Rafael Lopez: Case Closed
It took nearly 90 years for the state of Utah to close the files on Rafael Lopez.
Almost nine decades to find out what happened to a man who killed six people—including 5 lawmen. A hardcase who escaped from the largest manhunt in Utah history.
In the end, it came down to the work of a determined modern-day deputy who happened to read a couple of Old West books and put 2 and 2 together.
Let’s take the time machine back to Utah in 1913. Mining was still a big industry in the mountains surrounding Salt Lake City, attracting workers from many parts of the globe. The pay was low, the quality of life was lower, and Utahn’s opinions of the foreign miners were lowest.
Rafael Lopez fit into that category. But around the town of Bingham, he also had a reputation as a tough customer, a guy who wasn’t shy about using violence to settle disputes. And he was an expert shot—he may have been in a Wild West show—who reportedly could accurately fire a rifle from the hip. So it wasn’t a surprise when he shot and killed Juan Valdez on November 21, 1913, in a row over a woman. A four-man posse went after Lopez as he hit the trail on foot in the cold and snowy winter conditions.
Unfortunately, they found him. Or rather his bullets found them.
Lopez ambushed the officers, killing Bingham Police Chief J.W. Grant and Salt Lake County Deputy Nephi Jensen. Deputy Otto Wittbeck was gunned down as he tried to help his comrades. Only a defective bullet saved Deputy Julius Sorenson from the same fate.
Word of the shootings spread fast, and about 200 volunteers joined the new posse in following Lopez’ tracks through the snow. The fugitive wasn’t dressed for the weather, but he showed amazing strength and stamina in staying ahead of his pursuers. After five days, Lopez had gone in a circle and ducked into the Minnie Silver Mine at Bingham.
That should have been the beginning of the end, of course. The authorities tried to smoke him out. It didn’t work. They tried to starve him out. Sympathetic miners left food for Lopez. They sent men into the mine to get him. He killed two of them and the rest were forced to flee. So they closed off sections of the mine and tried to wait him out.
On January 2, 1914, the lawmen took down the bulkheads and began to search the place. Nothing. They called off the manhunt the next day with no idea of what happened to Rafael Lopez.
And that was that. At least in Utah.
Folks around the Texas-Mexico border weren’t so lucky.
The fugitive headed south and joined up with a gang of cutthroats that worked both sides of the Rio Grande. Lopez and his boys had diversified interests—smuggling, bootlegging, drug running, cattle stealing, and robbery were highlights. And they were trigger happy. In fact, just a few months after Lopez arrived in Mexico, the outlaws held up a U.S. train and in the process killed 19 Americans.
Lopez seemed to lead a charmed life, eluding capture or death for a lucky (for him) seven years. There’s no doubt that he was clever, and that he knew the territory as well as anyone. He also had some family ties with Pancho Villas’ Mexican revolutionaries, and that meant he had a fair amount of support south of the border. America’s entrance into the First World War complicated things even more.
But Lopez’ good fortune ran out in late 1921. That’s when the legendary Texas Ranger Frank Hamer entered the picture.
Hamer was sent down to Del Rio to take over Ranger Company C, and his first job was to bring Lopez to ground. Interestingly, the Captain and his bosses in Austin knew about the outlaw’s activities in Utah, and they’d heard the stories that Lopez was a crack shot. The Rangers proceeded with caution.
An informant promised to lead the Lopez Gang into a trap set up by Hamer just north of the Rio Grande. But when Company C reached the designated spot, Hamer had a gut feeling that a double-cross was in the works. The Rangers moved back several feet and hid. After dark, Lopez and his bandits showed up and began firing at the spot recently vacated by the lawmen. Hamer and co. opened up on them. All but one of the Mexicans were killed, including the informant and Lopez. The Rangers collected a reward of more than $3,000.
But Utah authorities never heard about any of that. For them, the still open Lopez case was a job unfinished, an insult to the memories of the dead lawmen.
Fast-forward to 1994.
Salt Lake County Deputy Sheriff Randy Lish read Lynn Bailey’s book The Search for Lopez: Utah’s Greatest Manhunt, the only modern account of the 1913 case. Four years later, Lish took up Manhunter: The Life and Times of Frank Hamer, a fact-based novel by Gene Shelton. That book mentioned the 1921 gunfight. And Lish wondered if the Texas Lopez was also the Utah Lopez.
Two years later, Lish read the biography I’m Frank Hamer—which not only covered the Ranger killing of Lopez but it also mentioned his history in Utah. Lish decided to close the file on the long dead outlaw.
He got permission from his bosses to work the case, but there was a big BUT—the deputy would have to do it on his own time and dime. And Lish would have to get more evidence proving the point. Sure, some of it could be done by phone and e-mail. But ultimately, he’d have to go to Texas.
Which was just what Lish did. He spent hours poring through files, archives, photographs, reports, and other materials. He spent hours on the phone. And after a bit of wrangling, the deputy set up a meet. Not just any meet.
Lish would talk with Frank Hamer, Jr., the son of the legendary Ranger.
It was October of 2002.
Frank Jr. was a senior citizen of 84, a man with 34 years of law enforcement under his belt. He told Lish that the elder Hamer had occasionally spoken about his work, and, yes, Frank Sr. mentioned Lopez in those conversations, including the fact that the badman had killed a number of officers in Utah before running for the border. Hamer also remembered that his Dad had taken a pocket watch off of Lopez’ corpse—the timepiece had been hit by gunfire during the battle.
Lish took all of the information back to Utah and reported to his superiors. They told him to submit his findings to the Salt Lake County District Attorney. He made it so.
On January 24, 2003, the D.A. officially closed the books on murderer Raphael Lopez. It was almost exactly 89 years after Lopez successfully escaped from the largest manhunt in Utah history. One of the coldest cases in Old West history became history.
Admit it. You love the Old West shootouts, the kill or be killed thrill of mano a mano combat where the winner gets to slap leather another day. And the loser…well, he’s dead.
It ain’t that simple.
Of the five Utah law officers killed by Raphael Lopez, four were married. Among them, they had thirteen children. For those survivors, the loss was more than just that of a beloved husband or devoted father.
They fell into a pit of abject poverty.
There were no pensions, no life insurance policies. The widows did what they could to make money, but there was little that they could do in the mining areas. A little sewing here or there. Some cooking. Maybe some cleaning work for more fortunate folks. The children dropped out of school so they could help out. And their children had it just as tough. Gordon Jensen, the grandson of Deputy Sheriff Nephi Jensen, said it plain: “It’s something that has lived hard and died hard in my family.”
Only now, 90 years after the killings, are the descendants moving back up the economic ladder. In 1913, Raphael Lopez fired five times and killed five men who were doing their duty. But he also murdered the dreams, aspirations and opportunities of innocent women and children who had no say in the matter. That's the other side of Old West gunfights.