"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...

3) Don't claim jump (however you interpret "jumping").

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 jr872vt90@yahoo.com


  1. Very interesting JR. I'm guessing that maybe there was no charges filed because the fella doing the killing, was out numbered , and threatened by two loud mouths, that were armed. Drinking too much on top of that sure makes it seem like self defense. Justified or not, as you say, dead men tell no tales.

    From the sound of this, to me at least I think the guy panicked and opened fire.
    Sounds a lot like the Claud Dallas story..…..
    We can only guess though.

  2. I'm familiar with the Claude Dallas story as well Gary. Some similarities there. But somehow I still think the Hudson side of the story of what happened is questionable. Again, I refer to the beer cans that Hudson's brother could see in the bed of Zerbe's truck through the locked gate. I think all this boiled over at very close range as they say. Not at a distance.

  3. I just looked up Benjamin Haimes and he is on record for owning 27 mining claims. All of them closed now.
    Gustav Hudson is not on the record for having owned any mining claims.
    Kinda odd. Perhaps his claim was in someone else's name. IDK.
    It appears that the area has a lot of active claims now.

    I think Gustav probably screwed up and panicked when the two shots were fired.
    I doubt that the two shots were fired at Gustav otherwise somebody in his party would have been hit first.
    Zerbe may have fired off a couple rounds just to mess with Gustav and made a fatal mistake of giving Gustav the impression he was being fired upon. Being a little drunk could do that, and being a little dumb.
    But whatever the reason that was bad judgment. I don't believe Gustav fired first. Having a wife, kids and little brother along would make a man think twice about starting a gun fight.

    I do believe that Gustav and his brother panicked and over reacted though and embellished their side of the story to cover their rear ends.
    The beer cans in the back of the truck means nothing. Those cans could have been rolling around back there for days. Waiting for the trip to the general store for deposit refund. I would bet money all that beer wasn't drank that morning. They weren't all that drunk anyway.

    If Zerbe had of fired at them I think that Gustav would at least have a bullet hole in his vehicle.
    But I don't believe Zerbe would endanger some little kids like that. Most drunks have a soft spot for little kids.

    Like you say, there is a heck of a lot left out of the police report.
    Have you tried to track down Haimes and Hudson and see if they are still alive, so you can interview them?
    Why haven't you Jim? kidding...

    1. You've done your research and it's telling in certain regards Don. As far as I know, there were no bullet holes in any of the Hudson party vehicles. What I do know is that a lot of rounds went out toward Zerbe's pick up truck...40, at least. It's interesting that Hudson had no claims recorded, but again that could have been in another's name as you say. I bet Hudson, if he's alive today, doesn't want to have this shootout brought up again. He and his side are hiding some facts...that's my belief. A hell of a mess and it didn't need to happen.

  4. Hi JR, I just found your blog and really enjoy it. I only know the details as you presented them, but regarding the beer cans being seen in the back of the pick-up (I agree with sniper that their presence doesn't mean they were consumed that morning), possibly there wasn't a tailgate on the pick-up and so they were visible as Hudson & crew passed them, or when Zerbe moved the vehicle. Another possibility is that Zerbe and his friend were sitting on the tail gate itself when Hudson pulled up, which would expose the cans.

    Just a few idle thoughts. I really enjoy what I've read so far; I grew up near in Placerville in Northern CA, so I've heard many of these types of stories over the years.

    1. Your thoughts are not idle by any means Dave. They are well thought out and logical. Thanks for stopping by!

  5. First of all my father dose not drink ,second we saw beer cans from the back of our motor home as we passed Zerebes blue Mazda truck. We only encountered Zerebe that day he was extremely belligerent to my brother and friends after nearly ramming them off the road .When we arrived at the gate Zerebe was screaming at my brother ,my father Gustav tried calming him which he did, it took a while. Zerebe realized he had no right to stop us after he went over our claim and boundary markers and let us pass. We had are own key to our lock on the gate so we could lock up when we left. Zerebe and lopes threatened us multiple times before they left. There were no shots in the motorhome because Zerebe shot from the south side of the canyon at elevation. His field of vision was blocked by all the trees. He only saw my mother and father in or near the stream from where he shot. I know because I tried to render first aid to both men and could see from that location. My father yelled to the men to leave multiple times before Zerebe fired again .My father was not panicked , infact he was too patient, waited for the second shot . Zerebe went to town retrieved his four weapons from his sister, got drunk returned hours later . He could have come to his senses or someone could have stopped him ,maybe not given him weapons. We/I did not start this we/I only reacted .This was a tragedy that Zerebe and lopes started .A gunfight and lost due to there own bad decisions. We still pray for their souls, and for their family's suffering.

    1. Thank you for providing your comments and the clarification of what transpired. I will post your comments so that readers can see your side of the story. The few "facts" that I could glean did not have this take on things, so it's good you spoke up here. I'm sorry for all in this unfortunate incident. Let's hope your side of the story helps clear things up. Take care and thank you for some truth in this matter.


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