padilla maintained throughout the trial he did not have Vipond’s burros when he came upon McGinnis’ camp. He insisted the burros were simply on the same trail he was following. Padilla also insisted that Polidor Martinez, the young boy who was with him, could verify that he was not “driving” the burros as claimed by McGinnis and Feyerheim.
Martinez, however, was no help. He was possibly twelve years old, and answered many of the questions directed at him with “I don’t know,” or simply remained silent. A careful reading of the trial transcript seems to support Padilla’s contention that Vipond’s burros were simply loose and not being led or “driven” by anyone.
Pedro Olivas, another witness called by Padilla, directly contradicted Padilla’s testimony on a third critical issue. According to the prosecution, Padilla had sold a watch in Santa Fe which was later identified as belonging to Vipond. Padilla contended he bought the watch from a man in Albuquerque and Olivas was with him when he had bought it.
Olivas, however, denied he was with Padilla when he bought the watch. Olivas said he and Padilla had driven some livestock to Albuquerque in early August of 1895, but that he had remained in the outskirts of the city while Padilla went into town to conduct some business. Padilla showed him a watch and told him he had bought it while in town.
Critical to understanding Martinez’ and Olivas’ testimony is the tone of the cross-examinations by Larkin G. Read, Padilla’s defense attorney. Read repeatedly asked Olivas and Martinez whether they had been coerced or intimidated into testifying as they did. Olivas, at first, admitted the officer who subpoenaed him had told him to say he was not with Padilla, but Olivas denied he had been coerced and no amount of cross examination convinced him to admit otherwise.
Martinez also admitted that Santa Fe County Sheriff William P. Cunningham, William C. Vipond, the victim’s brother, and others had “talked” to him and tried to get him to say he had seen Padilla “drive the burros.” Martinez also testified he had been warned by Sheriff Cunningham not to tell lies or they would “do [him] some wrong.” Martinez remained silent when Read asked him repeatedly if he felt he had been threatened. To Martinez’ credit, however, it must be noted that he never did say he saw Padilla “drive” the burros, as McGinnis and Feyerheim insisted. He repeatedly stated only that when he saw Padilla, the burros were in front of him.
One of the unfortunate aspects of researching this case is that much of Padilla’s trial transcript is still un-transcribed from the archaic Pittman shorthand used at the turn of the century, leaving many unanswered questions about the trial testimony. A Santa Fe Daily New Mexican story indicates that much of the evidence against Padilla had been gathered by William C. Vipond, John Vipond’s brother. William Vipond reportedly spent several weeks conducting extensive investigations regarding his brother’s death. It was William Vipond who is credited with uncovering the final piece of evidence which sent Padilla to the gallows – an eyewitness to the murder.
The newspaper story does not identify this eyewitness, but it appears he was Jose Archibeque, one of those whose testimony has not been fully transcribed. According to the newspaper report, Archibeque testified that on the afternoon of August 6, 1894 he was in the vicinity of Vipond’s camp when he saw Padilla approaching.
Without explaining what he was doing there, Archibeque indicated he hid in the woods nearby, and from there saw Padilla sneak up on Vipond while he slept and [attack] him with a pickax handle. Archibeque said he fled the scene because he feared for his own life, and remained silent until after he heard Padilla had been arrested.
Many questions about Archibeque’s testimony must remain unanswered until it is fully transcribed. However, from other testimony, we are able to determine that he and Padilla were enemies. Apparently Padilla had somehow been implicated in connection with the death of Archibeque’s brother several years earlier. Although someone else was eventually convicted of the murder, Archibeque nonetheless swore he would gain revenge on Padilla.
Defense Attorney Read tried valiantly to discredit Archibeque’s testimony and show that much of the other testimony had been coerced. District Attorney Crist, however, delivered a masterful summation, during which he displayed John Vipond’s skull to the jury and demonstrated how the pickax handle they had found “exactly fitted into the horrible dent therein.” According to one report, Crist’s theatrics, combined with Archibeque’s eyewitness testimony, had a “telling effect” on the jury and they quickly returned a verdict of guilty of murder in the first degree.
Padilla was initially sentenced to hang on December 21, 1895. However, the execution was delayed while his case was appealed to the New Mexico Supreme Court. It took nearly a year for the Supreme Court to uphold the verdict and sentence, during which time Padilla and Ring were both apparently held at the Santa Fe County jail. Finally, on September 9, 1896, Governor William T. Thornton signed death warrants for both men.
On September 22, Rio Arriba County Sheriff Felix Garcia and the two prisoners boarded the train at Santa Fe for the first leg of their trip back to Tierra Amarilla, they were accompanied by Santa Fe County Sheriff Cunningham and a group of “special deputies.” One of the “special deputies” was William Vipond, the victim’s brother. Cunningham and Vipond were two of the men that Polidor Martinez and Pedro Olivas testified had “talked” to them about their testimony during Padilla’s trial.
At Chamita, where the group transferred from the train to wagons, they were joined by a detachment of troops from Fort Marcy which had been ordered to accompany them to Tierra Amarilla. It had been reported there might be an attempt to free the prisoners, and the law was taking no chances.
However, the escort encountered no difficulties and the executions were carried out as scheduled. On September 24, 1896, Rio Arriba County Sheriff Felix Garcia submitted two signed death warrants certifying he had carried out the executions and that Rosario Ring and Perfecto Padilla had been “hung by the neck until dead.”
In and of itself, Perfecto Padilla’s story is but one of the many chapters in the often violent history of frontier New Mexico. However, this story deserves more than cursory attention because the documentation leaves many unanswered questions which point to the possibility that Padilla may not only have been innocent of the crime for which he was executed but may have actually been framed by treacherous and powerful men who sought to use him for their own nefarious ends.
When viewed with historical hindsight, it seems Padilla was convicted principally on circumstantial evidence provided by defense witnesses who were coerced by Santa Fe County Sheriff William P. Cunningham and his deputies. The extant trial transcript also provides strong indications that the testimony of Jose Archibeque, the eyewitness, is at least suspect.
These things, however, were not necessarily an uncommon occurrence for this time and place in our history. It is another, seemingly unrelated course of events which sheds a reasonable doubt on the question of Padilla’s guilt. This issue involves one of the most celebrated and bitterly contested capital cases in New Mexico’s history – District Attorney Jacob H. Crist’s prosecution of Francisco and Antonio Gonzales y Borrego and two accomplices who had been convicted of the 1892 politically motivated murder of Francisco Chavez. The Borregos and two accomplices were represented by Thomas B. Catron, a Santa Fe attorney, Republican political figure and land grant speculator, whose name is frequently mentioned in the same breath as the Santa Fe Ring. Catron also happened to be a bitter political enemy of District Attorney Crist, a Democrat.
In early September 1895, Wilmot E. Broad, a Rio Arriba businessman and staunch fellow Republican, wrote Catron and told him of a rumor that Crist had offered immunity to someone named “Padia” in exchange for testimony against the Borregos. A few days later, Padilla himself wrote to Catron from his cell at Tierra Amarilla and informed Catron that District Attorney Crist and Sheriff Cunningham had taken him to Santa Fe.
“They wanted me to declare in court that I had pretended to be asleep in the cell next to the Borregos and that I had overheard them saying secretly that they had killed the deceased Chavez; furthermore, [they] wanted me to say I had witnessed the killing. . . .”
Padilla noted that in exchange for his testimony, Crist and Cunningham promised him they would drop all charges and provide him with money. He also charged that Crist and Cunningham had made similar offers to other prisoners. Padilla makes it clear he was aware Crist and Catron were embroiled in a bitter political battle, and offered to testify on Catron’s behalf if Catron would use his influence in his own case.
The insidious political overtones of this case become increasingly clear with Padilla’s comment that he had given this letter to his wife with strict instructions not to mail it through the Tierra Amarilla post office. According to Padilla, the postmaster at Tierra Amarilla was “very friendly” with Crist, and felt that any letter addressed to Catron would be opened and read.
Strangely, Padilla’s letter leaves one with the impression that he felt he had not been arrested because he was suspected of Vipond’s murder, but in some direct connection with the Borrego case. Furthermore, Santa Fe County jail records show Padilla was in fact received at the jail on May 11, 1895 and remained there until August 4, before being returned to Tierra Amarilla. What is notable about these dates is that the Borrego trial began May 4 and continued through most of that month.
It should also be noted that up to this point, the court record clearly shows that despite having been held in jail since his arrest in October 1894, Padilla had not been charged with any crime whatsoever! The Rio Arriba grand jury which eventually indicted Padilla for Vipond’s murder in November 1895 was still two months away from being convened.
In response to these letters, Catron dashed off a note to Alexander Read, an attorney at Tierra Amarilla, and asked him to look into Padilla’s allegations. Catron told Read that Crist had listed Padilla as one of the witnesses he would present in the Borrego case, but decided not to call him because Padilla had demanded a pardon before he testified. It was a decision which cost Padilla his life.
It is noteworthy that Larkin Read, Padilla’s defense attorney during the November 1895 trial is Alexander Read’s brother. Padilla’s allegations of widespread intimidation and coercion of witnesses would also explain the nature of Read’s cross examination of the witnesses during Padilla’s trial.
There is no evidence of further communications between Padilla and Catron, and strangely, it appears the question of Crist’s offer to Padilla was never raised during the trial. During the year following Padilla’s conviction, Catron became involved with the disbarment case filed against him, and he obviously had matters other than Padilla on his mind.
Recent developments add to questions of Padilla’s guilt. In 1965, a Mr. G. Swain wrote to the State Records Center and Archives in Santa Fe and requested information about Padilla’s trial. In his letter, Mr. Swain stated Padilla was hanged for a crime he did not commit. He stated the “real murderer” had later been “filled with remorse” and confessed his crimes to a priest. Mr. Swain, however, does not specify who the “real murderer” was and how he came about this information.
An anonymous letter written in 1988 to the Rio Grande Sun in Espanola, New Mexico, in response to a story they published about Padilla’s hanging, states it is common knowledge in parts of Rio Arriba County who had killed Vipond, and that it was not Padilla. Others contend that Vipond found gold on the Rio Gallina, and that his alleged cache has yet to be found, adding another chapter to New Mexico’s “lost treasure” legends.
Who killed John Vipond if not Padilla? Might it have been Archibeque, the alleged eyewitness? How about the mysterious man from whom Padilla claimed to have bought the incriminating watch in Albuquerque? What reason would McGinnis, Feyerheim, and the others have to file false or misleading affidavits against Padilla? Is it really possible that a man could be sent to the gallows for refusing to cooperate with the insidious public officers entrusted with the administration of justice in the courts of territorial New Mexico?
Until the answers to these questions can be found, the truth behind who killed John Vilpond will, like his fabled treasure, remain buried. For now, we can only contend that, in all probability, Perfecto Padilla died not for any crime he may have committed, but because he was probably a convenient pawn, sacrificed by powerful men intent on shaping the vanishing frontier for their own ends, whatever those ends may have been.
(Biographical Note: The materials in this essay are primarily based on Rio Arriba County District Court criminal case #1090, Territorial Supreme Court #649, and Governor William Thornton penal records (TANM 127), all at the State Records Center and Archives. Additional information is from contemporary newspapers and the Catron Collection at UNM.)