by R Lawson Gamble
After sixteen days, three suspects emerged – the Williams brothers. The assumed motive was their desire to secure the stage company franchise, in pursuit of which they had built a corral and barn for the stage horses and probably remodeled the interior of the adobe extensively to meet the demands of travelers. However, despite the evidence of the milkmaid (she who claimed one of the brothers had asked her to poison the Corliss’s milk), they were acquitted for lack of evidence. Further, Elise Williams had already acted in his official capacity as coroner and, with a coroner’s jury that included his two brothers, found for murderer or murderers unknown.
One interesting circumstance of the crime was that a supply laid in by Corliss of six month’s provisions for the stage stop had been stolen. That the body of the shepherd Franco Coronado was found some distance from the crime scene ten days later, suggested this was not a crime of opportunity, but premeditated by people who knew of the man and where to find him. Each victim was killed in such a way as to suggest the murderer was known to them.
Although several locals, who were suspected of knowing something of the affair, were hung until almost strangled (a common method then to elicit a confession), all claimed ignorance. Finally, having decided nothing more could be done, the posse decamped and the affair was ended.
Soon after, Bill Williams sold out to his brothers and departed the country. Some time later, Steve and Elise, along with their half-breed shepherd, started toward Tulare Valley with their sheep. They hired another man in San Luis Obispo who was accused of murdering them in their sleep a night or two later. This man, named Stanner, was arrested and soon confessed (probably as a result of the same technique described above). But no mention was made of the half-breed shepherd.
Let’s consider the shepherd. One of George Corliss’s duties as U.S. Marshal in Washington Territory had been to remove half-breed Indians from their homes during the Indian Wars to a secure place, ostensibly for their own safety, but most likely to keep them under the eye of the military. No small hardship was endured by these people during the move and their consequent long sojourn away from home. Corliss must have been seen as the immediate cause of their misfortune.
The half-breed shepherd journeying with Steve Williams, in the account I read, was said to have embarked in Oregon. Yet the reader must remember the entire territory that is now Oregon and Washington had all been Oregon Territory up until 1853, when the territory of Washington was defined and accepted. The writer of that account could well have continued to think of the area as ‘Oregon”, even if the travelers had embarked in Washington.
Could, then, the half-breed shepherd who worked for the Williams brothers have been responsible for the triple murder? He was never suspected, unaccountably. If one considers the shepherd’s possible smoldering resentment toward Marshal George Corliss from the Indian Wars, his knowledge of the whereabouts of the Corliss shepherd, the brutal nature of the murders (in fact similar in brutality to the attack Lucretia had undergone from Indians on Whidbey Island), the theft of the provisions (which would soon be needed by the Williams brothers for the stage franchise, were they to acquire it), and his later disappearance following the murders of Elize and Steve Williams, one begins to see the man’s shadow lurking at every juncture of this prolonged tragedy. One might even believe the murder of Elize and Steven could be laid at his door, being the only witnesses to their shepherd’s crime.
If these conjectures are anywhere near the mark, we will never know, unfortunately. But we can know that the reputed ghostly figures seen occasionally on dark nights at the old Las Cruces adobe have every reason to haunt it.