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Published on Thursday, March 23, 2012

The Drew Station Stagecoach Robbery

By Gary Every


Located along the banks of the San Pedro River in southern Arizona is the old ghost town of Contention City. Contention City got its name from a disputed mining claim. The largest ruins of what remains of the ghost town are the crumbling adobe walls of the two favorite saloons; The Dewdrop and The Headlight. The main industry in the town was the mill stamp which processed ore from the Tombstone mines. The most famous event in Contention City history took place on March 15, 1881 when four rogue bandits held up a stagecoach, carrying $26,000 in bullion and eight passengers, running the Tombstone to Benson line.

Just outside of Contention City, near an old arroyo, not far from Drew Station, three highway robbers, wearing wigs and false beards, ambushed the stagecoach as it neared a steep incline. The driver, Budd Philpot, refused to stop and the bandits shot him. His corpse fell forward, tumbling from the stagecoach buckboard, and frightening the team of horses. The panicked horses lunged ahead, racing out of control. Bob Paul, a Wells Fargo special agent, was riding shotgun and fired a desperate shot at the attackers, striking Bill Leonard in the groin. The other outlaws, Harry "The Kid" Head and Jim Crane, opened fire - killing a passenger named Pete Roerig.

The stampeding horses continued pulling the stagecoach forward, threatening to tip her off her wheels at any moment. Bob Paul was forced to drop his weapon and leapt on to the tongue connecting the team of horses to the stagecoach. From this precarious position, Paul was able to grab the reins and bring the team of horses under control.

The county sheriff should have been notified immediately but Bob Paul did not trust sheriff Gary Behan; a man known to be a "friend of the cowboy element." Instead, the Wells Fargo agent telegraphed Wyatt Earp, who gathered a posse and set out in search of the outlaws. Earp's posse included his brothers Virgil and Morgan, Bat Masterson, Marshall Williams, and Bob Paul. Sheriff Behan and a deputy followed along in the posse's dust. The posse chased four suspects; Harry Head, Bill Leonard, Jim Crane, and Luther King. The posse quickly captured King who surrendered quietly and confessed even quicker, claiming to have played no role in the attempted stagecoach robbery except to "hold the hosses.'"

Sheriff Behan caught up to the action from behind and demanded that the prisoner be handed over in to his custody as the crime fell within the boundaries of his jurisdiction. Earp and the posse complied cheerfully, dropping off their prisoner and resuming their manhunt of the remaining outlaws. The outlaws managed to flee across the Mexican border before the posse caught up with them. King either escaped from Behan's custody or was released by the sheriff but we do know that at this point Luther King disappears from the history books, perhaps never running afoul of the law ever again.

Earp returned from the search to discover that one of his friends had been arrested. Doc Holliday was arrested by Sheriff Behan on charges that he had masterminded the Drew Station ambush. Holliday had become a suspect because he had been known to frequent a hacienda where the outlaws were encamped a week before the shooting. After Doc and his sometime lover, Kate Elder or Big Nose Kate, had a rather loud and vociferous argument, Sheriff Behan got Ms. Elder intoxicated and while she was under the influence she signed a document accusing her estranged lover of the committing the Drew Station Robbery and murders.

Wyatt Earp quickly bailed out his old pal and convinced his brother Virgil, a town marshal at the time, to lock up Kate until she had a chance to sober up. The next morning a severely hung over Big Nose Kate retracted her confession. All charges were dropped but Doc Holliday found it hard to forgive and the two lovers were never romantically reunited.

The story does not stop here for further misadventures still awaited the stagecoach bandits. Of the remaining desperadoes, Bill Leonard probably had the most colorful history. Leonard was a jeweler and his expertise in assessing value to gold and silver trinkets was considered an invaluable skill to the loosely knit Clanton gang.

Leonard had run a profitable jewelry business in Las Vegas, New Mexico where he had opened a store only a few doors down from the dentistry shop operated by Doc Holliday.

In July of 1881, a small gang of outlaws led by Curly Bill Brocius attempted to rob the Haslett brother's store in Huachita, New Mexico. The brothers, Isaac and William, were quite handy with guns and managed to drive the gang of outlaws away after shooting and killing Harry "The Kid" Head and Bill Leonard. Angered by this show of defiance, Curly Bill ordered Johnny Ringo to sneak back into Huachita and execute the Haslett brothers. The wild era of armed, lawless conflict in Cochise County was to continue for some time but the episode known as the Drew Station Robbery had come to an end.

Gary Every is an award winning journalist, including for stories such as The Apache Naichee and Losing Geronimo's Language. He is the author of Shadow of the OhshaD (OhshaD is a Native american word for jaguar) and Battling the Hydra, a collection of encounters with mostly wild animals. His poetry has been nominated for both Pushcart prizes as well as the Rhysling Award for the years best science fiction poem. His work appears in a variety of magazines such as Arizona Highways, Desert Leaf, Weber Studies, Tales of the Talisman, and many more.

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