The Unsolved Mystery of Pat Garrett’s Murder: Cold Case of the American West

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Almost everyone who is a history buff of the American West knows that Lincoln County’s Sheriff Pat Garrett of New Mexico Territory, shot and killed 21-year-old Henry McCarty, a.k.a. Billy the Kid, in the bedroom of Pete Maxwell at Fort Sumner, in July of 1881. What many don’t know, however, is that Garrett was, in fact, murdered in Dora Ana County, New Mexico, 27 years later, and that murder is a mystery that, to this day, remains unsolved.

The Unsolved Mystery of Pat Garrett’s Murder: Cold Case of the American West

Photo: Facebook/Kenneth M. Munzlinger

Sheriff of a number of New Mexico counties, Garrett also operated a private detective company that recovered stolen cattle and took care of their thieves, and worked as a detective for the Southern Pacific Railroad, during which time, he was stationed in Seguin, Texas, where his youngest son, Jarvis, was born. His life carried on, both in and out of ranching and law enforcement, and in and out of parts of West Texas, the Texas Hill Country (including Uvalde, for a time), and New Mexico. And although he was a hard worker, Garrett never achieved great success in life. In particular, he wasn’t quite successful at making or maintaining friendships, but more so, was known for just the opposite, making a number of enemies. Most lawmen often do, but in general, it’s been rumored that he wasn’t a very likable guy, even by his fellow lawmen.

The Unsolved Mystery of Pat Garrett’s Murder: Cold Case of the American West

Photo: Facebook/True West Magazine

On his untimely death, the story goes that on February 29, 1908, Garrett and another gentleman by the name of Carl Adamson were in a buckboard headed for Las Cruces, where they were meeting a third man to seal a deal on some goats Adamson was in negotiations to purchase. On the way, however, that third man, by the name of Wayne Brazel, caught up with the duo and heated words were exchanged. After this confrontation, the story goes that Brazel rode on while Garrett and Adamson continued in the buckboard. Just outside of Las Cruces by a few miles, the wagon stopped so Adamson could relieve himself off the back, when three shots rang out. The result was that Pat Garrett lay dead, and Adamson left his body in the desert to continue on to Las Cruces. When he arrived, he reported the murder and swore he didn’t see who it was that shot Garrett. Shortly thereafter, Brazel confessed to the murder, claiming self-defense. When Garrett’s body was retrieved, however, a number of cigarette butts had been found off the trail, indicating that someone had lain in wait for them, leading to the belief that Garrett’s murder was, in fact, a conspiracy. While his remains laid in the hands of the undertaker, dozens of people came by to see the man who had shot and killed Billy the Kid, and on March 5, 1908, Garrett was buried in Las Cruces, New Mexico. That left the question as to who fired the shot that killed Garrett in the first place, to which there has never been a substantive answer.

The Unsolved Mystery of Pat Garrett’s Murder: Cold Case of the American West

Photo: Wikimedia

There have been many theories posed and studied by Garrett’s biographers with respect to how he died and who got off the fateful shot. Some revolve around distance and accuracy required to have pulled it off and remain concealed, so as to avoid being seen and recognized by the victim. Others revolve around who was known to have the guts to take a contract job such as that at that time, who were also rumored to have been in the area. And still more revolve around the number of disputes Garrett was known to have had, including the final one with Brazel, en route to Las Cruces. No matter how you cut it, the fact still remains that Garrett’s murder was never solved, and the even scarier fact is that resulting from either his ill behavior or ill-conceived mannerisms towards his counterparts, there wasn’t a jury in New Mexico who appeared to want to convict anyone of his murder, all seeming to breathe more a collective sigh of relief as opposed to a pensive exhale at hearing he was killed. And so, to this day, Garrett’s death has remained one of the great mysteries of the American West, yet unsolved, and apparently, a cold case.


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