True Crime: The Murder of William Brown

By Brian K. Crawford

William Brown was born in Zanesville, Ohio, in 1825. Around 1847 he moved to Missouri and lived there for five years, during which he met and married 15-year-old Sarah Cole. In 1853, three days after their marriage, they took a wagon train to California and settled at Pine Grove in Sierra County. In 1854 they had a daughter Margaret. A year later they moved to San Antonio Township in far northern Marin County. They bought a 1,300-acre ranch on Chileno Valley Road. Over the next fifteen years, Sarah gave William eight more children, though three died in early childhood. The ranch did well, and the family prospered. By 1876, when William was 50, their children ranged in age from Emma at 16 down to Edgar Allen Poe Brown, just 6.

On Saturday, October 21, 1876, William Brown drove his two-horse buggy the nine miles to Petaluma, where he sold his ranch produce. He must have made a profitable sale, because when he started for home that afternoon he was carrying more than $70 in gold and silver — worth more than $3,400 today.

He drove out Western Avenue and turned left onto Chileno Valley Road. Apparently his success put him in a good mood, because he stopped at Charles Bowman’s Dairyman Saloon around 4 PM. Among the other patrons at the time were two men in their early 20s — a California-born Chilean named Juan Salazar and Andronico Yguerra, a Native American. Brown seemed to be in excellent spirits. He displayed three gold coins and bought a round of drinks for the house, and later a second. Around 5 PM, now a bit drunk, Brown said he had to get home. As he was climbing into his buggy, Salazar and Yguerra came out of the saloon. Salazar said he was going Brown’s way and Brown offered him a lift. Yguerra went the other direction.

At 5:45, Brown and Salazar arrived at Wallace’s Laguna House Saloon, near where Salazar was living. They stopped in for another round of drinks. Brown became quite intoxicated and invited Salazar to come home with him. Salazar agreed and left, saying he just wanted to go get his coat. Brown waited a while, but when Salazar did not return, gave up and resumed his drive alone.

Juan Salazar went to the home of a friend, Alex Martin. Salazar said he wanted to visit a friend, Cedro Bojorques, and Martin loaned him a horse. Meanwhile, Yguerra had borrowed a horse from Ignacio Howe. Just after six o’clock, they both rode off south, the way Brown had driven.

They caught up to Brown’s buggy at seven o’clock, just as he crossed the bridge over San Antonio Creek and entered Marin County, less than a mile from his house. Salazar threw his lariat and caught it around Brown’s neck. He checked his horse, dragging Brown out of the vehicle onto the road. Yguerra held the horses while Salazar searched the dazed rancher and took the remaining money from him. Brown screamed for help, but Salazar struck him a heavy blow on the head with his revolver. Then he pulled out a dagger and stabbed Brown four times in the chest, killing him instantly. Salazar and Yguerra searched the body, taking a gold watch and chain and even stripping off his wedding ring. Knowing that these items might be recognized, they wrapped the watch, chain and ring in a bandanna and buried it in the bank of the creek to retrieve later. They tied Brown’s team to a fence and rode hurriedly back toward Petaluma.

Map showing locations of William Brown’s home, the Dairyman’s Saloon, and the Laguna Saloon, along Chileno Valley Road, near the Marin and Sonoma County line.

Around 7 PM, William Brown’s son Peter heard screams from the road. A moment later a friend, P. Zamarini, arrived to tell Peter he saw a team and buggy tethered to the fence by the bridge and thought it was his father’s. Peter and several others rushed out to the road. Seeing the team, he ran to the spot. The rig was empty. By now it was dark, and they spread out to search for Brown. Forty yards toward the house Peter found his father’s bloody and lifeless body sprawled in the ditch.

Sonoma County Sheriff Edward Latapie arrived to investigate early Sunday morning with ex-Marshal James Knowles. They interviewed the landlords at the two saloons and heard that Brown had flaunted his money at both and that the Chileno and the Indian had been seen to follow him out. Within hours he had arrested Yguerra and the next day, after a pursuit to Marshal’s Landing on Tomales Bay and back, Salazar was picked up. Upon questioning, Salazar and Yguerra first denied any involvement. But as more witnesses arrived to fill in the details of their movements that night, a strong net of circumstantial evidence tightened around them. After hours of interrogation, Salazar made a full confession. He told Knowles where the remaining loot could be found, and led him right to it. When he heard this, Yguerra also confessed, though each man said the other had committed the actual murder.

Feeling in town ran high. William Brown was a wealthy and popular citizen and much admired for his kindness and sense of the right. Indignant people gathered outside the jail, muttering about stringing up the two suspects. Sheriff Latapie posted extra guards around the jail.

But a question of jurisdiction arose. After examining evidence at the murder scene, it was determined the crime had been committed a few yards within Marin County. Marin County Sheriff James Tunstead went to Petaluma to transport Salazar and Yguerra to the San Rafael jail, located in the basement of the courthouse on Fourth Street. This turned out to be more complicated than expected.

As the Marin Journal reported on October 26:

Meantime, the excitement among the populace grew more and more intense, and a formidable plot was evidently being worked up to lynch the scoundrels. Some of the most prominent men in both counties seemed to be implicated, and it grew so serious that Sheriff Tunstead found it would be necessary to resort to strategy to get away with his prisoners. The officers found themselves, as soon as their labors in discovering the assassins were about ended, confronted with a more serious difficulty — to keep them out of the hands of a mob. The reason of this was, that San Antonio township, almost equally with Tomales Bay, has suffered the outrages of lawless villains for a long series of years; and this most brutal murder of a prominent citizen was a little too much for human nature to bear. On Tuesday, and Tuesday evening, the places where the men were confined were surrounded by crowds, of all classes, evidently eager to relieve the officers of their men. In this dilemma, Mr. Tunstead made arrangements to slip the prisoners out by back ways, run them away from the main street and a piece down toward the Haystack, where a carriage was to overtake them, and bring them to San Rafael. With the assistance of the other officers, he succeeded in this, and late on Tuesday night they were all safely lodged in the County Jail at this place. Mr. Knowles came down with our Sheriff, to assist him. Mr. Tunstead accords all praise to Mr. Knowles, who has no superior as a detective on this coast.

The funeral of the unfortunate man was attended by a vast concourse of his neighbors and friends, and his family have the heartfelt sympathy of the entire community, in their unspeakable affliction. He was buried at Two Rock, on Monday [October 23]. The examination of the prisoners will take place before Justice Hughes, on Saturday next.

William Brown’s gravesite at Two Rock Presbyterian Church Cemetery, Sonoma County

On October 28th, one week after the murder, Salazar and Yguerra were examined by Justice William S. Hughes. The men were offered legal counsel but refused it. After hearing testimony from a number of witnesses Judge Hughes said, without a moment’s hesitation, “I will hold them to answer for murder before the Grand Jury.”

While the case was moving through the legal system, Brown’s widow Sarah petitioned Judge Joseph Almy for a letter of administration to authorize her to serve as executor of her husband’s estate. She was required to file a bond equal to the estimated value of the estate, which was determined to be $90,000 (about $2.5 million today). She posted the bonds and received the letter on November 30.

On December 14, the Grand Jury indicted both men on a charge of murder, without bail. The next day an article appeared in the Marin Journal stating that “Master G[lenn] A. Wallace, a lad not 14 years of age, arrested the Indian who is now indicted for the murder of William Brown. Young Wallace traced up the points himself, and made the arrest, being assisted in putting on the handcuffs by Fred Kuhule. He has frequently distinguished himself before by his deeds of bravery and quick wit. He will get half the reward offered by the Governor if the party is convicted.” (A few days later the Journal reported that Detective Kuhule actually made the arrest).

Marin County Courthouse, which sat at the corner of Fourth and A Streets in San Rafael. The County Jail was located in the basement. Anne T. Kent California Room Collection.

Yguerra’s case went to trial on Monday, March 26, 1877, with District Attorney Bowers appearing for the prosecution and Hepburn Wilkins for the defense. The landlords of the two saloons testified, as did the men who loaned horses to Salazar and Yguerra. Peter Brown told the details of his finding of his father’s body. After three days of testimony, the jury convicted Yguerra of murder. On April 4th, Yguerra’s attorneys argued for a mistrial, saying the jury did not specify the degree of the murder. The charge was reduced to second-degree murder and Andronico Yguerra was sentenced to twenty years in prison.

Salazar’s trial started the next day, March 29th, under District Judge Jackson Temple. As the Marin Journal reported on April 5th:

The public manifested deep interest in the case, and the attendance of spectators was large. Alex. Campbell. Sr., assisted District Attorney Bowers in the prosecution, and H. Wilkins, Esq., conducted the defence. The prisoner occupied a chair beside his counsel, and nothing in his appearance would indicate to a stranger the part he sustained in the trial. He is a young man, apparently about 25; 6 feet high, straight, broad shouldered, and of athletic build, his features are good; forehead projecting, but not high; nose Roman, eyes dark and piercing, hair black, neatly cut and brushed, and beard full. His profile appearance is prepossessing, and even imposing; but the front view of his face dispels this good impression, and suggests a weak mind. A silly smile played about his mouth during the trial, and he assumed an appearance of indifference, sometimes bordering on the defiant.

Witnesses testified to seeing two men riding north across the San Antonio Creek bridge just after the time of the murder. Others said they knew Salazar always carried a double-edged dagger with a pearl handle. The medical examiner reported that the wounds were inflicted by a double-edged blade exactly matching Salazar’s dagger. Others said Salazar and Yguerra paid off some debts and bought rounds of drinks the day after the murder when they had been broke the day before.

Salazar took the stand and said he had gotten the money from selling some quail he had shot. He tried to put all the blame on Andronico Yguerra.

The jury took less than twenty minutes to reach a verdict: guilty of murder in the first degree, with no recommendation for mercy. At the sentencing the next day, Salazar’s attorney Hepburn Wilkins filed a motion for a mistrial, but it was denied. Judge Temple said:

Juan Salazar, although I have no doubt of your guilt of this offense, and that you have committed the crime; yet it is with unmixed feelings of pity and compassion that I am compelled to be the mouthpiece of the law in passing upon you its present judgment. I think you have had a fair and impartial trial.

To me it seems your fate is inevitable. I think there can be no other hope for you; no other labor for you in this world, than to prepare yourself as diligently as may be for the great change which must come to you soon. And I beseech you to indulge in no delusive hope, but, so far as possible for you to prepare yourself for that dreadful death.

In pursuance of the verdict of the jury rendered in this case, it is the judgment of this court that you are guilty of murder in the first degree. And the sentence is that you be committed to the Sheriff of Marin county, to be by him confined in the jail of said county; thence to be taken on some day to be hereafter fixed in the warrant to be issued for your execution, and that within the walls of the jail of said county, or jail yard, or some other suitable place in said county, you be hung by the neck until you are dead. And may Heaven have mercy upon you.

That same evening, Yguerra tried to commit suicide by cutting his throat with a knife he somehow obtained. But the knife was very dull and the operation so painful that he gave it up and he was sent to prison with a bandaged throat.

On April 28, Judge Temple set Salazar’s execution for May 31st. On May 16th, Salazar filed a complaint with the sheriff against his partner Yguerra and Sebrian “Veto” Galindo, saying the three of them murdered an old man named McKnight at Tomales Bay four years earlier. Salazar provided many details of the robbery and murder, but when Sheriff Tunstead investigated, he determined that Salazar had been in jail in Santa Rosa the day the murder was committed. No one was charged.

Preparations for the hanging were begun. There was talk of saving the cost of building a scaffold at the jail by borrowing a gallows from Sacramento that had already been used to hang two men. But Sheriff Tunstead hired local carpenter George W. Bond to build a firm and substantial scaffold just outside the west door of the courthouse. He also built a 20-foot-high board fence enclosing all the space between the fences and the sidewalk on Fifth Street.

On Thursday, May 31st, as the Marin Journal reported:

The public interest to witness the launching of a man into eternity was very great. About 200 invitations were issued by the Sheriff, and about 175 were present in the inclosure; while the high hill back of town, which commanded a full view of the scene, was covered with people, the female element predominating.

The reporters were accommodated with places on the porch, close to the scaffold. Dr. Christie of Petaluma and Dr. A. W. Taliaferro were in professional attendance.

At exactly a quarter past one o’clock, the prisoner was brought to the scaffold, attended by the Rev. Father Cassin and Sheriff Tunstead, and followed on to the scaffold by Judge Almy, P. K. Austin, Wm. Wallace, Sheriff Wright, of Sonoma, Deputy Sheriffs Rotche and Lynch, and several other gentlemen. He walked on with a firm step, and seemed neither to show bravado or timidity; the expression of his face was troubled, but resigned, and his eyes had the appearance of long weeping.

The Sheriff then read the death warrant, and asked Salazar if he had anything to say before his execution. The prisoner simply turned to Father Cassin, who then read the following statement:

“I acknowledge that I took part in the murder of Wm. Brown, last October. I now offer up my life in atonement for this crime. When I committed it I was under the influence of liquor. I say this not to excuse my guilt, but to show that intemperance brought me to my ruin. I now retract my false statements made during my trial or afterwards.

“I beg pardon of Almighty God for all my sins.

“I ask pardon of all those persons whom I have injured. I entreat them to forgive me, as I forgive those who have injured me. I desire to die at peace with God and with all men. I am sorry for the bad example I have given.

“I return thanks to the Sheriff and other persons who were so kind to me while I was in prison.

“I earnestly request all good Christians to pray for me.

“With great sorrow for all my sins, and with confidence in the Divine mercy, I confide my soul into the hands of Almighty God.”

Juan (X) Salazar

May 31, 1877

The straps were then tightly adjusted about his body and hands, and while this was being done, he asked the Sheriff for a glass of whisky, which was given him, and he drank it with apparent relish. He then asked for the cap to be put over his face. The noose was then placed around his neck, the black cap drawn over his face, the Sheriff and his assistants stepped off of the drop. Salazar said in a loud, firm voice. “Good bye, Sheriff.” The Sheriff answered. “Good bye, John,” the drop fell, and the body of Juan Salazar was suspended. There was not a motion of the body after it fell, not by even the slightest muscular action of any kind.

In a few moments Drs. Taliaferro, Christie and Pelham took places on steps by the body, and at the end of 15 minutes pronounced it dead. Exactly 18 minutes after the fall, the body was lowered into a coffin. The neck was broken. The coffin was closed up, and taken in charge by Coroner Eden.

The arrangements for the execution were simply perfect. The city reporters and fellow officers were loud in praise of the manner in which Sheriff Tunstead performed the unusual and unpleasant duty.

Opinion is divided on the merits of public executions. We have them all private — that is screened from the view of the crowd — in deference to the sentiment that such exhibitions are demoralizing, by making the people familiar with scenes of blood, and so lessening the popular estimation of the value of human life. A great many people wanted to witness the execution of Salazar, and we believe that, considering the record of high crimes committed in this county in the last two decades, the effect would have been salutary had the execution been open to all who chose to see it.

Be that as it may, the event will be productive of untold good. When we recall the facts of the murder of William Brown, we can but believe that the horrid crime is directly traceable to the immunity which murderers have so long enjoyed in this section. There was very slight motive for the deed, and if Salazar and Yguerra had ever had their dark minds impressed with the idea that murder was sometimes followed by hanging in this county, their bloody hands would have been stayed, and their victim would still be alive.

The conclusion is apparent. The public pulse beats more naturally. An old man may sleep in his cabin on Tomales Bay, or a peddler boy pursue his way on the Bolinas road, without fear of assassination [referring to two recent Marin murders]. Compared with this, the punishment of the individual, Salazar, is a small factor in the sum. And it is for this reason that the hanging of a young man on Thursday produced no feeling of horror in the community, and was talked of almost without a shadow of regret.

Sarah Cole Brown Ward, Courtesy of Cindy Millikan, Ancestry.com

In 1878, William Brown’s widow Sarah married George Franklin Ward. She was 38, he was 22. They built a new two-story home that was considered a showplace and much admired. On June 12, 1883, while the family was at church, a fire started in the kitchen and the house was totally destroyed. It was only partially insured. She died at age 66 in Petaluma in 1906 and was buried in Two Rock.

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