"Shootout at Chariot Canyon" (Conclusion)
There are any number of lessons that can be learned from the murderous claim dispute at Chariot Canyon that took place on Memorial Day 1989. Let's look at a few of these lessons now in the hope that something like this never happens again...especially to one of us. I'm also highly interested in hearing your perspective on this tragic event despite the fact it happened nearly 30 years ago.
The details on the "Shootout at Chariot Canyon" are very sparse and sometimes conflicting in my mind. We can only gauge what truly happened that day near Julian, California based on the testimony of the surviving witnesses, the Gustav Hudson group. Both Chris Zerbe and his friend Edward "Joe" Lopes (who represented the other side of the story) did not live to tell their side of things, although the available evidence points to the fact these two men were impaired to some degree by alcohol and perhaps driven to even greater antagonism that day toward Hudson and his family and friends. Again, based on what I do know about the murders, there had been "bad blood" between Hudson, Zerbe, and hard-rock mine claim owner Benjamin Haimes prior to the shootout. This leads me to my first lesson learned:
1) There is NO legal basis for "trespass" on any unpatented mining claim.
This is where "Ready Relief" and "Hubbard" Mines claim owner Benjamin Haimes got it wrong. He admitted that he was "sick and tired" of "trespassers" on or near his claim(s) at Chariot Canyon and this was the primary reason he hired Chris Zerbe as caretaker. Although I understand Haimes's frustration, his mistaken notion of trespass involving his hard-rock claim had no real foundation in reality since there is no legal basis for the idea of trespass on any unpatented mining claim (feel free to correct me if I'm wrong here). As long as your claim is accessible, people can freely come and go on any unpatented claim (lode or placer). They can hike through your claim, camp on it, bird watch, nude sun bathe on it, fish along it, and so on, as long as they DO NOT attempt to perform any sort of prospecting or mining on it. Granted, Haimes was probably worried about some idiot falling down an old mine shaft or otherwise getting hurt or killed on his claim, but even then he had no "trespass" law to fall back on since he only owned the mineral rights to his claim, not the land itself. But I think in his own mind Haimes erroneously believed (like many claim owners still do today) that his claim was his property and as such, inviolable. Dead wrong with no sick pun intended. It's my contention that Haimes may have unknowingly helped set the stage for the shootout to some degree or another because of his erroneous thinking in this respect. I'm not trying to malign Haimes here...just throwing that out there (and I'm interested in hearing what you think about this premise). Of course, all of this goes out the window if the hard-rock claim that Haimes owned was a patented claim (highly unlikely) or privately owned property (there are no indications of such, by the way).
(A sign like this on an unpatented mining claim is pure bullshit, the 2nd Amendment notwithstanding).)
2) Whenever possible, don't rely on others for access to your claim.
As I said before, I've had access issues to a claim of my own in the past. Without going onto a tangent here, this "issue" had to do with a locked gate on Bureau of Land Management/U.S. Forest Service/"Public" Land. Any time you are dependent on others (no matter who those "others" are) for access to your claim, problems are going to arise. These "problems" could be as simple as getting a key to a locked gate from Forest Service rangers, or you could find yourself dealing with another recalcitrant claim owner who simply doesn't like the way you look and decides to get high handed about access issues. To some degree or another I think this access issue was a major part of the bad feelings and eventual violence that developed at Chariot Canyon back in 1989. It's pretty clear that Chris Zerbe (claim owner Haimes's "caretaker") had taken a high-handed approach with Gustav Hudson both before and just prior to the shootout. Why this was so one can only guess. But I suspect that the two men did not like or respect each other very much (like the Earps and the Clantons at Tombstone, Arizona). They'd obviously had "run ins" in the past and based on what Zerbe said right before the incident, perhaps (and there's some evidence to back this up) Gustav Hudson or his friends or family members had poked around on Haimes's hard-rock claim at some point. Which brings me to my next lesson learned...
The way I see it, anyone who KNOWINGLY enters the claim of another miner with the intent of sampling for or recovering the minerals or metals from it has just entered the darkest part of the Twilight Zone. Anything can happen in these sorts of contexts as we all well know. You may not be able to keep some drunken fools from throwing a beer party on your claim, but you can sure as hell deal with them directly if they "jump" your claim to get at the gold it contains. Now what does "directly" mean? Threatening them with violence at the end of a gun barrel? Taking an axe handle to them? Losing your cool and screaming obscenities while you threaten to kill them? Or calmly telling them that if they don't cease and desist you're calling the county sheriff? (By the way, the latter is your best choice, all things considered.) Remember that anger and violence tend to escalate as we saw at Chariot Canyon. And who knows? Perhaps there actually were some claim jumping issues involved in that tragic event as well. After all, we've only heard Hudson's side of the story. (Again, that's sheer conjecture on my part.)
4) Alcohol and guns don't mix well.
Even the proverbial village idiot knows this much, God bless him. Guns, weapons, or firearms of any sort are a flammable mixture when mixed with copious amounts of alcohol. And anyone who thinks or says differently makes that much-maligned village idiot look like Albert Einstein. I'm a 2nd Amendment guy but I've never been drinking or "loaded" on anything else when I had a weapon in my hands...here or in a foreign land. Based on the available evidence, both Zerbe and Lopes were well "into their cups" on the late morning of the shootout. Evidently, they (or at least one of them) were armed as well. Then we have Hudson and his party showing up at the locked gate that morning loaded for bear or a mini-firefight if that's your take on things. So I guess the equation goes something like this:
previous bad blood + access issues + past claim jumping issues (?) + alcohol + plus angry or threatening words + general paranoia on both sides (?) + numerous weapons + boo-coo ammo = somebody dies.
Here's one thing I don't quite get about the shootout and maybe you folks out there have your own ideas on this. Gustav Hudson's brother Luis stated that he saw lots of empty beer cans in the back of Chris Zerbe's pick up truck BEFORE the locked gate to Chariot Canyon was opened. Did Luis have X-Ray vision like Superman? How could he have seen those empties in the back of the pick up unless he was right next to Zerbe's truck or leaning against it and looking into the bed? I'm not debating the fact that Zerbe and Lopes had been drinking that morning...the San Diego County Coroner's toxicology report stated as much. But somehow, some way, I don't think Hudson and his friends and family members were 100% honest about EXACTLY how things went down at Chariot Canyon that Memorial Day. Something just smells fishy to me. And, after all, Zerbe and Lopes couldn't tell their side of the story because they were both riddled with bullets...dead, dead, dead. Again, this is pure extrapolation on my part. But it does make me wonder as do other things about the Hudson party's accounting of what transpired that day. That said and based on the available evidence, the San Diego District Attorney (DA) declined to file charges against Gustav Hudson or anyone in his party that day. He must have seen things as a "self-defense" against a deadly threat or something similar. But hey...I'm no lawyer.
5) No amount of gold is worth dying for.
I wish someone had given me a small gold nugget for each time I've said or written this over the course of 40 years as a small-scale miner. I'd be a wealthy man by now. I know this admonition can sound trite because it's been overused by many folks, but the core message is as real as it gets. NO AMOUNT OF GOLD IS WORTH DYING FOR. Hell's bells folks, if you're dead and gone you can't sell that gold or spend the money from selling it. If you hoard wealth it's the same deal. "A shroud has no pockets," remember that. And I'll tell you this too. Chris Zerbe and Joe Lopes should not have been killed that day over claim squabbles or a locked access gate. Nor should they have lost their lives that day at Chariot Canyon simply because they'd had one too many beers. Many folks who lived in and around the nearby town of Julian knew both Zerbe and Lopes, and they were outraged when the County DA let Hudson and his party go scot-free after the killings. Hudson and crew walked while Zerbe and Lopes ended up six feet under. Who or what is really to blame for their deaths? Strip everything else away and it all ends up being about gold...directly or indirectly. No claim and no amount of yellow is worth it friends. It just ain't worth it.
(Is this amount of gold worth dying for? Or any amount?)
I've given you my account of the Chariot Canyon shootout story as best as I could piece it together. Again, the information on the killings is limited and jumps all over the place depending on what source you look at. I'm not saying I have my story straight here nor do I propose to tell you that I have all the facts under my microscope. I don't. So anyone who cares to set me straight about the "facts" of the case is welcome to do so. Ditto for my views and opinions on the killings and the people involved that sad day. Set me straight if you feel the need to. I'm OK with being corrected and God knows you don't have to agree with everything I say. I want to hear your take on things, especially as it pertains to the Chariot Canyon shootout. All in all, it was a tragic event that never should have happened. Take note of the reasons why and incorporate those lessons into how you handle yourself out in the field, especially if you're a mining claim owner.
No one has to die over these sorts of things. Absolutely no one...
(c) Jim Rocha 2018
Questions? E-mail me at email@example.com