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Did horrendous slayings trap the spirits of killers and their prey on the grounds of Mission San Miguel? 

Of greed and gore

click to enlarge SHEEP CHUTE Mission San Miguel remains much as it was during the Wild West, like this old chute where sheep were brought in to be shorn. - PHOTO BY GLEN STARKEY
  • Photo By Glen Starkey
  • SHEEP CHUTE Mission San Miguel remains much as it was during the Wild West, like this old chute where sheep were brought in to be shorn.

Editor's note: New Times contributor Anna Starkey helped research this reimagined story from various historical accounts—including James Pierson Beckwourth's The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth, Myron Angel's History of San Luis Obispo County, and Wally Ohles' The Lands of Mission San Miguel, among others—many of which contradict one another.

Some say ghosts linger because they didn't have a chance to finish their earthly business, they're simply unaware they're dead, or they were torn so violently out of their lives they can't see the light and don't know to cross over. Perhaps the latter explains the strange spectral sounds and sightings at Mission San Miguel where nearly 169 years ago, California recorded its first mass murder, where men, women, children, and even an unborn baby met their gruesome end at the blades of an axe, knife, and sword. Read on ... if you dare.

The murders

Sam Bernard shuffled through the door with an armload of wood, shutting the door behind him with his foot. He exchanged a knowing look with his native companion, John, then dropped the wood by the cook fire and snatched the axe hidden within and swung it smartly at the back of William Reed's head.

Thunk!

The axe sounded and felt like it was hitting a wet log. Bernard thought it would bite like chopping into a dry tree, but the axe recoiled and twisted in his hand, maybe because Reed was wearing a thick felt hat, so Bernard re-gripped and swung again as John drew a knife from his waistband and plunged it into Reed, whose face and neck ran red with blood and brain matter.

As Reed fell, John continued to stab, slashing through Reed's nose and cheek. It happened so unexpectedly that Reed never made so much as a yelp. Bernard, John, and their four companions looked grimly at each other, then Peter Raymond grinned wildly, drew his sword from its scabbard, mouthed the word "gold," and led the men further into the rooms of the San Miguel Mission, where they surprised their victims. The murderers dispatched other residents equally brutally as they screamed and begged for mercy. There was no one but their fellow victims to hear their pleas in this desolate stretch of California along the El Camino Real trail.

Raymond was an old hand at killing, having escaped from jail where he'd been locked away for slaying J.R. Pfister at Murphy's Camp. He needed Pfister's gold more than Pfister did, and he needed Reed's gold, too.

click to enlarge SCENE OF THE CRIME William Reed, the first to die, had his head staved in by an axe wielded by Sam Bernard, who hid it in a pile of firewood. - PHOTO BY GLEN STARKEY
  • Photo By Glen Starkey
  • SCENE OF THE CRIME William Reed, the first to die, had his head staved in by an axe wielded by Sam Bernard, who hid it in a pile of firewood.

Reed's wife, Maria Antonia Vallejo, pregnant with her second child, laid her hand across her ripe belly, made the sign of the cross, and turned upward toward God as Raymond's sword flew into her neck. In the low lamplight, her white dress turned black with blood.

Her 4-year-old son looked bewildered, sat silent as his mother slumped to the floor, then he quietly began to cry. Joseph Peter Lynch, a deserter of Gen. Kearney's Ford Leavenworth command, stabbed the boy through his torso, a job made easier by the wine filling Lynch's belly.

Bernard, John, Raymond, and Lynch had joined up with "the Peters," Peter Remer and Peter Quin, as they rode south from the gold fields toward Soledad. The two Peters were deserters from the warship Warren and eager to get as far away as possible, but also penniless. Quin, a recent Irish immigrant, had joined the Warren as a last resort and quickly found he didn't care for the sailor's life or being ordered around by his "betters."

All six were desperate men, and as desperate men are wont to do, they gravitated toward one another, forming a murderous alliance. By the time they were done that cold night on Tuesday, Dec. 5, 1848, they would leave 10 dead—11 if you include Mrs. Reed's unborn baby—including Mrs. Reed's brother Jose Ramon Vallejo, her midwife Josefa Olivera, who was on hand for the impending birth, Josefa's 15-year-old daughter and grandson, the negro cook, the native sheepherder, and his grandson, who as the men ransacked the rooms looking for valuables was found hiding among some boxes.

click to enlarge COCINA This kitchen, staged by mission staff members as part of a self-guided tour, no doubt looks as it did in 1848, when the 10 souls were snuffed out on a cold December night. - PHOTO BY GLEN STARKEY
  • Photo By Glen Starkey
  • COCINA This kitchen, staged by mission staff members as part of a self-guided tour, no doubt looks as it did in 1848, when the 10 souls were snuffed out on a cold December night.

The Indian boy begged for his life, but Bernard grabbed him by his ankles and smashed his head against one of the old church pillars. Then he used his axe to break the locked boxes and trunks in search of the treasure.

"Where the hell is it," Bernard yelled at his companions, who so far had only found some jewelry, a stash of pesos, some silver reales, but not the $200,000 in gold Reed had bragged about.

You see, the men had arrived at Reed's the day before, on Monday, Dec. 4, where they stopped to rest, eat, and drink Reed's wine. They left the next day, traveling south, and as they rode they hatched their plan to return to Reed's and take his gold.

It was a lawless time. Mexico had won its independence from Spain 28 years earlier, and the Mexicans eventually drove out the Catholic padres, secularizing the missions. San Miguel was the last one to sell. Reed bought it from Pio Pico and the Mexican government for $250, in 1846, and made it into a bed and breakfast. Three days later, the U.S. invaded Mexico, winning victory on July 9, 1846, and taking California as a spoil of war.

Reed, an Englishman, was allowed to retain control of the mission, and soon his investment began to pay off when James Marshall discovered gold in Sutter's sawmill in Coloma, setting off the Gold Rush. Travelers regularly stopped for meals and rooms in the crumbling mission. California was then a military territory still two years from statehood.

The six killers were welcomed that Monday night by the loquacious Reed, who agreed to buy gold Raymond and Lynch carried, unaware that they'd killed two miners and stolen their gold dust. Reed told the men he only accepted gold as payment for his accommodations, and that he had so much of it that John, the Indian boy Bernard traveled with, couldn't lift it.

Where was it now? They'd ransacked the various rooms to no avail. Had Reed buried it outside? Was it squirreled away in the rotting ruins of the mission, which had fallen into a sorry state of disrepair, save for the cluster of rooms Reed, his family, and their guests occupied.

The men set about moving the bodies into an old carpenter's shop, where they planned to set them alight, thus destroying evidence of their deed. They all were in that room, having brought eight of the 10 bodies inside, when they heard footsteps outside the door. They froze, hands on weapon hilts as they waited for the door to open, but instead they heard footsteps quietly retreating, then the outer door close, then the sound of a horse riding off.

They threw lamp oil on the bodies, sparked a flame, and took off traveling south, worrying they might be discovered but believing the flames would consume the evidence of their crime.

The escape

"Maybe Reed's business partner Petronilo Rios has the gold stored at his rancho," Bernard yelled behind him to his gang as they rode south toward present-day Templeton where they would later sleep near a house at Rancho El Paso de Robles. "If we have to, we'll kill Rios too! Yah!" Bernard yelled, digging his heels in and spurring on his horse.

Years later, Rios' grandson Leon Gil claimed the men "camped at my grandfather's place at Templeton, with the intention of killing him also, if necessary; in order to secure the gold which they had expected to get at Mr. Reed's. But on account of there were so many Indians about, they were afraid to attempt it."

Rios wasn't harmed, but after the men left, one of the many natives present walked over to their camp and found an earring, and showing it to Don Rios, discovered it was one Mrs. Reed was known to have worn regularly.

It turned out the footsteps heard outside the carpenter's workshop were those of James Pierson Beckwourth, an escaped slave, mountain man, and mail courier, who was running his route from William Dana's Rancho at Nipomo to Monterey. Beckworth stopped as he regularly did at the Reed place, but discovering it quiet, made his way in stealthily, first discovering Reed's bloodied body and then Mrs. Reed. Beckwourth later recounted, "I was about to enter another room, but I was arrested by some sudden thought, which urged me to search no further. It was an opportune admonition, for that very room contained the murderers of the family."

Beckwourth continued northward, where he delivered the mail and reported the murders to the military governor Col. Richard B. Mason. Meanwhile, while traveling south from the gold fields on Wednesday, Dec. 6, John M. Price, alcalde (a kind of mayor and justice of the peace) of San Luis Obispo, traveling with F.Z. Branch, also discovered the bodies. It turns out the fire had smoldered out, and all was as the killers left it—blood and gore throughout, rooms ransacked, Reed and his wife still lying where they were slain.

Price and Branch, who would later have streets named after them for their bravery and good deeds, traveled to Rios' rancho, where they learned of the group of six men and the recovered earring.

On Thursday, Dec. 7, Price signed a document to designate Trifon Garcia to use whatever resources necessary to apprehend the criminals. A posse was formed and began pursuit.

click to enlarge BRAINEDOne of the killers' victims, a young boy, was held by his ankles and smashed against one of the mission's pillars. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • BRAINEDOne of the killers' victims, a young boy, was held by his ankles and smashed against one of the mission's pillars.

Meanwhile, Petronilo Rios helped bury his partner and the other victims in a mass grave, according to Eva C. Iversen, "Just outside the rear door of the sacristy; a little to the southwest and near the old first church wall." The grave is unmarked, but the ancient wall still stands.

On Wednesday, Dec. 6, about "two leagues south" of Mission San Luis Obispo (a bit more than 5 miles), the group of murderers camped near what is now the turnoff to Avila Beach. John the Indian reportedly left the group there.

Next, the group of now five killers went to Rancho Los Alamos and "obtained" four horses, traveled to near Las Cruces, sleeping that night on Thursday, Dec. 7, near Los Dos Pueblos. At this point, they began to relax assuming the evidence of the crime had been burned away.

They passed Santa Barbara late the next evening on Friday, Dec. 8, camping about a mile from town. They were clearly no longer in a rush. On Saturday, Dec. 9, about 11 a.m., they stopped at Rancho Ortega—5 or 6 miles below Santa Barbara—bought something to eat, and didn't leave until around 1 p.m. About a mile further along, the posse met them near what is now Summerland.

The apprehension

One of the killers was spotted in Reed's "conspicuous, blue, brass-buttoned coat." By this point, other citizens from Santa Barbara had joined the posse, having been able to report that the killers had indeed come through the area.

With Cesario Latillade, vice-consul of Spain at Monterey since 1847, leading the charge, the posse—now 37-men-strong—descended on the killers, and a terrible gun battle ensued.

Sam Bernard was shot and mortally wounded by Ramon Rodriguez, who was in turn killed by Bernard. They both died on Ortega Hill overlooking the beach.

Pete Raymond jumped into the surf to escape but drowned in a hail of gunfire. Peter Quin was wounded and captured. Joseph Lynch and Peter Remer were also captured and subsequently confessed to their crimes, naturally placing most of the blame on the two perished members of their gang.

The three survivors were sentenced by a "temporary court" to be hanged, but since California was a military territory of the U.S. and because there were questions about the legitimacy of the so-called court, its findings were presented to Col. Mason in Monterey, who sent Lt. Edward O.C. Ord of the Third Artillery, along with nine soldiers, to Santa Barbara, and the three survivors were executed by firing squad on Thursday, Dec. 18, 1848, near the corner of De la Guerra and Chapala streets. The three were purportedly buried in the Santa Barbara Cemetery, though some accounts say that's unlikely due to their criminal status.

An inventory of the killers' possessions included a cache of 262 silver pesos, seven silver reales, and 1 ounce of gold. Petronilo Rios sent word to Pablo de la Guerra to give the money to the widow of the posse member killed by Sam Bernard.

Epilogue

Cesario Latillade claimed one of the killer's shotguns as his own as a trophy, but was ironically killed by it when he accidently shot himself in 1849.

The San Miguel Mission was returned to the Catholic Church in 1859, though no padre occupied it again until 1878, which is when you start seeing gravestones in the cemetery. All told, more than 2,000 natives would die in service to the mission and are buried on the grounds.

Years later, Mariano Soberanes of the Los Ojitos Rancho, claimed to see an old Indian working at another rancho and swore it was John, Sam Bernard's Salinan Indian companion, but no one knows for sure.

What became of Reed's gold? Did the Catholic Church find it on the mission grounds? More importantly, is Mission San Miguel now haunted? Witnesses have reported a man stepping out of a wall in a Navy pea coat like the one worn by Reed. Some claim to have seen a woman in white covered in blood. Is it the ghost of Mrs. Reed? A little girl told her grandma she saw a little Indian boy who couldn't talk and who had an "owie on his neck." Then there are the reports of nighttime muffled screams of a young woman and the sounds of men running and rummaging for gold.

Of course, most rational people don't go in for that sort of thing. The truth of the murders is horror enough. 

Contact Senior Staff Writer Glen Starkey at gstarkey@newtimesslo.com.


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