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METRO NEWS | L.A. Then and Now

Greed, Violence Haunted Wealthy Heiress

February 18, 2001|Cecilia Rasmussen

History made the Sycamore Inn one of Rancho Cucamonga's best-known places, first as a tavern and post office, then as a Butterfield Stage stop and at last as a rustic steak house along what would become the fabled Route 66--a site that's been feeding travelers for 140 years.

But what makes this restaurant even more memorable is the cowardly murder of a ranch foreman and the plot to murder a land-rich widow that took place there just after the Civil War.

Dona Merced Williams was no ordinary heiress. Her father, Isaac Williams, was the richest cattle baron in the state, and her mother was the beautiful daughter of one of the most famous Californio patriarchs of them all, Antonio Lugo.

Merced was 7 years old in 1846 when the family's elegant Chino home was torched in the Mexican-American battle for control of California. And her father's death 10 years later left her with a half interest in his 35,000-acre rancho, making her one of the most sought-after women in Southern California. Men often came courting at the family hacienda.

Merced was a pampered 17-year-old, protected by her indulgent father, and she knew nothing of business matters or how to run a ranch. So when her father died in 1856, she turned desperately to the first eligible suitor, and married him the day after her father's funeral, scandalizing Southern California.

Her bridegroom, John Rains, a former Texas Ranger, was a poor but gallant cowpoke--but also a cunning and ambitious opportunist, and the marriage led to three murders and the juiciest scandal of the age.

Propelled by sinister motives and the greed of a social climber, Rains took complete control of Merced's wealth, trading her share of her vast childhood home for 13,000 acres of the water-rich Rancho Cucamonga. Although Mexican law required the land to be held in both names, Rains drew up the deed in his name only. When his wife kept asking whether her name was on the deed, he brushed her off.

Eager to be a respected land baron, he set about transforming a tumbleweed wasteland into an agricultural oasis. He built a brick hacienda near a spring at what is now the intersection of Vineyard Avenue and Hemlock Street, near where the rancho's previous owner, Tiburcio Tapia, had reportedly buried the fortune he built by smuggling--a treasure undiscovered to this day. Rains' brick house is now a museum.

In 1861, when the Civil War broke out, Rains became a member of the Knights of the Golden Circle, a secret order of Southern sympathizers holed up in El Monte. By then he had overextended his credit by buying up more land. When politics began taking up his time, he left the running of his ranch to his foreman.

Business took Rains to Los Angeles on a day in November 1862. Along the trail near Mud Springs (now southern San Dimas), someone lassoed him, dragged him from his wagon and shot him four times. His body was found 11 days later in a cactus patch off the main road. No one was ever tried, although townsfolk suspected several people, among them Rains' ranch manager, Ramon Carrillo, Rains' brother-in-law Robert Carlisle, and the pregnant young widow herself.

Weeks later, Rains' friends, a dozen or so of the Monte Boys--a bunch of racist Anglos who were allowed to deliver vigilante "justice" to the region's Indians, Chinese and Mexican Americans--met over drinks at Billy Rubottom's tavern--now the Sycamore Inn on Foothill Boulevard.

Rubottom warily watched the armed and drunken cowhands, listening as they made plans to hang Merced, who they believed had plotted her husband's murder. Rubottom pulled out a double-barreled shotgun, took their guns and ordered them on their way.

Merced, in mourning, pregnant with her fifth child and overwhelmed by the tremendous debts her husband had run up, was unaware of how close she had come to being murdered herself.

Three months after her husband's murder, in the parlor of her home, the 23-year-old widow was held a virtual prisoner in a daylong confrontation led by Carlisle, who was married to Merced's sister, Francisca. Carlisle and five of his powerful and influential cronies, repeating "You're just a woman," bullied Merced into signing an irrevocable power of attorney giving her brother-in-law complete control of her ranch.

It was like "an iron chain around her neck," wrote Judge Benjamin Hayes, Merced's attorney and friend, and the man she turned to to get her land back.

But even Hayes' court actions left Merced fearing for her life. In May 1864, about a year after she was forced to sign the document, Merced set out to visit a friend, driving her carriage along what is now Foothill Boulevard. Carrillo, the ranch foreman, rode protectively on horseback behind the carriage. Without warning, a single shot struck him in the back. Terror-stricken and thinking he was dead and she was next, Merced raced the carriage to the safety of a friend's home.

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