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Celebrate! : Orange County's First 100 Years : The Growth Years : Gun 'Em Down; String 'em Up

May 22, 1988|PATRICK MOTT | Mott is a free-lance writer who contributes regularly to The Times' Orange County Life section

Today, the bent sycamore off Santiago Canyon Road is known as 'Hangman's Tree.' And Juan Flores has been cited as 'the most daring, the cruelest bandit known to the history of the Santa Ana Valley.'

There was a time when bad guys in Orange County rode horses and kept their loaded six-shooters in holsters strapped to their hips, ever ready to shoot up a town or turn back a posse of good guys . . . .

Consider the case of Juan Flores and his outlaw gang who were on the loose more than a century ago. Flores, the black sheep of a prominent Santa Barbara family, was a horse thief who escaped from San Quentin prison and fled south toward what would eventually become Orange County.

He was only 20 or so when he formed a gang of nearly 50 fugitives into a force he called Los Manillas (the handcuffs), a band that robbed and terrorized its way south to San Juan Capistrano.

On Jan. 22, 1857, Flores and his men shot and killed George Pflugardt, a San Juan storekeeper, while Pflugardt was preparing dinner. The gang ate the dinner and then turned to the job of shooting up the town.

It was there that Flores discovered that the very horses he had been sent to prison for stealing had been brought to San Juan from Los Angeles. The freight hauler was Garnet Hardy, one of the brothers from whom Flores had stolen the horses. The bandit vowed to waylay, rob and kill Hardy to square accounts for his imprisonment, but a local woman overheard the plot and alerted Hardy, who slipped out of town--with the horses.

A day later, a five-man posse led by Los Angeles Sheriff James Barton arrived at the hacienda of Don Jose Sepulveda, owner of the Rancho San Joaquin, whose house stood at the head of Newport Bay on land that would later become part of Irvine Ranch. While the posse breakfasted, it is assumed that their guns were tampered with by a woman, Chola Martina, believed to be Flores' sweetheart.

When the posse reached the site of what is now the Laguna Freeway overpass at the San Diego Freeway, nearly 20 Manillas rode downhill toward them and opened fire. The posse's guns useless, Barton and three of his deputies were killed.

Word of the "Barton Massacre" reached Los Angeles. There were calls for a posse to hunt Flores and avenge the death of the popular sheriff. A 119-man posse, led by Gen. Andres Pico, found Flores and several compatriots camped in Santiago Canyon, and a wild gunfight ensued. Flores and 10 others scrambled up the nearby peak that now bears the bandit's name; Flores escaped by sliding down one side. His men were not so lucky--all were captured.

Flores himself was caught a few days later in what is now Irvine Park.

Flores and two companions went to a jail in Olive, but they soon escaped. An outraged Pico immediately hanged two other bandits, cut off their ears for evidence, then set after Flores. The two hanged outlaws remained dangling in their nooses for six months, according to several accounts of the incident. Flores was recaptured four days later in what is now Hollywood and was taken to Los Angeles and hanged.

Today, the bent sycamore off Santiago Canyon Road from which the two outlaws captured with Flores were hanged is known as "Hangman's Tree." And Flores has gone into Orange County criminal history--at least according to local historian Terry Stephenson--as "the most daring, the cruelest bandit known to the history of the Santa Ana Valley."

A BANDIT WHO WAS portrayed as being of the more gentlemanly sort was Tiburcio Vasquez. At age 16, the Monterey-born Vasquez became the leader of what would be the last of the California bandido gangs.

The sensationalist press of the 1850s described him as handsome and gallant; later a historian said that Vasquez, a hardened robber, was "ugly as a toad." He gained his questionable reputation for gallantry through stories that apparently had their source on the Rancho San Joaquin, where Vasquez was known to have occasionally stolen horses from Don Jose Sepulveda's stables.

According to one tale, Vasquez and his band on two occasions pursued Sepulveda's daughter Ascencion on horseback--she was driving a buggy both times--until Vasquez recognized her as a member of the Sepulveda family and ordered his men to back off. Another story claims that a second Sepulveda daughter, Chonita, was in danger of being raped by some of Vasquez's men until the bandit leader rode up, shamed them with withering words and scornful looks, and graciously sent the young woman on her way.

Vasquez finally was captured in March, 1875, at the spot in the Cahuenga Pass where the Hollywood Bowl stands today, and was soon hanged.

An account by Stephenson related that when Chonita Sepulveda learned of the bandido's death, tears filled her eyes.

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