Bob Olinger, New Mexico's Killer Deputy
Text and photos by Bill Kelly
The legendary gunslingers of the 1880s were found on both sides of the law. John Wesley Hardin was the undisputed killer of the West, but most towns had their own monarchs. Wild Bill Hickok ruled over Deadwood, Wyatt Earp controlled Tombstone, Dallas Stoudenmire tamed El Paso, Long-haired Jim Courtright dominated Fort Worth, and in California Joaquin Murietta killed anybody that looked at him crossways.
Bob Olinger's place in New Mexico history roughly parallels Billy the Kid's. His own mother remembered him this way, "Bob was a murderer from the cradle, and if there is a hell hereafter then he is there."
The only difference between the Kid and Olinger is that Billy was an authentic badman while Olinger was a role-playing badman; a sort of imitation desperado who actually looked and acted the part of a real villain while hiding behind a badge. He killed with deliberation and premeditation, and death was a natural consequence to any man who crossed him.
A giant of a man, he was broad-shouldered and swivel-hipped - a rodent on a jackal frame. His long hair hung to his shoulders, and when he strutted the plankwalks of Las Vegas or Santa Fe, his brilliant haberdashery turned heads. His mammoth sombrero was elegantly tasseled, and his cow-country boots were ornately stitched. He attracted attention when he parted the bat wings and entered gambling halls or saloons that supported poker, his favorite sport.
Bob was a cold-blooded killer with several notches credited to his blood lust. He was fast on the draw, and any man foolish enough to test his mettle was promised an uninterrupted slumber in hell. And testimony in abundance conclusively proves he was not beyond shooting an unarmed man, or a man walking away.
The late Marion Speer of Huntington Beach, Calif., wrote in his memoirs that he saw Olinger picking his teeth with a sharp Bowie-knife during a poker game one night in Santa Fe. Speer recalled that Olinger tried to impress people with his toughness. Speer said, "Olinger was an expert knife-thrower and was forever tossing his knife end-over-end into trees or hitching rails along the street. 'Wow!' the impressed children would squeal, and Bob would smirk and swagger."
Bob was tough all right. But he made one fatal mistake. He made an enemy of William Bonny, aka Billy the Kid.
Charles Robert Olinger was born around 1841. He does not surface in the 1870 and 1880 federal census reports so his birthplace and birthdate are a mystery. History lost track of him until he became town marshal of the notorious Seven Rivers district in southeastern Lincoln County in the early 1860s. His fondness for gambling and intoxicating liquors threw him into bad company, and he repeatedly displayed a certain friendship to desperados until his demise in 1881.
Olinger's first recorded killings began in Seven Rivers, although his trigger-finger probably itched long before then. His first encounter happened in the Royal Saloon, while he was playing poker with a group of friends, including his closest saddle-pard, a Mexican named Juan Chavez. Never an ill word had been spoken between them until for the purpose of obtaining a "flush," Olinger filched a card.
Chavez accused him of cheating, at which Bob jumped up, drew his pistol, and leveled it at Chavez's head, who was unarmed. A man sitting next to Chavez tossed him a six-shooter, and, quick as a hiccup, Chavez and Olinger exchanged shots. When the smoke cleared, Chavez lay dead on the sawdust floor with a bullet in his throat. "All's well that end's well," Olinger said as he walked out the door.
The second notch on Olinger's gun underscored the truism that he was lower than a snake's belly in a wagon rut. It concerned the death of a gambler named John Hill. Details of Hill's death are fuzzy, but according to legend, Olinger won all Hill's poker money in Diamond Lil's casino and dance hall, and afterwards, Hill caused a stir. He told everyone within earshot to avoid playing cards with Bob Olinger because he would rope you in by allowing you to win a few small bets. Then he would pull aces and kings from thin air in such a convincing way that his opponent was easily taken in, never suspecting he had just been hornswoggled.
That night, in the pitch of darkness, as Hill emerged from Diamond Lil's after his nightly poker game, Olinger shot him dead with a blunderbuss from a dark alley in much the same way John Wayne drygulched Liberty Valance.
At a local "pleasure" parlor Bob Jones had the misfortune of sitting in on a poker game with Olinger and losing all his money, which caused a weighty argument and put the two gamblers at odds. Jones remembered the fate of Juan Chavez and John Hill, so he wisely gave Olinger a wide berth. Olinger's opportunity came when Deputy Pierce Jones had a misdemeanor warrant to serve on Bob Jones. A misdemeanor warrant was not really a criminal offense and consisted of nothing more than Jones paying a fine, but Olinger decided to tag along, "just in case."
When the two lawmen drew bridle they found Bob Jones chopping wood near the porch of his cabin, on the outskirts of town. Three small children were playing nearby, and his wife was in the kitchen, baking bread. "Good morning," was the salutation of the landowner. He made no display of resistance when he was taken into custody. He was unarmed, and a rifle he used for hunting food for his family was on the porch - no threat to the lawdogs.
Bob Jones quietly asked Deputy Jones if he could explain to his wife that he would be right back after he paid his fine, and the deputy said yes. As Jones passed his rifle on the porch, Olinger saw his chance to claim self defense. He drew his pistol and fired three fleeting shots into Bob's back as his wife and children stood by screaming.
Appalled by what he had witnessed, Deputy Jones brought murder charges against Olinger, and Lincoln County authorities issued warrant number 282 for his arrest. Sheriff George Kimball arrested him and brought him to Lincoln for trial.
The warrant read, "To arrest and take body of Robert Olinger to Lincoln the 1st Monday of October 1879 to answer charge of murder." This warrant is still in the file at the Lincoln County Courthouse. The case was dismissed without going to court.
In February of 1878 a double-barreled war erupted in Lincoln County, and the Lawrence Murphy-James Dolan group hired Olinger's gun. Bad Bob was among the riders who caught John Tunstall in a lonely ravine near Pajarito Spring and murdered him in cold blood. Although several riders participated in the murder, only James Dolan and Jacob B. "Billy" Matthews were charged with being accessories to murder. Both men took a change of venue to Socorro County where, in October of 1879, they were acquitted of any wrongdoing. Olinger was never punished for his well-known part in the death of the unarmed John Tunstall.
In October 1879 Patrick Floyd Garrett, who spent as much time in gambling dens as he did upholding the law, was elected to the office of Sheriff of Lincoln County. To his chagrin, Bob Olinger was appointed his deputy. In his autobiography, Garrett said Olinger was a good deputy in some ways, but he had a bloodthirsty urge for violence.
Olinger's lust for blood was evident to Garrett the day he and Olinger rode out to arrest an armed Mexican who had taken refuge in a ditch. Garrett promised the Mexican that if he would surrender peaceably, no harm would come to him. As the Mexican emerged from the ditch with his hands in the air, Olinger drew his pistol with homicidal intent. Only when Garrett pulled his own pistol and stood in front of the Mexican did Olinger holster his. "Put it away, Bob," said Garrett. "Unless you want to try me."
Detailed on a memo pad in Olinger's own handwriting is his account of the only time he went to jail. He scribbled: "The first time I was in jail March the 11th, 1881. Arrested by the order of L. Bradford, Prince Chief Justice of the First Judicial District. Court charged with being a Deputy U.S. Marshal and carrying deadly weapons. Disarmed and sent to jail. After was discharged from custody and allowed to carry arms."
Bob Olinger developed a morbid need to kill Billy the Kid, and that personal peccadillo was his undoing. When the Kid was captured by Pat Garrett in December 1880, Garrett instructed Olinger to meet the party when it arrived in Santa Fe where the Kid, Dave Rudabaugh, Tom Pickett, and Bill Wilson were to be incarcerated in the city jail on Water Street. Olinger was detained in Santa Fe until January 22 due to the fact that Wilson's legal incarceration was in doubt because Judge Samuel Ellyson had neglected to return at the appointed time. He lingered away his time playing poker and trying to oblige Garrett's order to "stay out of trouble," while Judge Warren Bristol held the preliminary examination for Wilson.
Wilson waived examination and was committed for trial by the Third District Court in Mesilla. The Santa Fe New Mexican dated January 23, 1881, ran an article saying Olinger was happy now that his long delay was consummated. Oddly, 8-year-old Billy Wilson never stood trial. Not only was he wanted in Mesilla, but Las Vegas had a warrant out for him for stealing horses with Billy the Kid, Sam Cook, and Tom Pickett in October 1879.
It was the duty of Olinger and Santa Fe deputy Tony Neis to put Billy the Kid on the southbound train for trial in Mesilla. Billy sat next to the window anchored with heavier weights than the Titanic. Olinger sat beside him with a shotgun across his lap, a pistol dangling from each hip, and a Bowie-knife thrust in his belt. All the way to Mesilla, Bob taunted the Kid: "Your days are short, Kid. I can see that rope around your neck now."
"Oh, I don't know, Bob," the Kid replied coolly. "There's many a slip twixt the cup and the lip."
The chance of the Kid being found not guilty was certainly a nullity, and Olinger bid for the job of transporting Billy back to Lincoln for the hanging. Judge Joseph C. Lea of Roswell paid Olinger $300 for his services. On April 15 Dona Ana County Sheriff James W. Southwick turned Billy over to Olinger, who chained Billy to a hack for his trip back to Lincoln.
The party that proceeded across the wastelands to Lincoln included Dave Woods, Tom Williams, D.M. Reade, W.A. Lockhart, Jake Mathews and John Kinny. Olinger rode in the hack with Billy, constantly tormenting him and jabbing him with the muzzle of his shotgun, daring him to make a break for it. "Be careful, Bob," Billy quietly retorted. "I'm not hung yet. " And Olinger jabbed him in the stomach again with his shotgun. A majority of the guards sympathized with Billy, in spite of evidences of his villainy.
Olinger turned the Kid over to Garrett along with an expense account for a whopping $1,319. The cost of Billy's two trials in Mesilla was only $80. Billy was secreted in the upper northeast section of the old courthouse. Olinger never stopped taunting Billy, and Garrett was forced to tell him to "lay off the Kid," while cautioning him and Deputy J.W. Bell to be careful around the prisoner because he was shiftier than an armful of coat hangers. Once Olinger placed a pistol on a table within Billy's reach, hoping he would go for it. But Billy was too smart for that.
Garrett was in White Oaks on business when Olinger took 12 prisoners to the Worthy Hotel a block away for their daily meal. When he left, Deputy Bell and the Kid were playing poker through the bars. Olinger had a mouthful of food when he heard two shots coming from the direction of the jail. He ran outside, cut along the east wall and bumped into Godfrey Gauss who told him Billy had killed Bell and . . .
Before he could finish, Olinger was rushing to the courthouse mumbling, "He'll never get away from me!" When he was directly under the window of the courthouse, he heard his quondam prisoner say, "Hello, Bob." Olinger looked up and saw the Kid gun in hand. It was the last thing he ever saw on this earth, for at the moment the Kid blasted him to a sorely-deserved slumber with his own shotgun. He died instantly in front of the post office occupied by Ben Ellis.
Old pioneers this writer interviewed wondered why Billy didn't gallop the several hundred miles of sparsely settled country that separated Lincoln from Mexico, where he would have been safe from pursuit. He had a good start on his pursuers. The bodies of deputies Olinger and Bell were placed in a room in the corral behind the courthouse and remained there until Garrett's return. Garrett swore to make Billy pay, and he did.
Constable Ylario Bais summoned six men in Precinct No. 1 to sit in on a coroner's jury. Their verdict: "We, the undersigned, Justice of the Peace and jury who sat upon the inquest held at the courthouse in Lincoln in said county of Lincoln and Territory of New Mexico on the bodies of Robert Olinger and J.W. Bell found in Precinct No. 1 of the county of Lincoln, find that the deceased Robt. Olinger and J.W. Bell both came to their death by reason of gunshot wounds inflicted on them by William Bonney, alias Billy the Kid, while said Bonney was held in custody for the murder of William Brady and was awaiting his execution upon conviction of that crime and that Olinger and Bell were guarding him they were murdered by said Bonny, alias Kid, in making his escape from custody."
Honor, truth, and the sacrifice of self to the considerations of justice and the good of mankind, had nothing to do with New Mexico's gambling deputy's will to exterminate Billy the Kid.
Billy the Kid: A date with Destiny, Marion Ballert with Carl W. Breihan, Hangman Press, 1970.
The Santa Fe Daily New Mexican for March 2, 1981.
Violence in Lincoln County 1869-1881, by William A. Keleher, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1942.
Prelude to the Lincoln County War: The Murder of John Henry Tunstall, by Philip J. Rash, Los Angeles Brand Book, 7:78-95, 1957.
Case No. 300, County of Lincoln, New Mexico.
Personal interview with Marion Speer, Huntington Beach, Ca. 1970.
Las Vegas Daily Optic, Feb., 22, 1881.
Silver City New Southwest and Grant County Herald, May 14, 1881.
More about the author Bill Kelly
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