Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Irrigation feud leads to silent shootout

An Echo farmer in 1920 who held a neighbor at gunpoint over an irrigation disagreement — and made him pay for the gun — later died in a shootout with local authorities.

W.H. Smith, a bachelor farmer thought to be about 65 years old, had been farming property near Echo known as the Spike place for a number of years. On June 10, 1920, Smith began to threaten his neighbor, Joe Ramos, who farmed across a shared irrigation canal from Smith and who had control of the gates regulating the water supply. Smith had conceived of a notion to kill Ramos the day before, making threats to that effect to all who would listen, and had scared off the Echo marshal sent to arrest him.

Smith went into Echo and purchased a Colt special revolver and cartridges. He then went to the Ramos place and held his neighbor at gunpoint while forcing him to write him a check for $53.40 — $10 for damages to his land and $43.40 for the gun and ammunition. Smith then told Ramos he would kill him if he told the police or attempted to stop payment on the check. After Smith left, Ramos traveled to Pendleton to report the threats to the district attorney’s office.

An employee of Smith, Everett Thompson, tried for two days to encourage his employer to forget his feud with Ramos and give himself up to the authorities, but Smith swore he had nothing to live for and that lawmen would never take him alive.

Thompson was working in a nearby field when Deputy Sheriff Joe Blakley of Pendleton and Asa Thomson of Echo showed up to arrest Smith on June 10. Blakley and Thomson had agreed on a peaceable arrest, but Smith saw the two men coming as he worked in a box near a gate in his irrigation ditch. Smith grabbed his revolver and shot twice at Thomson, who was carrying a high-powered rifle, from about 45 yards away. Thomson returned fire and killed Smith. The incident happened so fast Deputy Blakley couldn’t even draw his weapon before it was over, and none of the three men spoke a single word, according to Thompson.

A coroner’s inquiry after the shooting cleared Thomson of any wrong-doing, saying he had fired in self-defense. Because of his sudden hatred of Ramos and his defiance of the authorities, Echo residents theorized Smith had had some kind of mental breakdown.

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