Unraveling The Mystery Of A Cop-Killer And His Demise
As skilled with a rifle as he is ruthless, a bad man kills unarmed victims and five police officers … until he meets a good man as capable with a gun as he.
Never underestimate your opponent; realize there’s a time to besiege and wait, and a time to approach and search … and utilize modern communications to contain deadly threats and to complete important investigations.
When a training assignment recently brought me to the Unified Police Department of Salt Lake County firearms training center, I had the pleasure of meeting Officer Randy Lish. He and I corresponded before, sharing an interest in law enforcement gunfights of the past, and the lessons from them that can be applied to modern police work and self-defense. It was from Randy I learned the story shared with you below, a case rich with survival lessons that might have been lost to history without Lish’s untiring investigation and research.
The Killings Begin
An hour after midnight on Sept. 21, 1913, the murders began outside the McKensie boarding house in a neighborhood known as Slap Gap in Bingham, Utah.
Rafael Lopez also went by the nicknames Red and Ralph, the latter an Anglicized version of his given name. Short but strongly built, and in his late 20s, the handsome young Mexican fancied himself a ladies’ man, and already had a history of violently assaulting other men in arguments over women. Such a discussion with his friend Juan Valdez quickly turned acrimonious, and Lopez drew a revolver and shot Valdez dead in the street. Their mutual friend Thomas Castillo witnessed the murder, and when he upbraided Lopez for shooting an unarmed man, Lopez pistol-whipped him to the ground, and then ran into the boarding house to gather his things and escape.
By the time Deputy Sheriff Julius Sorensen reached the scene, Lopez had already gathered his clothing and a rifle and fled on foot into the snow of an unseasonably cold night. Taking Castillo into protective custody, Sorensen gathered other lawmen to search for the killer. The deputy apparently thought it would be a simple arrest following a spontaneous homicide in a violent mining town. He did not realize that the dominoes were already falling in what would be a most tragic chapter in the history of Utah law enforcement.
Four lawmen on horseback followed the killer’s trail to a ranch near Lark, Utah. Sorensen and Deputy Otto Witbeck circled out to scout for the wanted man, while Bingham Police Chief John Grant and Salt Lake County Deputy Nephi Jensen rode toward the ranch house to inquire if the owners had seen the fugitive.
But Rafael Lopez was waiting for them.
He had taken an ambush position in a ditch near the ranch house, and from a distance later determined by the Salt Lake Tribune to be 118 yards, opened fire on them with a Model 1895 Winchester lever action. His braced rifle afforded him deadly accuracy. A .30-06 bullet struck the chief in the left side, driving through both lungs and exiting the right side of his torso with enough force to leave some of his insides hanging from the exit wound. Chief Grant toppled from the saddle, killed almost instantly.
Lopez’ next shot followed quickly, striking Jensen at the top rear of the pelvis. The bullet shattered the spine and severed the spinal cord before it exited his abdomen. Paralyzed, he too fell to the ground, quickly hemorrhaging to death.
Hearing the shots, Witbeck and Sorensen turned their horses and galloped to the scene. They had no sooner found their downed brother officers than they, too, came under the murderous gunfire of Lopez. Witbeck collapsed to the ground, shot through the right chest. Sorensen drew his revolver and returned fire, and Lopez turned and ran.
Deputy Sorensen desperately tried to aid his wounded partner, but to no avail. In an hour, Witbeck was dead and Sorensen rode for help.
The Next Ambush
More Utah lawmen flooded in to assist in what would become the most massive manhunt in the state’s history. When they caught sight of Lopez, he drove them to cover with rifle fire, but they had learned to keep their distance and thus prevent the loss of any more of their number. When cornered, Lopez would take the high ground, pinning the police down with near misses and taunting them at the top of his lungs until darkness fell. By morning, he would be gone, and the posse would again take to the trail, repeating the cycle. Lopez seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of .30-06 ammunition.
The fugitive’s trail led back to Bingham, where his bloody footprints were seen going into the Minnie Mine, where Lopez once worked. The place was a labyrinth with countless exit tunnels, and the mine’s owners refused to shut it down to allow a search. The frustrated policemen had to thread their way among working miners as they looked for a man many of those workers considered a friend.
It turned out that Lopez’ ammo supply was not so inexhaustible as it seemed. He had gone on the run with the Model ’95 and seven 20-round boxes of .30-06 cartridges. Lopez, police later learned, was down to seven of his 140 rounds when he showed up at the home of his friend Mike Stefano. Stefano would later claim that Lopez intimidated him into providing another Winchester lever gun, a Model 1894 and all the ammunition Stefano had for it — some 42 .30-30 cartridges.
This was the weapon Lopez had in the mine when he spotted two more of the now 150 police officers that were searching for him. From the concealment of a pitch-black tunnel, he ambushed them.
Deputy J. Douglas Hulsey was hit in the back, through the right shoulder blade, with the bullet exiting his chest, and another .30-30 slug smashed into his heel. Lopez’ third bullet struck Deputy Thomas Manderich, also in the upper right back, ripping through the top of his heart. Both men fell, dying.
Only at this time was the mine finally evacuated, and toxic fumes pumped in, with the hope of “smoking out” the killer. The ploy failed. A massive contingent of police then searched the mine after the fumes cleared, tunnel by rabbit warren tunnel. The search of the mine continued for week after fruitless week, and was at last abandoned. The Winchester ’94 was finally found at a railroad trestle not far from an exit hole from the Minnie Mine. The killer was gone.
Six men were dead, five of them police. Of the latter, one was actually an armed citizen who had volunteered for the posse, but because he had died trying to protect the public, he would forever after be remembered as a police officer killed in the line of duty. The cost of the largest manhunt in Utah history was some $29,000, a fortune in the year 1913. In a time when there was little or nothing in the way of benefits for families of cops slain in the line of duty, several widows and orphans were left destitute. And the killer had escaped, leaving the murders listed as an unresolved “cold case” until Randy Lish put it together 89 years later, in the 21st century.
Some of the downtrodden Mexican miners saw Lopez as a rebellious hero, and were happy he got away. One writer even postulated Lopez had settled somewhere else, to create a law-abiding new identity and live happily ever after.
Nothing, it turned out, could have been farther from the truth.
Instead, Lopez had headed south, toward the Mexican border. Apparently, he attracted criminal followers until he led a ragtag gang of some 20 bandits. He acquired a taste for blood, and his single worst atrocity came in 1914.
Lopez and his gang of bandits robbed a train along the border, cold-bloodedly executing 19 of 20 unarmed American passengers. This brought him solidly into the sights of the Texas Rangers who, for years, found him as elusive as their Utah counterparts had.
That state of affairs changed precipitously in the year 1921. A new captain took over Company C of the Texas Rangers, headquartered in Del Rio. Reviewing the caseload he inherited, he was struck by the particularly vicious depredations of the bandito known as Rafael Lopez. The captain may have been aware the man was wanted for murder in Utah, but his primary focus was on the horrendous mass slaughter of the 19 American train passengers. By now, it was estimated Lopez was responsible for the murders of at least 30 innocent victims.
The Ranger captain had long since earned a reputation for implacable fury directed against such monsters, and now Lopez was in his crosshairs. He decided he wanted to catch Rafael Lopez more than he yet wanted to bring any criminal to justice. The Ranger captain’s name was Frank Hamer.
The Man For The Job
Today, we remember Frank Hamer primarily as the man who led the 6-officer, 3-agency task force that killed Bonnie (Parker) and Clyde (Barrow) in Bienville Parish, La. in 1934. In 1921, however, he was already a hero in Texas. He was well on his way down a path of some 50 or more gunfights, of which he was destined to leave just as many criminals dead. Hamer was such a good shot he put on shooting exhibitions, with stunts like shooting small targets out of the air with his favorite rifle, the Remington Model 8 semi-auto chambered for the .25 Remington cartridge.
In this, he had something in common with the mass murderer he sought. Unknown to the Utah cops who would soon die by his hand, Lopez was said to be so good with a rifle that he, too, performed exhibition shooting, and he demonstrated preternatural skill in firing his preferred lever-action Winchester from the hip. Lopez reportedly worked for a time with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.
A master rifleman and experienced murderer was now on a collision course with a master rifleman and experienced gunfighter. The subtle distinction would determine the outcome.
The End Of The Trail
In October of 1921, an informant approached Hamer and told him the bandit leader hired him to guide the gang on a secret route, but he was willing to betray Lopez for the $3,000 reward the railroad put on the bandit leader’s head. The scene, they determined, would be a ditch where the Rangers could ambush the Lopez gang as the riders passed in the open.
Gun people remember Hamer for his famous courage and his uncanny shooting skill, but police detectives remember him for his masterful investigative work and natural ability to manipulate informers and “read people.” Hamer suspected Lopez had spies on the law and order side, and it occurred to him the informant might really be leading him and his Rangers into a trap crafted by Lopez.
So, on the evening in question, Hamer and his Rangers hid their horses out of sight, and arrayed themselves on a low ridge above the ditch where he told the informant they’d be waiting in ambush. Sure enough, as twilight fell, the Texans spotted a group of some 20-armed men stealthily approaching the ditch on foot from behind. Hamer recognized the informant among them, about three men away from the obvious leader, who was holding a ready Winchester and wearing the bandanna on his head and overalls, which had long been Lopez’ trademark clothing.
Hamer stood up from cover with his favorite rifle, the Remington Model 8 semi-auto, and shouted in Spanish, “Halt! We’re officers of the law!”
The leader whirled and fired. Frank Hamer felt something burn his cheek but ignored it; with his front sight settled on the other man’s chest, he instantly pressed the trigger of the Remington. The sheet of flame at the muzzle lasted only a moment in the gathering dusk, and Hamer could see his antagonist collapse to the ground. He swung his rifle toward the double-crossing informant, in time to see the man spinning and falling from other Rangers’ bullets. Hamer swept his muzzle toward the next armed target and joined what was now a raging, full-blown firefight.
When it was over, the Rangers reloaded and cautiously approached the corpse-strewn ditch, which Lopez intended to be their mass grave. The exact body count is unclear. Novelist and Western historian Gene Shelton, in “Manhunter: The Life and Times of Frank Hamer,” wrote that “The battle was over in minutes, its end coming with a final pistol shot as a Ranger dispatched a wounded bandit. Frank strode to the irrigation ditch and the riddled bodies. Not a man had escaped.” However, in the authoritative biography “I’m Frank Hamer” by John Holmes Jenkins and H. Gordon Frost, the account reads, “The Rangers returned the fire, and some 30 minutes later 11 of the bandits were dead, and the rest had run away.”
By all accounts, the first to fall was identified as Rafael “Red” Lopez. A single .25 Remington bullet from the rifle of Captain Frank Hamer took him down. It struck the center of the killer’s overalls at over 2,000 fps, drilled through a pocket watch in his bib pocket, and shredded Lopez’s heart, killing him outright. The double-dealing informant was also among the dead, hit at least three times.
According to surviving reports, none of the Rangers were killed or wounded, save for the minor graze wound on Frank Hamer’s cheek. Hamer gave the dead man’s bloody, bullet-pierced watch to his brother Harrison Hamer, a US Customs officer. For many years the grisly trophy hung at a Customs house in Laredo, a mute warning to any who came across the Border with criminal intent.
Communications were limited in those days, and law enforcement was very provincial. While the Texas lawmen may have known their slain quarry was wanted for murder in Utah, it is unlikely they knew the man Hamer slain was a cop-killer five times over. Utah authorities were never informed of the death of Lopez, and the reward they had offered for him went uncollected. Into the 21st century, Utah officials listed it as an open case.
Then came Randy Lish, who joined the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office when he retired to Utah after a distinguished career with the San Diego, Calif. Sheriff’s Department. An accomplished historian in this area, and a career cop with a deep respect for his profession’s martyred dead; he opened an investigation on his own time and dime with his sheriff’s permission, and at last made the connection. He traveled to Texas to interview Hamer’s son, Frank Hamer, Jr., then 86, and confirmed the legendary Ranger brought justice to the cop-killer. The long-cold case was closed at last.
Rafael Lopez progressed from murderer to serial killer to mass murderer. It seems only fitting he should have been the first to die in what can fairly be described as a “mass justifiable homicide.”
A review of Lopez’s history showed he found it easy to murder unarmed men, or unwary cops whose backs were turned to him. The one time he took return fire — from Deputy Sorensen, armed only with a handgun 118 yards away, while Lopez had a rifle and was well ensconced behind cover — Lopez broke and fled. Exhibition-class shooter against exhibition-class shooter, he got off the first shot at Frank Hamer, but failed to make it count. Could that have been because he was, for the first time, in a gunfight with a deadly opponent instead of murdering a helpless victim? By contrast, Hamer — famed already for his cold courage under fire at the time of the incident — center-punched Lopez despite having literally been shot in the face.
Hamer’s people skills and investigative experience tipped him to the deception of Lopez’s double agent, saving him and his Ranger Company from being the next mass-murder victims. Taking a superior position with cover and surprise, coupled with the legendary marksmanship skill that was the Texas Rangers’ stock in trade, helped Hamer seal the outcome.
What are the lessons from the chain of events, which took five police officer’s lives in Utah? I’ll turn that over to Randy Lish, who probably has studied it more deeply than anyone else now alive.
“They underestimated their opponent. There is no reason to believe they knew how good a shot he was,” Randy explains. He adds, “The racial prejudice rife at the time may have been a factor too, noting when you see another person as lower than yourself, you underestimate his abilities. In this case, it had lethal consequences. There were those in Bingham who knew Lopez was probably the deadliest rifle shot in the town, and he had once before shot an unarmed man. An investigation before setting out to arrest him would have determined that, and almost certainly led to a more cautious approach by the police.
“After the initial shooting, I would have made sure I had several good people with me. Today, we would not have treated it like an old-fashioned raccoon hunt. I would have tried to find the best civilian or law enforcement sharpshooters in the valley. Today, we would have tried to pin him down. We would have sent men in the dark slowly moving toward where he was. The posse dropped its guard when night fell, and he escaped every time. This tragic incident teaches us underestimating the suspect can be a fatal mistake,” Lish concludes.
We wish to thank Officer Randy Lish, without whom this article would not have been possible.
By Massad Ayoob