B y L e o W . B a n k s
The Patagonia Mountains on the Mexican border are a bizarre, twilight frontier populated by misfits, drug runners, cops, coyotes and wary citizens who never stray far from their sidearms. It's the wild west in the 20th century.
Herschel Mayes knew the mountains were dangerous when he moved there in April 1994. But the 62-year-old retired military man had a case of gold fever.
He was going to pan for color and maybe make the strike of his life. He moved into a Quonset hut in Lochiel, a quarter mile from the line.
In the front yard he set up a trommel, a machine that washes large quantities of rock and separates out the gold. Mayes' brother held mining claims in the area and promised to join him soon.
On Sunday October 23, Mayes hosted a party at his hut. It ended when he ran out of beer. About 2 a.m. Monday, he was awakened by someone rapping on his bedroom window.
A man outside, speaking broken English, asked for food. Mayes crawled out of bed and opened his front door and stepped out into the moonlit night.
But he was groggy, and brushed past the man without getting a good look at him. Mayes had to take a leak. He stood beside his trommel and unzipped, and when he was done he turned to go back inside.
"Come in," he said to the mysterious visitor he still couldn't quite see. "I'll make you a sandwich."
But the visitor had other ideas. He was a Hispanic male, about 5-feet-10 and 150 pounds. He wore a camouflage jacket and dark pants. He pressed a snub nose .38 revolver against Mayes' right temple.
"I seen it gleaming in the moonlight when he pulled it out," Mayes said.
The gunman walked Mayes into his kitchen and aimed the gun at his stomach. "Give me your money," he demanded.
Mayes emptied his wallet of $180 and handed it over. Then he gave the gunman the keys to his 1988 Plymouth Horizon, and the two men walked outside.
From the car Mayes retrieved some rope. The gunman walked him back into the hut, this time to the bedroom. He ordered Mayes to lay on his stomach and tied his hands behind his back.
Mayes figured this was the end, that he was going to die face down on his own bed. But the gunman simply said, "No problem," and walked out.
A short time later Mayes heard his Horizon driving toward the border. He worked his hands free and ran outside into the moonlight.
He crouched behind his trommel and watched the Horizon stop at the border, turn around and head down toward Patagonia.
It was 2:24 a.m. Mayes had no telephone and didn't want to wake his neighbors. He waited until sunrise, then went to the home of Skip and Rose Myrick, who had a phone.
But Mayes was too shaken to make the call. Rose made it for him. Maybe Mayes lost a few years due to fright, but he was unhurt physically, except for rope burns on his wrists.
Mayes believed he knew the identity of his assailant.
It was his good friend, Ernesto Velarde, a 20-year-old from Santa Cruz, Sonora, who often came across the line to drink beer and chat with Mayes.
As Mayes saw it, everything pointed to Velarde. He spoke broken English, his size--five-eight and 150 pounds--matched Mayes' description of the gunman, and Velarde often wore camouflage clothing.
When Velarde came to visit, he always announced his presence by knocking at the same bedroom window, and he often asked Mayes for food.
"One time he came over and ate a whole pound of my bologna," Mayes said.
Velarde visited Mayes at least once a week, usually walking up from his home in Santa Cruz. They called each other by their nicknames, Hank and Neto.
"I knew him like a brother," Velarde told police.
They'd sit around and drink beers and talk about all sorts of things. Velarde liked to practice knife-throwing in Mayes' kitchen.
He'd throw a knife over and over at a box, trying to get it to stick.
Mayes enjoyed his pal's company so much that he ignored a warning to keep away from Velarde. It came from Velarde's own father, Francisco.
"He kept telling me Ernesto was, 'No bueno, no bueno,' " Mayes said. "But I'd get lonely up there. It was nice having someone to talk to."
What soured the relationship is unclear. But on the border drugs is where you look first.
Mayes admitted that he liked to smoke marijuana for his rheumatoid arthritis. "I get these pains," he said.
And the theft of his car had all the traits of a drug job--a thief wearing camouflage clothes, Mayes' car stopping at the border, perhaps to make a pickup, then turning around and heading north.
Contraband runs over the dirt roads of Lochiel like rain water. The holdup and the theft seemed like another drug stickup, a venerable tradition on the border.
Mayes told the cops his story, including his belief that Velarde was the gunman, then he went to Sierra Vista to buy a new car.
On November 2, detectives showed up at Mayes' hut to ask additional questions about the robbery. Mayes and a friend were inside drinking beer.
Investigator Mike Magallanes asked Mayes if he'd had any contact with Velarde since October 24.
"Yes, this morning," Mayes said. "I shot him and I hope the fucker dies."
Magallanes was stunned. "You shot him?"
"Yeah. I shot the sonofabitch and I hope he dies."
Actually the shooting took place the night before, at about 6 p.m., when Velarde came across the line to visit his good pal.
The two men drank a couple of cans of Milwaukee's Best. They shot the breeze for about 45 minutes. In Mayes' version, the conversation grew tense when the subject turned to the missing Plymouth Horizon.
"The robber looked a lot like you," Mayes said. "Only he wasn't wearing a cap."
Velarde was wearing a Georgia Bulldogs cap. He removed it.
"Do I look like him now?" he asked.
"Yeah," Mayes said.
They reached a standoff. Mayes' cap and ball pistol sat out on the table nearby. It was a Colt .44 he ordered from a catalogue.
As tempers mounted, Mayes inched toward the weapon.
"Get the hell out and go back to Mexico," he yelled.
Velarde said he'd go if Mayes drove him to the border in his new car. Mayes refused, believing his friend was going to steal that one, too. He repeated his order to leave.
"No," Velarde said. "You're going to take me in that car." Mayes grabbed the pistol and threatened to shoot if Velarde didn't leave.
"Go ahead and shoot," Velarde taunted. "You won't kill me. Shoot."
Mayes told a couple of different versions of what happened next. In one interview with police, he claimed Velarde pulled a knife and was waving it around, saying, "I could kill you with this knife."
In another, Mayes said he got scared when he saw Velarde reach for the inside pocket of his jacket, possibly for a knife.
To The Weekly, Mayes said Velarde reached into his pants pocket, not his jacket pocket.
Mayes' next move is not in dispute. He aimed and fired his catalogue pistol from 20 feet. The bullet went clear through Velarde's hand and struck him in the belly. But it didn't penetrate. It bounced off, leaving a nasty bruise.
"I kept warning him and warning him," Mayes said. "I think he was surprised when I shot him."
After being hit, Velarde felt something hot on his belly. He covered the spot where the bullet struck with both hands.
Then Velarde said, "Oh," and went out the door of the hut.
"I'd say that's an excellent shot from 20 feet away with a muzzle-loading gun," said Gregory Droeger, Velarde's lawyer.
Droeger also said Velarde went to Mayes' hut that evening to confront him. He wanted to find out why Mayes was accusing him of committing the October 24 robbery.
Velarde told police he was the one frightened of Mayes. "I saw his pistol," he said. "I saw him. I saw his look."
Velarde left a trail of blood to the border. Before crossing he stopped at the Myricks' house, the same place Mayes went after the first incident.
The couple was watching TV when Velarde showed up gushing blood from a hole in his hand. "I need help," he begged.
Rose Myrick cleaned and dressed the wound, and Velarde was on his way back to Santa Cruz.
"That's what you have to put up with living on the border, people showing up at your front door with bullet wounds," said Droeger.
Mayes was scared Velarde might return and shoot him.
"I got a bottle of whiskey out from under the sink and started drinking," he said. "If he was going to come back and shoot me, I figured the drunker I was the less pain I'd feel."
He sat there thinking about how he'd heard that Lochiel was an old Indian burial site, and figured maybe he was messing with some bad spirits.
This time, Mayes was arrested and charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
At 2 p.m. the same day, November 2, Magallanes called Velarde at home in Santa Cruz. He asked if it was possible for Velarde to return to Lochiel to discuss the shooting with detectives.
He made the request a bit more attractive by saying he'd be taken to a Nogales hospital for medical treatment.
Magallanes didn't mention to Velarde that he planned to arrest him for the October 24 robbery.
Velarde bit at the offer. They decided to meet at the Texas gate, an unmanned border crossing at Lochiel. Magallanes and Ray Earls were there at the agreed-upon hour, 3 p.m.
But Velarde bypassed the gate, crawled through a hole in the fence some distance away and walked up to the cops. He was promptly arrested--on an outstanding traffic warrant from Patagonia.
On January 1, 1994, Velarde was cited for possession of alcohol as a minor, and possession of marijuana.
He was also charged with kidnapping, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, armed robbery and car theft in the October 24 attack on Mayes.
Why would a man suspected of serious crimes, and with a warrant outstanding for his arrest, voluntarily leave Mexico, where the cops couldn't get to him, and re-enter the U.S.?
On the border, his reasons made perfect sense.
"He came back because he wanted to get Hank in trouble for shooting him," said Laurie Martin, a prosecutor in the Santa Cruz County Attorney's office. "That and free medical treatment."
Velarde was tossed into the same block of the county jail as Mayes. For six days their cells were right across from one another.
That gave them plenty of time to talk. They'd wave back and forth to each other. Velarde, evidently no longer mad, kept holding up his bandaged hand to Mayes, showing off his wound.
"He didn't seem to mind that I shot him," said Mayes. "He asked me how are things up in Lochiel, and have I talked to Rose."
The two were talking so much that deputies had to tell them to shut up.
In February, a Santa Cruz County jury acquitted Velarde of all charges. Mayes was never solid in his identification, and he gave conflicting statements to police, such as stating flatly that Velarde was the bad guy, then backing off and saying he wasn't.
"I was drunk when they arrested me," Mayes explained.
In his interview with Magallanes, Mayes complained about Mexicans coming across the line and robbing him:
"What if I shoot a bunch of Mexicans if they come to my door to try to rob and kill me?"
Later, referring to Velarde, Mayes said: "Do you mind if I shot the motherfucker or not?"
"I exploited the Mexican statement to the jury for the racial prejudice angle," said Droeger. "But frankly I thought it was meaningless."
Droeger did a good job exploiting Mayes' confusion with the jury. It could also be that the mysterious visitor was someone other than Velarde. Stranger things have happened.
Because Santa Cruz County couldn't have Mayes as victim in one case and defendant in another, the charges against him were referred to the Pima County Attorney. In mid-March that office decided not to prosecute.
"Hank Mayes is a sweet man," said prosecutor Martin. "He was scared to death living up there. He's the real victim in all this."
They've moved away together, far from the madness of Lochiel and those Indian spirits. They're happy. Getting off the hook legally was good news, too.
But all in all, Lochiel wasn't a good time for Mayes. His brother never showed up, he never found any gold nuggets, and he shot his best friend.
"Everybody told me I should've killed him," Mayes said. "But I've never wanted to kill anybody. I still kinda like the guy. I got no hard feelings."
Oh, well. These things happen on the border, America's 20th century frontier.
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