Saturday, July 29, 2017

Juan Flores -- A Californio Killer

Ever wonder who were the very first Los Angeles County lawmen to die in the line of duty? Ever wonder about the no good murdering outlaw who did it? Well, here you go.

Juan Flores was a killer who is said to have been born sometime in 1834. He was a Californio bandit, who with his gang known as "las Manillas," "the Handcuffs," robbed and stole and murdered in Southern California in the late 1850s.

At the time, Flores was considered a folk hero by some people in California. Yes, the same way that some in the Mid-West considered Jesse James a folk hero. Both were supposedly Robin Hoods, bandits who stole from the rich and gave to the poor.  Of course that wasn't the case, but let's not let myth get in the way of facts when it comes to legends of the Old West. 

Many people don't want to hear the truth when it comes to facts gathered about someone who lived back in the Old West. It's been my experience that some folks refuse to believe anything other than what Hollywood has fed them.  

As for Flores, the idea that he somehow fought the wealthy Californio and gave money to poor peasants is all fantasy. Fact is, Juan Flores was born to a prominent Californio family. And since he was a true Californio aristocrat from a wealthy Californio family, Juan Flores didn't want to work and took to stealing instead. 

The first time Flores was arrested was in 1855 when he was caught stealing a horse. For that crime, he was actually sentenced to do time in San Quentin prison. And fact is, he escaped from San Quentin in late 1856. Yes, he and a partner by the name of Jim "Red Horse" Webster actually stole a boat that was tied to the prison's wharf. The convicts took the boat and sailed it across San Francisco bay where they escaped justice.

In Northern California's Contra Costa County is where Flores joined forces with Pancho Daniel and a dozen or so other criminal types. From there they went south to Southern California and the Los Angeles basin.

There in the latter part of 1856 and the beginning of 1857, Flores and the gang known as the "las Manillas" are said to have gotten help from a great number of Mexicans in the San Luis Obispo and San Juan Capistrano areas. The help he got was with food and eluding capture. Yes, even back then, there were those who favored criminals over law enforcement for one reason or another. Usually fear or retaliation, or maybe simply hatred for authority. But harboring Flores and others was done, just as fools harbor criminals today.   

The Flores gang, the "las Manillas," is said to have terrorized the area by stealing horses and cattle, committing armed robberies, and cold-blooded murder. All while raiding towns and homesteads in Southern California.   

In either December of 1856 or January of 1857, Flores tried robbing a wagon traveling from Los Angeles to San Juan Capistrano. Try as he did to meet that wagon and rob it, he actually missed it a number of times. Finally in frustration, Flores lead his gang, although some folks call it the Flores-Daniel Gang, on a raid against the town of San Juan Capistrano. 

They went on a rampage and sacked the town. Yes, including looting a shop owned by a Russian-Polish merchant by the name of Michael Krazewski. Flores is said to have shot the store assistant, and then he and the others carried the stolen goods out to two waiting horses. As they were leaving, Flores threatened the town saying his gang would be back the next day. And yes, the very next day, Flores' gang hit the town again. This time, Flores murdered German shopkeeper George Pflugardt. 

The nearest law was in Los Angles County. So when the law got word of what took place, on January 22nd, 1857, the folks there dispatched Los Angeles County Sheriff James R. Barton and a posse made up of County Sheriff's Deputy Charles T. Daly, Constables Charles K. Baker and William H. Little, and three deputized citizens to San Juan Capistrano to apprehend Flores and members of his gang or kill them. Just as he deputized the other citizens on the posse, Deputy Daly had just been deputized by Sheriff Barton that day just so he would be able to legally help apprehend Flores and the others.

As for Flores, after leaving San Juan Capistrano, he went to see a woman by the name of Martina "Chola" Burruel in the Burruel Adobe a few miles outside of San Juan Capistrano.

Sheriff Barton and his posse headed south, resting for the night, before stopping for breakfast at the main house of the San Joaquin Ranch which is just Southwest of modern-day Santa Ana, California. Californio Don José Antonio Andres Sepúlveda owned the the Rancho San Joaquin. He warned Sheriff Barton that they were extremely outnumbered. He advised him to get reinforcements before continuing his pursuit of the Flores gang. But Los Angeles County Sheriff Barton ignored the warning and lead his posse forward to San Juan Capistrano. 

Then it happened, after traveling 12 miles, they were ambushed in a ravine known as the Barranco de los Alisos. During the ambush Sheriff Barton, Deputy Daly, and Constables Baker and Little were shot dead.

These were the first lawmen in Los Angeles County to lose their lives in the line of duty. The other three deputized posse members were barely able to escape the hail of bullets and report back about what took place, the ambush and the death of the four others. 

When the folks in Los Angeles heard of what took place, in not more than two hours, a posse of 60 heavily armed men was formed and left to pursue the Flores gang.  Under the leadership of James Thompson, who would later be named Los Angeles County Sheriff himself, lead a large posse which found the bodies of the four dead lawmen. Soon enough word was relayed back that the bodies of Sheriff Barton, Deputy Daly, and Constables Baker and Little, were found. 

As soon as the word of the discovery arrived, a special recovery party which consisted of a large number of outriders that escorted several wagons filled with coffins left to recover the dead lawmen. The mission of that recovery party was to secure their bodies and return them to Los Angeles. 

As for their return to Los Angeles, as for the reception of the bodies and the funeral, it was reported that the remains of the four lawmen were received in Los Angeles at about noon on a Sunday. The city went into instant mourning and all businesses closed. The burial ceremonies were held on Monday and were attended by the citizens "en masse."

Los Angeles County Sheriff Barton and his posse were on their way to arrest Flores for killing George Pflugardt when they were ambushed at Barranco de los Alisos.  The murders of Sheriff Barton and the other three lawmen is said to have been a huge miscalculation by the Flores gang. 

If the Flores gang thought that they would still find sanctuary with the Mexican community after the murders, they were wrong as even their most staunch supporters turned on them. And at the same time, citizens volunteers in great numbers to wage war against outlaws, and hunt down the Flores gang.

Sooner than most thought possible, the Flores gang was captured by a small army of legally deputized citizens. They included a Los Angeles posse of 51 American merchants and Californio ranchers, a Temecula Indian leader who supplied 43 Luiseño scouts, the Monte Rangers which was a group of former Texas Rangers living in Southern California, members of the vigilance committee known as the "El Monte Boys", and posses from San Bernardino and San Diego. And believe it or not, even U.S. Army troops from Fort Tejon and from San Diego were a part of the manhunt for the Flores gang. Yes, a small army all with a common goal of bring in the Flores gang dead or alive. 

We should also take note of what can happen when Americans bond together. For example, that small army didn't stop with the capture of the Juan Flores and those bushwhacking killers. Fact is, they attacked outlaw violence itself as between 60 and 70 Mexican-Americans were arrested on having connections with Flores and other outlaw gangs. Some say that between February of 1857 and November of 1858, there were 11 members of the Flores gang who were lynched by the vigilance committee the "El Monte Boys". In reality, all toll 52 members of the Flores gang were arrested and 18 were hanged for the murders.

As for the capture of Juan Flores and his gang, the Luiseño Indian scouts were the ones who actually discovered where the Flores gang was hiding out in the Santa Ana Mountains south of the Los Angeles basin. Soon after their discovery, a posse led by Californios surrounded and arrested those that they could. Of course as luck would have it, Flores and a few others managed to escape through the mountains. 

The Monte Rangers, those former Texas Rangers, moved in and captured Flores and the others after what was said to be one hell of a shootout. Sadly for the Rangers, a few of those they captured managed to free themselves and escape that night. Yes, one of them was Juan Flores.

During the next eleven days, a massive manhunt took place in that area, all looking for Flores. Then finally on February 14th, 1857, Flores was brought in by a 120 man posse of U.S Army troops. Imagine that if you would. Between this group and that, this all sounds like the largest group of posses ever assembled in the history of law enforcement.

One report read, "with practically every man, woman and child present in the pueblo" known as Los Angeles, in front of a crowd estimated at 3,000 people, Juan Flores was tried for murder while walking to a hanging tree at the top of Fort Hill. That spot is modern-day downtown Los Angeles. And there at Fort Hill, he was hanged until dead.

Of course, justice has a way of being slower for some. Take for example, the hanging of Juan Flores. It's said that when he was hanged, that his noose was a bit too short. So for Flores, instead of dying quickly by having his neck snap, he lingered while choking and struggling. Some say he actually danced while suffocating at the end of his rope.

For many there that day, the hanging of Juan Flores was justice finally served. Very overdue.

Tom Correa


  1. I used to live in Aliso Viejo, California a few years ago and passed by the Barranco de los Alisos which was at the opening of old Laguna Canyon Road just south of the interchange of the 5 and 133 fwys. I've always been interested in this massacre and the aftermath. Thanks much for the aritcle.

  2. Can you be more specific about the location. Some have said it is by the 405 and the 133, not the 5.

  3. Hello, Tom Betts. Nice to see ya. You're no stranger to me. I know you from "Westerns All'Italiana!" and "The Spaghetti Westerns Podcast". I've seen almost every episode of that and I gotta say that was tremendous work. I'm surprised you even commented on Juan Flores. I kinda thought you'd never talk about such stuff but it appears I was wrong. It's amazing that you once lived in Aliso Viejo, California where all of Juan's suspicious activities occurred. I was just wondering, Tom. Was this the type of history you learned in school because that's the history I was taught. If it wasn't then you must have found out later on. Either way it's interesting. I wish more Old West historians talked about this. It might have the potential of being made into a movie. Who knows? Anyway, gotta go. I think I feel nostalgia. Adios, amigos. Or as we would also like to say, adios, companeros.


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