Sam Saffell: The legend lives on
by Mike Grace
Special to the Independent
Published in the Valle Redondo Section - Friday September 4, 1992

SPRINGERVILLE -- Art imitates life and life longs for legend.  

     Throughout Western lore are stories of daring-do, battles of good against evil, the lone hero facing down the crowd of villains, or the single gunfighter in the smoke-filled saloon shooting it out with his assailants from behind a bar-room table.
     From legend to life comes the history of local celebrity Sam Saffell of Springerville, who died the night of June 27, 1912, supposedly in a blaze of glory.
      According to one history, Sam had gone to the old Jake Armijo Building, a game room and gambling hall in St. Johns, for a night of revelry.
     During the course of what had begun as a friendly poker game, anger erupted between Saffell and several other.
     "Tempers flared, pistols were drawn, and the fight was on. Sam turned the heavy table up for a shield and traded lead with his opponents. He held his own for a time, but the table wasn't enough. When the shooting ceased, Saffell lay dead, riddled with bullets," says an account in the fairly recently written A History of the St. Johns Stake.
     In another version, reported in Lest Ye Forget, a record of memoirs of various residents published in 1980 by the Apache County Centennial Committee, one recollection was that "This saloon used to be right down here behind the old drugstore, Sam Saffell had it once. Somebody killed him in there and they never knew who it was."
     In a possibly hauntingly accurate recollection recorded in the same journal, relatives of Gabriel Garcia, an employee of Sam Saffell, passed along a similar story to his family.
     That night in question, there was a card game going on and firing had started from the outside to the inside of the room. As always, in these accounts, Saffell is behind a tipped over table, firing away with his pistol until he falls mortally wounded.
     Interestingly enough, the Gabriel Garcia account recollects that "they claimed Mr. Saffell had killed two men in Springerville (it wasn't proven) so they were after him."
     As is frequently the case in life, facts are stranger than fiction and sometimes more provocative. The blazing shoot out scenario of the supposed legend is impressive. The possible conspiracy and revenge factors, which subsequent court actions, newspaper accounts, and events would yield up, are the stuff of novels and movies.
     The final elements of the drama did not come to light until two years after Saffell's death.
     Saffell did not die in his own or anybody else's saloon. Nor was there a table involved. He wasn't even armed, historic records show.
     Saffell, a Tennessean born Oct. 31, 1855, in Montgomery, migrated west and spent some time in Texas before permanently settling in Round Valley around 1887.
     He served as a part-time lawman of some notoriety and renown and then became a respectable businessman as proprietor of his own saloon in Springerville.
     Saffell was often described as a rough man, but also came to the aid of families when they were down on their luck.
     As a lawman, records show that he deported himself well in the performance of his duties. One article in The St. Johns Herald dated Aug. 12, 1899, lauded him for his actions as a deputy sheriff in pursuing, cornering, and capturing an armed man who had murdered an 11-year-old girl in cold blood.
     As a saloon-keeper, he made numerous friends. He also developed something of a reputation for his association with violence. Probably one of the most famous incidents that occurred in Saffell's establishment was the shoot-out between Montie Slaughter, of the ranching family, and Edward Beeler, the former well-known sheriff, who got into a disagreement while drinking.
     Cooler heads attempted to prevail, but both protagonists ended up armed with rifle and shotgun. The Incident occurred Jan. 12, 1901, when men were supposed to have become more civilized.
     Before it was all done, Slaughter lay dead, Beeler was found guilty by the coroner's jury, and before he could come to trial was bushwhacked and killed.. Some say the highly respected former lawman died by the hands of renegades he had once pursued as a peace officer. Others say he died by the hands of Slaughter family or friends.
     Court records indicate that Saffell was found guilty of assault with a deadly weapon upon a J.F. Brinkley, and was fined $250 in a judgement rendered June 19, 1902.
     In a coroner's inquest held Nov. 6, 1906, he was found "justified in the act" in the shooting death resulting from an incident that occurred late at night subsequent to a dance.  The victim had threatened Saffell and apparently secured a weapon and sought Saffell out.
     Interestingly enough, Candido Vijil died with eight bullet wounds in him, three in the head. The coroner reported finding a knife, three handkerchiefs, a letter, $2.40 in cash, three "drink checks", a button and a quart of whiskey on the deceased.
     In a particularly brutal incident, Saffell was found guilty on January 8, 1908, of aggravated assault upon a bar patron who had been troubling another customer and in general making a nuisance of himself.
     Saffell followed him outside as he staggered out and administered a beating so severe that witnesses characterized him as having "blood flowing from forehead, cheek, nose and mouth" and that he had been kicked repeatedly in the face while lying face down.
     Oddly enough, in the one incident which either directly or indirectly led him to his death, he appears to have been a hero risking his own life to intervene in what was rapidly turning into the possibility of a wild free-for-all gunfight in his saloon.
     Around noon Dec. 24, 1911, in the midst of rowdy celebrating amongst patrons, an argument broke out in which several individuals pulled pistols.
     Saffell, jumping from behind the bar with a firearm of his own, grasped Eloy Salazar's weapon hand and pressed his own into the young man's midsection, pushing him across the room to the far side in an effort to disarm him. A shot rang out, and Salazar fell mortally wounded.
     At the testimony before the coroner's jury two days later the majority of witnesses agreed that they had not seen the owner fire, but rather that he had been attempting to defuse the problem.
     The finger of guilt was pointed at one Walter Brock, who was identified by numerous individuals as the man who had fired the fatal round.
     One other bar patron, Lee Turner, was seen to have held a pistol in his hand at the time the killing occurred.
      The jury decided that "the deceased came to his death at the hands of one of the following men: Sam J. Saffell, Lee Turner, Walter Brock. One of whom shot and killed the said Eloy Salazar with a revolver with criminal intent and that one of said men is guilty thereof," according to court records.
Walter Brock was jailed, held without bond and was charged with murder. The apache County grand jury of the recently formed State of Arizona formally brought an indictment of murder against Brock on June 26, 1912.
     It was to testify at this hearing that Saffell took his last and fatal trip to St. Johns.
     Late the night of June 27, Saffell was gathered with G.C. Grimes, also of Springerville, W.E. Wiltbank and John Hall of Eagar, and F.W. Cook of Milky, in the room of a recently arrived harness maker by the name of Joe Schultz.
     Earlier in the day, Hall had cashed a check at the local bank and numerous witnesses viewed the transaction. As the men sat about the table, Hall noticed two men walking past the open door. He stepped out in the dark to check them as something about them appeared quite strange. Out at the doorstep, he noticed the two with masks or sacks of some kind over their heads.
     He stepped back in and advised the others while closing and securing the door. His companions felt that he was being unjustifiably nervous and continued to play cards.
     A few minutes later, Hall noticed a pistol pointing in through the window and screamed a warning to the others. Everyone jumped back from the table.
     When the masked men returned to the front door, Saffell urged Schultz to go out an tell the men to go away because he and several others thought one of them might be an old gent by the name of Ambrosio Gonzales, an eccentric and well-known figure in the town. They thought he and his companion must be drunk.
     As Schultz lifted up a six-shooter to answer the door, Saffell pulled him back and said, "Let me go out there. I don't think it's anything, only some drunk fellows."
     It was the last mistake he ever made.
     Opening the door, he found himself staring into two pistols. One of the assailants pointed his weapon directly at Saffell and pulled back on the trigger.
     The empty chamber clicked. The assailant withdrew his weapon and took aim again and again, Click ... click
     Although the testimony varied at the coroner's trial the following day, there was general agreement that his tormentor appeared to be pointing at him each time as if in jest or threat.
     Saffell waved his arms and tried to push the pistols back, yelling for the men not to shoot. The other hooded man took careful aim at point blank range.
     He fired a single shot into the saloon owner's left cheek, killing him instantly. As he fell backwards, dying execution style, the gunmen cursed him by name.
     The assailants fired several rounds into the doorway and were yelling for those inside to get their hands up. None of the card players were armed except for Joe Schultz. Wiltbank slammed the door shut and attempted to grab a pistol away from one of the men, but didn't succeed.
     Schultz snatched his .32 caliber Colt back up and rapidly discharged all six rounds through the door. When the men managed to make it outside the room, no sign could be found of the killers.
     Sheriff Sylvester Peralta was aroused from his sleep and informed of the killing. He organized some guards and placed them at different routes leading into and out of the city.
     Interestingly, some of them were unarmed. He deputized a man by the name of Ignatio Lopez, whom he happened to find in the jail resting on a cot next to his brother, Epifinio who was night guard.
     Around 2 a.m., shots were heard and Lopez who, had separated himself from the guard with whom he was assigned, came staggering back to tow, claiming that first five than later two gunmen had shot him. He desperately tried to give away his firearm first to one man, then another.
     Incontrovertible evidence was presented indicating that Lopez had been wounded a couple of hours earlier in the night.
     A witness saw him running away from the card game site minutes after the exchange of gunfire.
     He speculated Lopez was wounded or leaning over loading a weapon.
     Damaging evidence of having cleaned up blood as well as strips of cloth such as those used by the gunmen to fashion their hoods tied Jesus Valles with the crime. Coincidentally, he was also an occasional roommate of Joe Schultz.
     The finding of the inquest was that the crime had been committed by either Ignitio Lopez or Jesus Valles. Sam Saffell's body was taken home and buried. Sheriff Peralta lost the 1914 election, some feel, based upon the scandal associated with the entire matter. As the judicial process progressed, both Lopez and Valles were found innocent.
     Slightly over two years later, Joe Schultz led two other men in stealing some 15 or 16 horses and driving them across the New Mexican border. New Mexico authorities captured the men and returned them along with some startling news.
     Joe Schultz's real name was Jose Sosteno Baca.
     Under a multitude of aliases, Baca had served a combined 11 years and two days time in the New Mexico State Penitentiary at Santa Fe for crimes ranging from larceny and burglary to manslaughter and horse theft. He drew one more year for stealing a horse than killing a man.
     In the "Statement of Facts" brief filed in September of 1914 in the Superior Court of Apache County, the county attorney noted, "The defendant Schultz has been located at St. Johns for some two years or more, and has not been an industrious man, through he has managed to live. A number of circumstances have been very suspicious in regard to his connection with criminal acts though he has evaded direct connection therewith."
     He received a one-to-10-year sentence in the Arizona State Penitentiary at Florence.
     Joe Schultz knew both Ignatio Lopez and Jesus Valles. Valles sometimes roomed with him. He know that Sam Saffell liked to gamble and play cards.
     Also, he knew that John Hall had cashed a sizeable check that day and would be at "the game."
     It certainly makes for a scenario far more worthy than a simple shoot out behind a bar table.
     Eighty years have come and gone now since that fateful card game.
     Few remember Joe Schultz, Ignatio Lopez or Jesus Valles. But many remember Sam J. Saffell, even if for the wrong reason.
     Intrigue upon intrigue and conspiracy without end. But in the end Sam had the last words. They're on his tombstone on cemetery hill in Springerville.
     "Died in St. Johns ... Gone But Not Forgotten."
Documented information researched by Jack A. Becker

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From Jack Becker's Collection