High Noon at Tomato Springs

An epic gun battle is waged and brought to its conclusion. Then the questions begin.

On the evening of Sunday, Dec. 15, 1912, a stranger who had asked for work earlier in the day returned to the Cook ranch and assaulted two sisters living on the premises. He then fled into the foothills but showed up before dawn at the nearby Chambers ranch and—at gunpoint—demanded breakfast. Then he disappeared back into the hills, but not before threatening to kill anyone coming after him ... and to return to the Cook ranch and "kill the girls’ folks."

As the sun rises over Saddleback Mountain, local farmers and ranchers gather at an area near the Chambers ranch known as Tomato Springs. Santa Ana deputies arrive and caution the men—some of whom have brought ropes—that should the outlaw be taken alive, "frontier justice" will not be acceptable.

A plan is formulated. Under-Sheriff Bob Squires will circle around the incline, with the goal of getting above the ridge where the outlaw is entrenched. Three of his deputies will advance in more linear fashion as an intended distraction.

In the meantime, additional men have arrived. Some are from Myford, the whistle stop that one day will be known as Irvine. Others are from Santa Ana, Anaheim, Tustin and points in between. Later it will be estimated that 200 men took part in the Tomato Springs manhunt. 

Of all these men, only El Toro rancher John Osterman arrives on horseback.

What follows has been drawn from a number of accounts, including a front page story published by the Los Angeles Times two days after the assault, as well as a 1968 edition of historian James Sleeper's San Joaquin Gazette dedicated to the manhunt and subsequent gun battle.


Upon arriving at the temporary encampment of medical and sheriff's personnel, John Osterman tethered his horse and, rifle in hand, moved forward and took cover. Later he would tell his sons that the situation already had taken on an extra dimension of danger, since many of the local men were shooting at anything that moved. This was a particular problem, he added, since some of the other volunteers were standing up without calling out a warning—not to mention that many of these men were likely in full view of the gunman.

Curiously, though, the latter’s rocky outpost had turned silent. Had the desperado been hit? Or was he merely biding his time? 

And then laughter rang out from the ridge. A local farm boy, about 17 years of age, had been firing in the direction of the gunman's lair, his faulty aim and .22-calibre rifle clearly unequal to the task.

"Hey, boy!" the outlaw yelled down. "Raise your sights about 100 yards. You’re falling short!"

FIVE HOURS AND COUNTING One of those present noted that it was around 11 o’clock when a platoon of National Guardsmen arrived from Santa Ana, each of the men wearing two  bandoliers of ammunition.

By now the gun battle and its occasional standoffs had been going on for five hours. Gunfire could be heard for miles around, and, according to historian James Sleeper, "No fewer than 60 automobiles and dozens of rigs were parked in the Chambers’ yard. Some 200 men dotted the hillsides, but still they had been unable to dislodge the deadly marksman."

The casualty list was sobering.

Wounded Deputy Tex Stacey had been retrieved and, after triage, transported to Santa Ana for surgery. Also removed to Santa Ana for surgery were Myford blacksmith Willard Culver, whose bullet to the knee looked serious, and—sustaining the worst injury—Cook ranch worker Al Prater, who had been shot in the right temple.

Beyond help was Under-Sheriff Bob Squires, 42, whose body was removed to the office of the county coroner, a Mr. Theodore Winbigler, also owner and operator of the local funeral parlor.

COMPANY L MOVES FORWARD Now Capt. Nathan ("Nate") Ulm of Santa Ana’s Company L consulted with Ruddock and his deputies. A plan was agreed upon. Ulm’s uniformed men stood out clearly. They could furnish excellent targets for the outlaw. On the other hand, their high visibility would save them from being shot at by the edgy and increasingly trigger-happy local men.

First the word was passed to every man, wherever positioned, that all shooting was to cease. "Here comes the militia!" was the shout that rang out from ridge to ridge.   

Ulm already had selected three of his men—Lt. Towler, Sgt. Eckman and Pvt. Davies—to accompany him and drive the gunman out of his perch. These men, the Los Angeles Times later reported, "would have walked squarely up to him if necessary." Then, upon being given the command, the four guardsmen proceeded to "enter the canyon and beat their way up the rocky, brushy gorge," toward the gunman, firing as they went—a maneuver, historian Merle Ramsey noted in his 1973 book, This Was Mission Country, Orange County, California, for which the military would later reprimand Ulm and his men.

From the ridge came a flurry of shots, four of which landed near Ulm’s feet. But the guardsmen continued their ascent. 

Suddenly the outlaw bolted.

FINAL STAND Sleeper says that "almost at the stroke of noon [the outlaw] was driven from his rocky stronghold. Sight of him was caught, and from the semicircle of the ridge dozens of rifles barked. For once he did not return the fire, but attempted to gain another deep draw. Suddenly he went down out of sight in the brush."

"Rush him!" yelled Sheriff Ruddock.

And with that, the cease-fire was over as scores of men charged toward the spot, firing their weapons in a mad volley of dust and gunfire.

The desperado's lifeless body was found, face-down, in a thicket. A shattered forearm had been bound up with an improvised sling to staunch the blood flow from an earlier wound. The only other visible bullet entry was that to his left temple.

Immediately several men claimed they had fired the fatal bullet. But John Osterman suggested a less popular theory. After the men had rushed forward, firing wildly, there had been a few moments before—guns drawn—the body was discovered. And during that pause, he said he'd heard a muffled pistol shot. Osterman also pointed to the powder burns on the dead man's face. It would seem, he offered, that the outlaw had shot himself.

Needless to say, this didn't go over well with many of the men. But before any arguments could begin, someone—probably Sheriff Ruddock—asked for help in getting the man’s body out of the precarious location.

A pack animal would have been ideal, but none were immediately available. So it fell to the one man who’d ridden over on horseback—El Toro rancher John Osterman—to retrieve his horse and secure the outlaw’s body, then make the treacherous descent out of the canyon.  

At that point the dead man was put into Nate Ulm’s touring sedan. Sleeper quotes an Orange County "old-timer" as saying, "When they came into Santa Ana, they had this fellow sitting upright in the back seat. They drove down Fourth Street—up and down, up and down—everybody a hollerin’. They were showing him off."

CORONER’S REPORT Among the evidence submitted was that of the .32 pistol picked up near the body. Later, the autopsy determined that the single bullet taken from the man’s brain was a .32.

As noted, however, very few participants wanted to accept this. So perhaps to mollify those who’d taken part in the shoot-out, the coroner’s jury issued the following statement: "The desperado came to his death from a gunshot wound in the head, the wound having been justifiably inflicted by members of a sheriff’s posse."

Many years later, Sleeper would tell a reporter that "I tried compiling a list of everyone who claimed to have shot him, but I quit when I got 15 names on the list."

The bigger mystery, Sleeper liked to say, was that of the man’s identity.

WHO WAS HE? Early on, Sheriff Ruddock assured readers of Santa Ana's Evening Blade that he would "ferret out all clews to prove who the fiend really was." Photos of the dead man were published in all the local papers. Suggestions were made by lawmen and civilians alike. Some said the man had been someone in Newport Beach by the name of Wells. Others insisted the dead man was a former Glendale shopkeeper.

From the beginning, however, information retrieved from the man’s clothing had initiated sleuthing much farther north than Glendale.

"A receipt on him showed that on September 27 he sent a money order from Portland, Oregon, to Clatskanie, Oregon," the Los Angeles Times reported Dec. 17. "Other money order stubs for amounts from $1.10 to $6.50 did not show to whom the amounts were sent. He had a printed return card reading 'H.L. Brown, Sheriff of Lane County, Oregon.' He had $6 in his pockets."

Even as that edition went to press, a wire had been sent to the Portland sheriff's department, with the additional information—not reported in the Times, that one of the stubs bore the name 'Ira Jones.'  In turn, a circular sent statewide in Oregon regarding the disappearance of one Joe Matlock now was forwarded to Santa Ana officials. The photo included with the circular matched the photos of the dead man. 

The next day the Times was reporting that Dr. L.L. Whitson, a Eugene, Ore., dentist, "is satisfied the dead man was Matlock, whom Dr. Whitson knew." The Times also quoted the inquest held the previous evening, stating officials were satisfied that "the desperado who was killed in yesterday’s battle was Joe Matlock, wanted at Eugene, Ore., for attacking a girl four or five years ago. For some months he has been going by the name of Ira Jones."

A FATHER'S SHAME Notified of the situation, the father of the wanted man took the train down to Santa Ana. From there he was taken to Winbigler's funeral home and shown the body of the dead gunman.

After a long moment, he turned on his heel, said "That’s not my son," and walked out the door.

Later, however, at Sheriff Ruddock's office, he confessed that the deceased was indeed his son.

Accounts differ as to what happened next. Sleeper reports that "one Joe Matlock was rendered county burial No. 1513," according to records of Orange County Cemetery District No. 1.  But local historian Merle Ramsey, who as a young man was present at the shoot-out with his father, wrote that although "[Matlock's] burial was registered in Santa Ana Cemetery ... we understand his body was shipped to his father in Eugene, Oregon." And in a more recent Los Angeles Times account, published Oct. 4, 1981, it is stated that "on December 23, the unmourned Matlock was quietly buried in a pine box in an anonymous pauper’s grave."

The location of that grave—whether in California or in Oregon—is not specified.

TWO MORE TWISTS Whatever happened, the reason for secrecy is likely to have been rooted in a considerably strong sense of family pride.

Joseph D. Matlock, father of Tomato Springs outlaw Joseph F. Matlock, was the well-known and highly regarded former two-term mayor of Eugene, Ore.

Conflicting information exists as to exactly how many progeny the senior Matlock sired, and which of his three wives gave birth to the baby who would later be known as the Tomato Springs bandit. Probably the answer to latter is Louisa Rutledge, the senior Matlock's second spouse. But, apparently, Joseph F. (standing for either "Fry" or "Frye") was the eighth of 12 children, and the third of six sons. His father, Joseph DeWitt Matlock, had been born in Tennessee but at age 14 accompanied his parents' six or seven wagons and their large herd of cattle from Dade County, Mo., to Oregon. Later he taught school, advanced to county superintendent and in 1874 became a state legislator, helping to establish the University of Oregon. Matlock senior eventually served on Eugene's City Council for 10 years, including two non-consecutive terms as mayor from 1895-97 and 1907-10. Furthermore, during his second term Mayor Matlock was instrumental in ushering in the rapidly growing city's water and electric board. His legacy, then, was considerable, and after he died in 1921, the elder Matlock was mourned and memorialized as befitting his accomplishments and station.

All the same, in whatever Joseph D. Matlock biographies I’ve found online—whether compiled before or after his death—information about his offspring's spouses, occupations, and residences typically is noted—except for that of Joseph F. Matlock, who either receives a terse mention or none whatsoever. 

Before we close the book on the infamous younger Matlock, however, a final postmortem comment needs to be included. According to Sleeper's 1968 article, "one last fact, never before revealed, rounds out the story of Orange County's epic manhunt. In a measure it explains the madness of a man whose crime was an obvious invitation to death and yet who made no effort to flee ... Joe Matlock already knew that he was a dead man. He was dying of TB."

AFTERMATH Many accounts list the deaths of Robert Squires and Joseph Matlock as the only ones to have resulted from the shootout. Perhaps this is because the Dec. 18, 1912, edition of the Times slightly confused the issue by noting that "of the injured, Prater only may die [but] today he has a strong pulse and no fever, and his chances for recovery are increasing." 

Sadly, the brave ranch worker's injuries were too severe, and on Jan. 11, 1913, Al Prater, 27, passed away.

Blacksmith Willard Culver had been injured along side Prater. His injury, though less serious, required amputation of his leg at the knee. But after a new wooden prosthetic was in place, the father of 10 children continued work at the Myford shop facing Central Avenue, now known as Sand Canyon, where "he kept farm machinery in good repair and made horseshoes and wagon wheels."

Deputy Tex Stacey survived his injuries, giving a detailed account of his ambush, as well as his thoughts on what happened to his commanding officer, Squires. I am hoping to learn more about Stacey for a future article.

Both tenant properties once occupied by the Cook and Chambers families gave way, as did so many others, to the development of the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station in 1942.

I have been unable to find out any further information about the Huff sisters. Dr. Gordon's eventual declaration that Myrtle Huff was "not injured in the slightest," as well as the initial Times statement that "the girl victim of the man is under a physician's care" seem to be, at this time, the final word.

Four days after Squires' death, the 1981 Los Angeles Times story states he was given "an elaborate and well-attended funeral in Santa Ana."  The day previous to the funeral the Times had eulogized the fallen deputy by stating that "no death in recent years has created such a general sorrow here [Orange County] as the taking of Squires." And in earlier Times coverage, it was noted that "Time and again Squires proved his fearlessness. He was one of those men with hearts as big as water buckets."

Survivors of the 44-year-old Squires included "a widow, two sons and three daughters."

REMEMBERING SQUIRES For years, the 1981 article stated, Squires' only other memorial—in addition to that of his final resting place—was a portrait placed "at the head of the stairway in the Sheriff's Department lobby." A few weeks after his death, the county passed a law requiring the sheriff to "maintain the portrait and display it along with an engraved plaque outlining the circumstances of Squires' death."

But by the early 1980s, plans were in place for a new memorial, honoring all fallen Orange County deputies and police officers. The resulting Memorial Wall, located at the Santa Ana Civic Center's Plaza of the Flags, was dedicated in 1986 and has since become the gathering place for the Annual Peace Officers’ Memorial Ceremony.

Earlier this year, however, it was announced that another memorial will be constructed at the Regional Training Center in Tustin, since "age and ongoing deterioration have taken its toll on the [existing] structure." The new memorial will honor "the 51 law enforcement officers who have lost their lives in the line of duty in Orange County."

At the top of the list of fallen heroes, as befitting the first Orange County officer to die in the line of duty, will be the name of Robert Squires. 


Mercury December 27, 2012 at 02:43 PM
An excellent and fascinating piece of local history! Thanks!
Lady Golfnut December 27, 2012 at 04:17 PM
Agreed! Thanks Janet, I have always enjoyed your columns and articles over the years!
Dave December 28, 2012 at 02:56 AM
Enjoyed the Article!
Janet Whitcomb December 28, 2012 at 10:35 PM
Thanks so much to all commentators for your kind words! Confession: In the wake of the Clackamas and Newtown tragedies, the final two installments were a particular challenge to write. I can safely state, in fact, that if Joe Matlock had taken his crime spree to one of the local schoolhouses, posting of the fourth installment would've been delayed indefinitely, in deference to the loss of Sandy Hook Elementary’s 20 innocent children and six courageous staff members. What happened in 1912 is, in my opinion, yet another demonstration of how all it takes is just one angry, twisted person to devastate the lives of others. I do regret not finding information about Joe Matlock's childhood, adolescence, and general family dynamic. That being said, I think we can safely say that, given Matlock’s stint in reform school, his life was problematic from an early age. That he eluded Oregon authorities, made his way down to California, and inflicted chaos and death on a relatively peaceful community is the type of horrific story we continue to see played out a century later. Again, I thank all commentators, as well as those of you who’ve followed the story of the Tomato Springs shootout these past five weeks.


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