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Tiburcio Vásquez

Tiburcio Vásquez (1835 - 1875) was an infamous Californio bandido who was active in California from 1854 to 1874, earning him significant local recognition. Both hated and hailed, Vásquez left a huge impact on the history of the Antelope Valley and surrounding areas, often regarded as the “most noted desperado of modern times,” next only to famed Joaquin Murrieta. The crime spree of Tiburcio Vásquez and his band of followers lasted for over 20 years, with some periods of inactivity during times of heightened search and capture interest. The trademark of a Tiburcio Vásquez hold up was binding his victims’ hands behind their back, leaving them face down in the dust while he made off with their goods.


 

Tiburcio Vásquez

 

Tiburcio came of age during the California Gold Rush and all of the tumult, violence, and racial animosity that came along with it. By 1856, at only 21 years old, Tiburcio had started rustling horses. When caught on a heist outside of Newhall, he was sentenced to five years in San Quentin prison. Upon release, Tiburcio quickly returned to his life of crime and began once again committing burglaries, cattle theft, and highway robberies. After a store robbery in Petaluma, he was captured and returned to San Quentin for another three years.


During the 1850s and 60s, Tiburcio used the numerous rocks and canyons throughout the Antelope Valley and Santa Clarita areas as hide-outs from California lawmen. Even before his death, the rock outcrops on the side of what is now the 14 Freeway were already known as Vásquez Rocks. By 1870, Vásquez had organized his first bandit gang with original members including the notorious Juan “The Human Wildcat” Soto, and later Procopio “Red-Handed Bebito” Bustamante. Vásquez and his gang gained national recognition in 1873 when they stole $2,200 (equivalent to about $50,000 today) from Snyder’s Store in Tres Pinos (now Paicines) in San Benito. After this robbery, Governor Newton Booth placed a reward of $1,000 on his head. Numerous posses began searching for the bandido, with San Jose sheriff John Adams pursuing Tiburcio’s gang all the way down to southern California. After a gunfight ensued, Vásquez somehow managed to evade capture yet again.


 

An old wooden house in Coyote Holes, robbed by Vásquez and his gang in 1874.

 

After his escape from Sheriff Adams, Tiburcio continued to hide out in southern California where he was lesser known. Along with two men, he rode over the old Tejon Pass, through the Antelope Valley, and to Elizabeth Lake where they came to rest at Jim Hefner’s ranch. Living nearby, Tiburcio’s brother Francisco was able to provide a shelter to the hiding bandidos. After staying for some time Vásquez and his men rode onward to Littlerock Creek, where they continued to lay low. From Littlerock Creek, they headed north toward Bakersfield. Vásquez and gang member Clodoveo Chavez camped at the rock promontory now known as Robbers Roost. While hiding here, they robbed a stagecoach from Cerro Gordo Mines at the nearby Coyote Holes. From there, they continued moving onward to Elizabeth Lake and Soledad Canyon. Near present-day Acton they robbed another stage of $300, several horses, and a wagon, leaving behind several travelers with nothing. It is believed that he and his gang members were hiding out at Vásquez Rocks during the time of this robbery. The shallow caves, immense crevices, rock overhangs, and massive outcrops provided shelter, lookout points, and a protective maze that was disorienting and difficult to navigate. He hid out at Vásquez Rocks for upwards of two months.


 

Vásquez's hideout, Robbers Roost, west of Highway 6 near Freeman's Junction.

 

In November of 1873, Tiburcio and his gang returned to the San Joaquin Valley and robbed the Jones store at Millerton in Fresno County. Only a month later, on December 26, he and his band also sacked the town of Kingston, robbing two stores and taking off with about $2,500. At this point, the reward for the capture of Tiburcio Vásquez was incrementally increased to $15,000 (now equivalent to over $350,000). Almost immediately sheriffs throughout California organized groups to hunt the Vásquez Gang. In the hills of southern California, Vásquez continued to evade capture by hiding in various spots throughout Agua Dulce and the San Gabriel mountains, finally resting for a while at the adobe house of “Greek George” Caralambo in what is now West Hollywood.


 

Captain Mitchell, right, one of the Los Angeles County Sheriffs responsible for leading a posse to hunt Vásquez.

 

The ultimate downfall of Vásquez came in May of 1874. Having romanced and seduced Greek George’s sister-in-law, Modesta Lopez, Vásquez was riding on thin ice. While staying at Greek George’s place, Tiburcio had also impregnated a girl who lived nearby. As a result of this relationship, Abdon Leiva, a family member of the girl and henchman of Vásquez, contacted the authorities to turn Vásquez in. Quickly on his trail was Los Angeles Sheriff William Roland. On the morning of May 14, a posse of Los Angeles lawmen led by Sheriff Roland surrounded Greek George’s adobe. Vásquez tried to escape through a window but was brought down by a shotgun blast. First jailed in Los Angeles, he was taken to San Francisco by steamer, then by train to Salinas, and finally to San Jose for his trial. Thousands came to visit him in the jail; men brought him gifts of wine and cigars, and starstruck women decorated his cell with flowers. Convicted and sentenced to death, Vásquez was hanged on March 19, 1875, by his nemesis, Sheriff Adams.


 

Tiburcio Vásquez

 

During his lifetime Vásquez had acknowledged most of his crimes, but he asserted that his actions were justified due to the injustices that had been perpetrated on him and other Mexican citizens associated with the American takeover of California. As such, he has often been hailed as a folk-hero. With his upper-class Californio background, Vásquez is thought to have been one of several sources for the bandit-hero character Zorro. Of his many remaining namesakes in Los Angeles County, the most prominent is the popular 1000+ acre Vásquez Rocks Natural Area, owned and run by Los Angeles County’s Department of Parks and Recreation -- even to this day visitors ask where Vásquez's treasure was buried, continuing to feed the legend of the famed bandido.


Lookout over the 14 Freeway at Vasquez Rocks.


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