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Orange County Focus

COUNTYWIDE : Where Flores Gang Shot Sheriff Barton

December 26, 1991|TOM McQUEENEY

When Juan Flores came to what is now Orange County, Los Angeles County Sheriff James R. Barton was hot on his trail. Neither man knew it at the time, but the trail eventually would end at a landmark.

The tale of Wild West shootouts and frontier justice began in January, 1857, two years before Orange County broke away from Los Angeles and during times when horse thieves, cattle rustlers and general lawlessness were not uncommon in the sparsely settled region. Flores, a convicted horse thief who had recently escaped from San Quentin, headed south, apparently on his way to Mexico.

When Flores and his "Las Manillas"--the Handcuffs--gang of perhaps 150 assorted outlaws and prison escapees arrived in San Juan Capistrano, they spent a day or two terrorizing shopkeepers and stealing supplies for the rest of their journey. During the melee, shopkeeper George Pfluggart was killed while the bandits raided his store.

A young messenger was sent on horseback to Los Angeles to get help. The next day, Sheriff Barton and a posse rode south to hunt down the lawbreakers.

Barton caught up with Flores at a hill southeast of what is now the intersection of the San Diego and Laguna freeways--and ended up dead, along with three deputies. The site of the gunfight where the popular Barton and his posse were bushwhacked by Flores and his gang of desperadoes went down in California history as Barton Mound.

The murder of Sheriff Barton prompted what Robert Glass Cleland, author of "The Irvine Ranch," described as "one of the most extensive and exciting manhunts in California annals." To commemorate that manhunt and the epic shootout, Barton Mound was designated State Historical Landmark No. 218 in 1935.

Juan Flores, said to be in his early 20s, has been painted by history as a rich kid gone bad. But until he was finally captured, Flores also was one lucky outlaw, evading arrest several times. In fact, one of the places from which he escaped was later named after him.

Not only did Flores escape from prison, he was able to escape Barton's first manhunt by outnumbering and outgunning his pursuers.

While the six-man posse was still riding south to San Juan Capistrano, Las Manillas rode down from the hills in what is now Irvine and took the lawmen by surprise. The site of the killings is unmarked, and no signs exist to direct history buffs to the proper hill.

The locals, outraged by the slaughter of the lawmen, organized a posse that some historians have estimated at 150 deputies. A contingent of the posse caught Flores and two of his gang members, but Flores' luck was still strong.

After his capture, Flores was taken to the home of Teodocio Yorba near Rancho San Joaquin. Somehow, he escaped in the night.

The posse caught up with Flores and other members of his gang, this time near a 200-foot precipice between Modjeska and Harding canyons. Flores again escaped capture by leaping over the edge and using the brush growing on the hillside to climb to safety. Most of Flores' gang but none of the deputies tried to follow. The site of the daring leap is now called Flores Peak.

A few days later, Flores' luck ran out.

The posse captured him near Simi Pass, and he was taken to Los Angeles to stand trial. A trial, however, was never held. On Feb. 14, 1857, an informal tribunal of many residents of the area voted to execute Flores. He was hanged that afternoon.

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