Young Keno: Manhunt

Part two of three

Keno Wilson
  • Keno Wilson

As he cradled his brother in his arms, Keno Wilson howled for help in the fog-shrouded darkness. John Murray had ridden up and shot Charley point blank in the chest. Charley wouldn’t stop bleeding.

Two lanterns bobbed in from the night: Lewis Rideout and Robert Porter. Once Keno’s eyes adjusted to the glare, Charley was a black pool.

“It was Murray!”

The men ran to wake up Oceanside. Shouts echoed. Lights flickered like fireflies. Boots thumped the wooden sidewalk and crunched the dirt on Cleveland Street. Dr. Harrison E. Stroud came up and froze. He saw “so much blood pouring out of the windpipe,” there was no question. Charley was dead.

A posse formed. They were after a 23-year-old male, five-foot-eight, brown hair — long on top, close-cropped on the sides — and small, restless eyes. He wore a brown coat, blue overalls, and “number 4’s,” low-heeled cowboy boots. He had a .44 caliber Smith & Wesson. Last seen on a wounded horse hobbling east up Third.

By sunrise, rumor spread that Murray now had a good horse, a Winchester rifle, two revolvers, and ammunition. Someone helped him get away.

Marshal Charles Wilson died shortly after midnight, July 4, 1889. Instead of celebrating Independence Day, Oceanside looked like a war zone. Flags flew at half-mast; armed men, “all fearfully in earnest,” picked up supplies and headed out.

“Long before nine o’clock,” wrote the Los Angeles Times correspondent, “every saddle-horse available was in demand, and almost every man that could do duty was out in search of the murderer.”

Those unable to join the hunt provided guns and mounts. “The whole county is up in arms; every pass over the line is guarded, and if he is hiding in the mountains he must come out for something to eat or ammunition.”

That day, 12 men came from Fallbrook, 5 from Escondido, 4 from Encinitas, 5 from Elsinore. The Los Angeles Police Department sent its famous bloodhounds on a special southbound train. Marshal George T. Insley flagged it down near Santa Ana. He loaded his horse onto an express car and told the engineer to “highball it” to Oceanside.

“I verily believe they will not bring Murray back alive,” wrote the Times correspondent, “such is the indignation of the people.”

By that afternoon, the County Board of Supervisors offered a $500 reward “dead or alive.” By the next morning, other donations bumped it to $1300.

Keno and his brother James led the official manhunt. They went to Ben Hubbard’s ranch in the San Luis Rey Valley. Ben was Murray’s uncle. He hadn’t seen Murray, he said. When the Wilsons returned several hours later, Ben said Murray stopped by, “got his breakfast and was gone again.”

There was no thought of abetting a fugitive: Murray was Ben’s kin, true, but he was also armed and acting antsy. The Wilsons posted guards at Ben’s.

John Henry Myers climbed to an overlook of the San Luis Rey Valley. Through field glasses he saw someone resembling Murray “walking up the hill back of [Ben] Hubbard’s ranch,” to the north, “and carrying something in his hand.”

When news reached the Wilsons, Keno and James tramped down circles of grass on Richard O’Neill’s Santa Margarita Ranch. No trace. Throughout the search, wrote the South Oceanside Diamond, the Wilsons were “on the chase night and day, and have scarcely taken time to eat or sleep.”

On Saturday, county sheriff Sam McDowell rode an express train to Oceanside with 12 men “armed to the teeth” — Springfield rifles, revolvers, shotguns — “and breathing revenge at every step.” Just as a dozen others joined them at the depot, word came that Murray reached the Santa Rosa Mountains way to the east. Telegrams to Poway and Temecula: Comb the Santa Rosas! Get Pala Indian scouts to help!

If Murray got that far, wrote the Times, “his capture would be next to impossible.”

Murray never made it to the Santa Rosas. At 9:00 p.m., July 8, a rider galloped into Oceanside: Murray’s at “Old John” Griffin’s place in the San Luis Rey Valley, seven miles away. Keno organized a posse. As he rode off, people could tell that Murray would not return alive.

Thomas Weller, a deputy constable — and the San Diego City (dog) Poundmaster — was in Oceanside at the time. Fearing vigilante justice, he sent a telegram to police chief Joseph Coyne: Murray sighted. “Terrible excitement. Send men at once. Meet team on Poway Road. Parties leaving to catch and lynch him.”

Coyne assembled a posse and rode north to stop lawmen — official, deputized, and self-appointed — from breaking the law.

After breakfast at his uncle’s on July 4, Murray climbed a hill and ducked under the Santa Margarita Ranch fence. He hid out four days and four nights. He only saw two people the whole time: Keno and his brother, smashing down tall grass. Murray ran out of food and water. The summer sun blazed down. The rumor said he was heavily armed. No. He only had one cartridge left.

At dusk on July 8, he crept to “old man” Griffin’s near Mission San Luis Rey. He hid in a grove of eucalyptus trees, then snuck up the hill to the barn.

Griffin was in the vineyard, finishing his chores. Charley Saylor, one of his hands, ran up: “Murray’s in the stable. Go see!”

Saylor burst into the house, made a frantic search for a weapon: Murray once had threatened his life.

Griffin walked up the hill to the barn. He peered into the darkness. Saw nothing, at first, then a rail-thin, trembling shadow. “Who are you, anyway?” Griffin asked. No answer. He stepped inside.

He recognized Murray. “Hello, John. What’re you doing here? Where you been?”

“Oh, nothing much,” the red-eyed Murray replied, his right hand on his pistol. “I been at O’Neill’s pasture, over by the windmill.”

“Lot of people looking for you.” By then, at least 100, one of the largest manhunts in county history, for one of the biggest rewards. Murray coiled his fingers on the Smith & Wesson.

Griffin raised his hands. “No, John! I don’t have arms. I won’t try to take you. But you can’t escape. It’s too late. Men’re surrounding the place right now.”

Griffin saw a “hunted look” in Murray’s eyes. Griffin also noticed green smears across the mouth, like on a cow. Murray’d been eating grass.

“Aren’t you almost starved, John?”

“Yes, I am.”

“Then come to the house and get some supper.”

At first Murray refused. But when Griffin started back down the hill, he followed. On the way, Murray asked how many were hunting him.

“The county’s full of ’em,” said Griffin. “Don’t know of any place where they aren’t.”

“What have I done, anyway?” asked Murray.

“You killed Charley Wilson!”

At those words, Griffin recalled, Murray’s shoulders slumped. As if he almost didn’t remember what happened.

“There’s no possibility of escape,” said Griffin. “Telegraph wires all across the county’re talking about you. Even worse: John — get caught an’ you will not last 10 minutes. You will be riddled with bullets — or lynched.”

Griffin paused. “Come and get some supper.” They walked toward a light in the distance.

Murray saw a plate full of food on the table. But he wouldn’t eat until he could wash his hands and face. Then he devoured every morsel.

“It did me good to see a hungry man eat,” said Griffin. “And I jokingly asked him how he liked the food.”

Murray nodded eagerly.

During the meal, Griffin’s son, “young” John, came up to the house. When he saw Murray through a window, John raced to Simon Goldbaum’s general store about a mile away. A man saddled a fresh horse and took the news to Oceanside. Young John and Alfred Paden rode back to Griffin’s to arrest the outlaw.

Old John kept urging Murray to surrender, go to San Diego. “You could find protection and a fair trial under the law.” Griffin swore his hired hands would drive Murray safely through gauntlets of vigilantes eager to string him up or gun him down.

Murray deliberated. He didn’t come to turn himself in. But, Griffin recalled later, Murray said, “If all that’s true, then there’s no show for me.”

Young John and Paden entered the house, guns drawn. But old John waved them off. “He’ll go to San Diego and surrender!”

By 9:00 p.m., Paden, C.L. Martin, Charley Saylor, and young John hitched teams of horses to two spring wagons — light, big-wheeled, all-purpose vehicles.

When Murray climbed onboard, he still had his weapon. Young John, whose life Murray had also threatened, said, “I won’t travel to San Diego with an armed man.”

Murray handed over the revolver. Young John knew it might come in handy if a firefight broke out in the dead of night.

“When Murray surrendered his pistol,” young John said at the trial, “he was anxious to get to San Diego.” Old John didn’t go. Knowing Wilson’s gang was on their way, he stayed up to give them the news. When they hadn’t come by 11:00 he went to bed. They woke him around midnight. “Murray surrendered,” Griffin told maybe two dozen men. “Gone to San Diego three hours ago.”

The search party turned and rode off. As they passed the yard fence, they drew and fired into the air, enough racket for the Fourth of July, and galloped toward the coast, even more determined to “bring Murray to Oceanside.”

The volleys were “very annoying,” said Griffin at the trial, “as it frightened my daughter, who was very ill at the time.”

A spring wagon ­— the box body hung on a platform of springs — was sturdy, fast, and dependable. Possibly since Murray had threatened both of their lives, young John and Saylor rode in the lead wagon, Paden and Martin behind, with Murray curled up on the rear seat-board. “In the neighborhood of 50 times,” he begged them not to give him to the mob.

Along with Wilson’s crew, clusters of hunters could be waiting on the two main roads and the outskirts of every town. Anyone riding a wagon late that night could be in for a lethal surprise. So Griffin took old trails to Vista, San Marcos, and then southeast. He didn’t care how narrow or bumpy the road, the more out-of-the-way the better, as long as it was far from any lights. They drove all night, often at a crawl, alert to every noise or suspicious shadow.

Wilson’s posse took the coast road — old King’s Highway — and rode hard to make up for the three lost hours. Around 9:00 a.m., they reached Mission Valley and stopped to rest their horses. Someone suggested they “check out” the valley.

Wilson said no; there was no way they could’ve outrun the wagons. So the group broke up and made the slow trek north.

“Had they acted on the man’s advice,” wrote the Union, “or even waited 30 minutes, they would have had their man.” The wagons came down Old Mission Canyon Road “a little later, and drove to the courthouse uninterrupted.”

They arrived Tuesday, July 9 at 11:00 a.m., and locked Murray in the jail’s innermost cell. He didn’t look like a desperado, people were surprised to see. A man was “disappointed” that he dressed like a “suspender peddler” and had such “uncertain eyes.” Murray had cowered and tried to hide behind his captors as they led him to the jail. One said he’d never “have the nerve to commit murder without being full of liquid inspiration.”

At the trial, young John said Murray “was the worst scared man I ever saw.”

Next time: Marshal Wilson Gets His Man


1.) San Diego Union: “Thirty minutes after closing the door on the murderer, John Griffin got the reward money.”

2.) Los Angeles Times: “The only thing to be regretted is that Murray was not brought to Oceanside.”

3.) Pliny Castanian: “Keno didn’t talk about it. But his friends said his brother’s death haunted him all his life.”


Castanian, Pliny, To Protect and Serve: A History of the San Diego Police Department and Its Chiefs (San Diego, 1993).

Hawthorne, Kristi, Oceanside: Where Life Is Worth Living (Virginia Beach, 2000); interview.

Lyons, Matthew J, Images of America: Oceanside Police Department (San Francisco, 2006).

Ribbel, Arthur, “A Lawman’s Lawman Stood Tall for Order and Decency,” San Diego Union, May 16, 1982.

Rush, Philip S., Some Old Ranchos and Adobes (San Diego, 1965).

Articles in San Diego Union, San Diego Herald, South Oceanside Diamond, Oceanside Blade, The Oceanside Vidette, Los Angeles Times, Sacramento Daily Union.

Trial transcript, San Diego History Center; Coroner’s inquest, Oceanside Historical Society.

Young Keno: Part 1 | < href="http://www.sandiegoreader.com/news/2014/nov/26/unforgettable-keno-3/">Part 3

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