Visiting the Gila County Sheriff’s Office in December 1919, one might have seen the goods from some recent arrests - a pair of illegal stills from the area of Sleeping Beauty Mountain, seized by Sheriff Eugene Shute and his deputies. Five men were detained in connection with the liquor works. “One still was cleverly concealed in a prospect hole covered with old sheet iron and was in operation when discovered by the officers,” the Daily Silver Belt reported. “The still and a large quantity of wine and grape brandy are on exhibition at the office of the sheriff. The second still . . . is also at the sheriff’s office with a large quantity of its forbidden product.”
Eugene Shute, the son of a Globe businessman with a ranch north of the Salt River, was elected sheriff in 1918 – Arizona’s fourth year as a “dry” state. It was not his first taste of law enforcement. Around 13 years earlier, as a member of the storied Arizona Rangers, Shute went to northern Mexico tracking worse than moonshiners – and for him it was personal.
On the night of July 12, 1905 two men – Sam Plunkett and Ed Kennedy – were murdered at Plunkett’s ranch on Pinto Creek near Livingston (now a ghost town, Livingston is at the east end of Roosevelt Lake). The men were struck with an iron bar and stabbed multiple times. Robbery was the presumed motive; around $100 in cash, a gold watch and a revolver were missing, along with two Mexican workers. In a July 20 article headlined “The Murderers Close Trailed,” the Silver Belt reported that Arizona Rangers were on the case. So were Plunkett’s brothers-in-law, Eugene and Walter Shute, who “spent days and nights in the saddle” and “left no stone unturned to find the criminals.”
A Ranger private, William S. Peterson, led the initial investigation. With the help of Al Sieber and some Indian scouts, Peterson tracked the suspects for 20 miles. Their trail vanished in Globe, but a bloody shirt was found about four miles from the crime scene.
Two suspects were arrested at Red Rock, northwest of Tucson. The Silver Belt reported that Eugene Shute traveled to Tucson for a look and “pronounced them to be the men to the best of his knowledge and belief.” The suspects were taken to Globe, but it seems they were not the men; they had none of the stolen items and said they were working on the railroad when the murders occurred.
The Rangers soon found another lead, learning that a bartender at a Globe boarding house had aided the killers’ getaway. He apparently hid them for about two days, tended one man’s knife wounds, cashed a paycheck for them and bought them new clothes. The bartender claimed they later wrote to him from a town in northern Mexico – and then the trail went cold. It is possible the men escaped by train. A conductor on the Globe-Bowie railway reported two Mexican men getting off a car’s brake beams in Bowie a few days after the crime.
On Dec. 20, 1905 the Arizona Republican published a letter from a University of Southern California student, Charles Haigler, which included this news: “Eugene Shute has to leave tomorrow to join the Rangers at Benson, and will proceed from there to Old Mexico to try and find the Mexicans who murdered his brother-in-law . . .” Two months earlier, Shute had signed to play football at USC. He would become a letterman, setting a USC record at the time with a 30-yard field goal, as well as a track team member. But all that came later, after his adventure in Sonora.
Months after the Plunkett-Kennedy murders, the Arizona Rangers had not given up investigating – and the trail was warming up again. Ranger Lieutenant Harry Wheeler heard the killers were moving between mining camps south of the border. He determined to chase the lead, along with Sgt. Billy Old and two new members – Marion “Dick” Hickey and Eugene Shute. At 22, Shute was one of the Rangers’ youngest recruits.
Crossing into Sonora, the four men stopped at the town of Magdalena, about 50 miles from the border. There was no sign of the men they were after. Wheeler decided to call on a local, with whom the Rangers had worked before, for help.
This story will continue in next week’s Silver Belt.