"Shootout at Chariot Canyon" (Part 2)

On Memorial Day 1989 things went horribly wrong over a gold mining claim dispute in the back country of San Diego County. I set the stage for this true story in my previous post and now it's time for the rest of the story.

"Bad Blood"

As I said previously, the story of the "Shootout at Chariot Canyon" remains a mystery in terms of the exact details of what really happened that fateful day since it was Gustav Hudson's friends and family who were the only ones who lived to tell the tale to authorities. After the gunsmoke cleared, both Chris Zerbe and "Joe" Lopes were dead or dying. Based on my own research of the incident (and there is little in the way of exact information to be gleaned since sources are sketchy) there seems to have been some past "bad blood" between Hudson and Zerbe that indirectly involved lode claim owner Benjamin Haimes, Zerbe's employer. Haimes was apparently sick and tired of "trespassers" (we'll come back to this trespass issue later) on his hard-rock claim that included the old "Ready Relief" and "Hubbard" Mines. This is one reason he hired Chris Zerbe to watch over his claim or claims. Hudson, on the other hand, was a recreational (my descriptor) placer gold miner who apparently held valid paperwork on a placer claim adjacent to or just below Benjamin Haimes's claim. According to a letter written after the shootout by the San Diego District Attorney (DA) to then San Diego County Sheriff John Duffy, there seems to have been some prior bickering and confusion about claim access among Hudson, Zerbe, and Haimes. According to the San Diego County DA, this unpleasantness had been ostensibly resolved by a prior written agreement reached by both Chris Zerbe and Gustav Hudson about access to Chariot Canyon, but most specific in the document was Hudson's agreeing to "stay off property mined by others" (an exact quote from the written agreement).

(Canyon in the Julian-Banner Mining District.)

Protecting Another's Interests

The biggest bone of contention, however, seems to have been the locked wrought iron gate that allowed access into Chariot Canyon at the horseshoe bend along Highway 78 just east of the old mining town of Julian. Who held ultimate control of that locked gate is up for debate, but again, I think it was  the U.S. Forest Service since Chariot Canyon and its mines were public (that is, Bureau of Land Management [BLM] land). Again, there are numerous instances where claim owners must pick up and return keys that open locks to areas under BLM control, but those keys are usually held by rangers, not BLM bureaucrats. However, any claim owner with the slightest initiative would probably have a copy of just such a key made for themselves (I'm not suggesting this, just throwing it out there). At any rate, when Gustav Hudson and his family and friends pulled up to enter Chariot Canyon that day, he did not have an access key and apparently had somehow "called ahead" to have Chris Zerbe meet him at the entrance gate so Zerbe could open the gate and allow the Hudson party in. From what I can gather, Zerbe held a key to the gate since he was "protecting" his employer's interests on a daily basis, or nearly so. (As an aside, at one point in the early to mid-1980s I myself arrived at this gated entrance to Chariot Canyon and found it locked tighter than a drum so I turned around and headed back to a spot I knew I could work along Banner Creek near Julian. In hindsight, it's probably fortunate that I turned around and left that day rather than forcing some sort of issue or sneaking in by foot to Chariot Canyon. Who knows?)

(Water can be scarce for placer mining in Chariot Canyon.)

Copious Amounts of Alcohol?

Anyway, when Gustav Hudson and his party arrived at Chariot Canyon in multiple vehicles and carrying an assortment of weapons, including Hudson's AK-47 and a machine pistol, they found Zerbe and Lopes sitting in a pickup truck on the other side of the gate. Right from the start things didn't go well. Zerbe refused to open the gate at first and apparently went into some sort of rant that parroted his employer's (Benjamin Haimes) views on claim "trespassers." Zerbe was also quoted as saying "You don't go in here!" This antagonism on the part of Chris Zerbe was undoubtedly fueled in part by copious amounts of alcohol that both he and his buddy "Joe" Lopes had already consumed that morning (by 11:00-12:00 a.m. anyway, the general time frame of the shootout). After their deaths, San Diego County Coroner's Office toxicology tests revealed that Zerbe and Lopes had respective blood-alcohol amounts of .11 and .10 in their bloodstreams. The standard driving under the influence (DUI) limit in most (all?) U.S. states nowadays is .08. So Zerbe and Lopes may not have been staggering drunk during the time of the incident but they had done their best to get an early start on things that Memorial Day in 1989. On the other hand, nothing in the documentation of this sad affair mentions members of Gustav Hudson's party drinking when they arrived at the locked gate to Chariot Canyon. Remember, Hudson had brought his wife and kids along that day, as well as his younger brother, Luis. In a later deposition to San Diego County Sheriff's deputies, Luis stated "I think he (Zerbe) was drunk," while another member of the Hudson party said he saw empty beer cans scattered about in the bed of Zerbe's truck. Hudson, a painting contractor working out of his home, also stated that he thought the two men had been drinking but that he "didn't pay much attention to it" because he was accustomed to dealing with painters and construction workers "who are drunk all the time on the job." Hudson went on to state: "When you do contracting work there's always disputes and somebody brings a gun, you know, and makes threats." (Really? I used to do contract house painting and tile setting work back in my younger days and never saw a gun drawn by a co-worker!)

(An awful mixture.)

"Go On, Get In"

According to Hudson and members of his party there was more yelling and antagonism from Zerbe with Lopes chipping in his two-cents' worth. This included both Zerbe and Lopes shouting that "We'll stay out of your stream if you stay out of our hole!" Obviously, this meant that the Hudson party should stick to their placer claim and not approach the old mines or structures around the "Ready Relief" or Hubbard" hard-rock mines that Zerbe was caretaker of. Hudson then said the following: "I told him (Zerbe) exactly where we'd be and they (Zerbe and Lopes) said 'Don't go over there by the cabin.' I said we won't. We wouldn't be in their mines or doing anything like that. We'd be using the sluice. So they, you know, knew exactly what we'd be doing." Hudson then showed Zerbe and Lopes his placer claim paperwork, later stating "I showed him (Zerbe) the claim. He calmed down, moved his truck, and said 'Go on, get in.'" Now this sounds as if everything was settled but from what I can determine things went south shortly after the gate to Chariot Canyon was opened allowing the Hudson party through. Exactly what occurred will never be known (at least from the Zerbe/Lopes side of things), I guess, but Gustav Hudson claims he heard a shot fired toward his group from inside the pick up where Chris Zerbe and "Joe" Lopes were seated. Hudson goes on to say that he grabbed his semi-auto AK-47 and returned fire, along with certain members of his group. What type of weapon or weapons were used by Zerbe or Lopes remains unknown to me, but Hudson stated he heard a second shot fired from the pick up and then things escalated into a one-sided, but full-fledged firefight that ended in a matter of moments. However, in that brief time period over 40 rounds were fired from Hudson and his group into Zerbe's truck. The truck door then opened and Zerbe fell out onto the ground, mortally wounded. Lopes took rounds through the head and chest and was killed instantly. The "Shootout at Chariot Canyon" was over.

(Cross and rock monument at the site of the killings in Chariot Canyon.)

In my final post on this incident, we'll see what the San Diego DA had to say about the incident and why he chose not to prosecute Gustav Hudson or any member of his party. We'll also take a look at some issues that stand out in this sad incident and hopefully get a good grip on some lessons that can be learned from it.

See you then.

(c) Jim Rocha 2018

Questions? E-mail me at jr872vt90@yahoo.com


  1. Very interesting story here Jim. If you had not dated this, it could easily be a story from the Old West or maybe Roaring '20's !
    There was a similar shooting here in the Old West about ten miles up the road from me. Someone put up a gate on a drive trail used by cattle and sheep men. He refused to let them through unless they paid a toll fee...….
    They paid in lead.....

    1. Good point Gary. Without a date this incident is reminiscent of shootouts in the Old West.


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