Another chance for a gunslinger

September 14, 1993|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

BOULDER, Colo. -- A long-dead gunslinger who lies 6 feet under in Boulder's Columbia Cemetery is still waiting for justice, according to his descendants.

Tom Horn -- either one of the most murderous human beings to strap on a gun, or one of the truest people to try cleaning up the West -- was hanged Nov. 20, 1903, in Wyoming after being convicted of killing a 14-year-old boy.

Some people think Horn was framed for political reasons.

He occasionally visited his brother, Charles Horn, who lived at 933 Arapahoe Ave., now part of the Boulder Public Library parking lot, but "he wasn't a family sort," said Kathy Van Arsdale, one of Horn's relatives who lives in Englewood outside of Denver.

The controversial murder trial, which still draws an emotional response from people, is to be retried starting tomorrow in a Cheyenne, Wyo., courtroom. It is the same location where Horn was tried and convicted 90 years ago, said Joseph Moch, a Michigan attorney who has taken the case.

"It is clear the man received a very inadequate defense," said Mr. Moch, who is taking the for-real trial very seriously.

Mr. Moch, who is fascinated by the case, persuaded a state judge in Cheyenne to order the retrial on several grounds, including a claim that Horn's confession was coerced.

A spent casing from the type of rifle used by Horn was found "two weeks later and two miles from the killing," Mr. Moch said, and was allowed as evidence for the prosecution.

"Five of the witnesses had that caliber rifle and two were owned by the Millers, who were originally arrested for the killing," Mr. Moch said.

The widely reported details of the case -- Horn was one of the last well-known hired guns and helped capture the Apache chief Geronimo -- describe the turbulent reality of living in the turn-of-the-century frontier. (Steve McQueen played the title role the 1980 movie "Tom Horn," which portrayed the last days of the gunslinger.)

Horn was hired by the Wyoming Stock Owners Association to rid the region of rustlers. Stealing cattle was a popular way to make a living in the late 1800s and hard economic times made ranchers intolerant of rustling.

"The judges were fearful of the rustlers," Ms. Van Arsdale said. "The law in the West was not working."

Since the law couldn't be relied on, Horn reportedly was given a free rein to deal with the problem.

"He would warn them first," Ms. Van Arsdale said. "Then he knocked them off if they didn't heed the warning."

Horn was convicted of killing Willie Nickell, whom he mistook for a rustler. The youth was found with a rock under his head, a calling card Horn used to warn off other rustlers.

The Nickell youth was shot twice and a third shot missed, an odd circumstance for one of the most renowned sharpshooters in the region.

"He was in combat," Mr. Moch said, noting that Horn fought in the Spanish American War. "Is he going to be afraid of a 14-year-old kid? He could have dropped the kid from 300 yards with one shot between the eyes."

Mr. Moch and Ms. Van Arsdale are convinced that, as the region was being tamed by hordes of homesteaders, Horn was a symbol of the Old West and became a political liability.

"He took his loyalty to the gallows," said Ms. Van Arsdale, noting that Horn never tried to drag his employers into the case.

Chip Carlson, author of "Tom Horn: Killing Men is My Specialty," added that many circumstances conspired against Horn. He worked for "big business" and was not liked by many in the general populace. And outrage over the killing of a boy created pressure that provided an opportunity for politicians "to further their careers," Mr. Carlson said.

Witnesses lied and a drunken confession spilled out under questionable circumstances, say many who are familiar with the case.

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