The Las Cruces Triple Murder

by R Lawson Gamble

(Preface: Read previous blog “The Beheading of Colonel Ebey”)
When George and Lucretia Corliss set sail for Las Cruces, California, by one account they had fellow passengers booked for the same location, Steve Williams and his Washington Indian or half-breed shepherd. All four were to figure in the murder.

By all reports, George and Lucretia lived a tranquil life in Las Cruces. Lucretia put in a vegetable garden and George and his native born shepherd Francisco Coronado tended the two or three thousand sheep on the green slopes. A letter from Lucretia to her relatives in Washington spoke of her freedom from the haunting fear that had burdened her in Washington and the beauties of the country and climate. In “A Pioneer’s Search For An ideal Home”, Mrs. Judson quotes Lucretia as writing, “You know how afraid I always was in Olympia. I have gotten all over that now.'”

But when a lucrative stage franchise came up for grabs in Las Cruces, competition amongst those living there became intense. Three Williams brothers, the aforementioned Steve and his brothers Elize and Bill, were living in a rented adobe at the division of the roadway where it forked toward either Santa Ynez Mission or Purisima Mission. Positive that their location would award them the franchise, they set to work building a barn and corral for the stage horses. A stage stop in one’s house brought with it substantial revenue, and George and Lucretia decided to apply as well. To compete, they built a house within a mile and a half of the crossroads. Ultimately, they were awarded the contract.

George and Lucretia moved into their new house. Within a few days, when the stage came there on January 16, 1864, they were found dead, having been beaten, the door locked from the outside, and the structure burned to the ground. Upon learning the news in Santa Barbara, a sheriff’s posse was organized as well as a vigilante committee of fifty men. A plan was drawn up whereby one party would depart immediately for Las Cruces in a coach with closed curtains and the other party would depart after dusk, all to prevent news of their coming.

Stage stopping at Las Cruces 1860 Courtesy SB Historic Museum

Upon inspecting the scene of the crime, the lawmen found the bodies of George and Lucretia lying in an X pattern in front of the fireplace. The husband lay face down on the hearth and the wife’s body was dumped on top of him. Some scorched metal rings around Mrs. Corliss’ neck were a mystery until they were recognized to be metal hoops from her skirt. This was seen to be evidence that she had been dragged to her position by her feet. Subsequently drag marks were found near the vegetable garden and clotted blood near a hoe. Clawed finger marks in the dirt offered evidence that she was alive when she was dragged to the house. The hired hand, Franco Coronado, was briefly suspected, until his mutilated body was found some days later wedged among some rocks.

Immediate suspects included the Cota family in Gaviota from whom the original franchise had been removed when making the change in location of the station near Las Cruces. Several of them were immediately rounded up, including “Cabeza Blanca”, a known desperado. The second coach of lawmen scooped up several suspicious travelers they passed along the road to Las Cruces. But the prime suspects became the Williams brothers. A local woman, Isabel Yorba, claimed one of the Williams brothers had once asked her to put strychnine in the milk she delivered to the Corliss home

Next Time: The outcome of the investigations and various theories.

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