The Fountain Murders

Jim Gililland

In 1996, the 100th anniversary of the murders of Col Albert J Fountain and his 8-year-old son, Henry, was commemorated in Hillsboro, NM, near Las Cruces. This unsolved mystery (the bodies were never found) continues to fascinate, and anger, many in southern New Mexico. Two men, Oliver Lee and Jim Gililland, were tried for the murders and exonerated (in less than eight minutes of jury deliberation) in Hillsboro in 1899. Jim Gililland (left) is my great uncle.

Descendants of Fountain are just as sure that Uncle Jim and Oliver Lee were guilty as my relatives are certain that they were not. The Gadsden Museum in Mesilla, also near Las Cruces, honors the Fountains and is run by a descendant, and the Oliver Lee State Park near Alamogordo honors the other side. Several history books have attempted to give all the details. A favorite is Tularosa: Last of the Frontier West by C L Sonnichsen (Devin-Adair, NY, 1960; reissue, University of NM Press, Albuquerque, 1980) that is quite even-handed - at least as measured by my family. A more recent one that comes down heavily for the Fountain side is Pat Garrett: The Story of a Western Lawman by Leon C Metz (University of OK Press, Norman, 1974). Metz spoke at the centennial event and exacerbated the wounds.

Perhaps the last word is The Two Alberts: Fountain and Fall by Gordon R Owen (1996, Yucca Tree Press, 2130 Hixon Drive, Las Cruces, NM 88005). The second Albert is Albert Fall, the attorney who defended Gililland and Lee, and who went on for a big career in Washington DC as a US Senator only to fall when implicated in the infamous Teapot Dome scandal as Secretery of the Interior under Warren Harding. You see there is nothing clear cut about this endless battle. It has the Democrats against the Republicans, the Union against the Confederacy, the Texans against the Mexicans, the cowboys against the Indians, the Territories against the States, and even the city slickers against the country folks. A good story.

Pat Garrett, of Billy the Kid fame, was involved in this case as well. Gililland and Lee refused to give themselves up to Sheriff Garrett for fear of being killed by him - as was Billy the Kid - before a trial could begin. Poet and author Eugene Manlove Rhodes arranged for their safety and accompanied them as they turned themselves in, three years after the murders. A new county, Otero, had been invented in the meantime that just so happened to include the murder site and the Oliver Lee ranch and excluded Dona Ana County where Garrett presided as sheriff.

Uncle Jim's huge ranch, the 90-square-mile Mockingbird Gap ranch between the Oscura and San Andres Mountains, directly abutted the McDonald ranch on the Jornado del Muerto, location of Trinity Site, of atom bomb fame. The ranch houses were about 10-15 miles apart. Both ranches are now part of the White Sands Missile Range. Incidentally, I heard the first A-bomb go off at Trinity Site. I was living in Las Cruces then. Being just shy of two years old then, I got this information from my mother who tells me it is true.