Some wounds never heal. The lawbreakers who raided the courthouse in Tierra Amarilla in 1967 are still causing human suffering.
I recently wrote a column about that terrible day. My news hook was the death last week of Alfonso Sanchez, 93, who was the region’s district attorney and the intended target of the courthouse raiders.
Sanchez had filed criminal charges against 11 protesters who claimed title to millions of acres in the Southwest based on ancient Spanish land grants.
The group was led by Reies Lopez Tijerina, a Pentecostal preacher from Texas. He and about 20 armed cohorts invaded the Rio Arriba County courthouse on a rainy afternoon. They intended to make a citizens’ arrest of Sanchez on grounds that he had violated the rights of Tijerina’s followers.
Sanchez was not in Tierra Amarilla, sparing him a confrontation with dangerous enemies. Instead, the gang kidnapped, shot or battered other law enforcement officers and a reporter.
In summarizing the violence in my column about the late district attorney, I failed to identify the law officers who were most seriously injured by Tijerina’s gang. Retired law professor Michael A. Olivas of Santa Fe wrote me a note of concern about the omission.
“The TA jailer shot in the raid and [later] beaten to death in Canjilon was my cousin, Eulogio Salazar. Not mentioning his name erases him from this narrative. I do not understand why any New Mexicans honor Tijerina or his violent, anti-Semitic views as heroic. (I know you are not doing so, but many do). But you could have mentioned his name.”
He’s worth more than a mention.
Salazar jumped from a courthouse window as gunmen pursued him. The raiders’ bullets hit him in the mouth and shoulder. He would survive that attack but not a mysterious second assault six months later.
Tijerina’s mob also seriously wounded state police Officer Nick Saiz. He was shot in the chest. Attackers beat Undersheriff Daniel Rivera, inflicting head injuries.
The gang forced two-dozen other people into a room of the courthouse and ordered them to lie on the floor.
Tijerina entered the courthouse carrying a pistol. As the violence escalated, he and his followers became worried enough to devise an escape plan. It included more violence. They bound and kidnapped two men, UPI reporter Larry Calloway and sheriff’s Deputy Pete Jaramillo.
Police officers and the National Guard mobilized to stop the attackers. The hostages were freed, but it took police another five days to hunt down and arrest Tijerina.
Salazar was to be a key witness in criminal prosecutions of Tijerina and his followers. Salazar didn’t survive until the trial. Assailants killed him on Jan. 2, 1968, a crime that was never solved.
Joe Black, who was the state police chief, said Salazar’s death was unmatched in its brutality. Olivas was a junior in high school then, but the memory of what happened to his cousin is raw.
“He was beaten to death with a baseball bat. He was completely unidentifiable,” Olivas said. “It’s been hard for me to carry that around while Tijerina was being lionized in the Chicano movement.”
Tijerina, who died in 2015 at age 88, always said he had nothing to do with Salazar’s killing.
What’s clear is someone got away with murder. Even if the crime had been solved, Olivas’ point about remembering the victims hits home.
Tijerina grabbed for media attention, and he often received more of it than the police officers and the reporter who were wounded or kidnapped while doing their jobs.
It’s one example of lopsided news coverage of criminals, something many people trace to Bonnie and Clyde. The casual use of their first names by reporters and filmmakers masked the brutality of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow.
They robbed small banks and mom and pop businesses. They murdered police officers. Their victims were often omitted from news stories, in part because there were so many.
My first editor in the newspaper business would pore over crime stories for what he called “the Bonnie and Clyde failure” — reporters paying too much attention to perpetrators.
Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty portrayed Parker and Barrow in a mostly fictionalized movie in 1967. Engaging, attractive actors made the real criminals seem interesting.
As for pistol-packing gang leader Tijerina, he spent about two years in prison for crimes committed in his land-grant movement. He never approached the stature of Cesar Chavez, one of that era’s nonviolent leaders for social justice.
Still, Tijerina remains better known than Salazar. The slain jailer never had his day in court.
Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at firstname.lastname@example.org or 505-986-3080.