By Mary Kasulaitis
In 2009 we suffered through the murder of Brisenia Flores and her father, Raul. These murders tend to stand out in the history of a small place where everyone knows everyone else. However, the memory of those deeds eventually tends to get lost, and over the decades a story that seemed horrific at the time can just disappear. In times past two other murders shocked our town.
There may still be folks around (quite old, or family members) who remember very clearly the murder of Santiago Padilla. It happened on Christmas Day in 1931. It seems that Santiago was estranged from his wife, Francisca (Pancha), who had gone home to live with her mother, Dona Placida Aros. Frank Cortez, a relative of Mrs. Aros’, had come back to Arivaca after an absence of twelve years, and was staying with her, too. Santiago took offence at the interest Cortez apparently showed in Francisca. According to the Citizen: “Padilla, the evidence showed, resented the presence of Cortez at his wife’s home. He protested and is said to have threatened to kill his wife. He was asked to leave. On Sunday before Christmas, Francisca Padilla, her mother and Frank Cortez went to Ruby to see the officers there and register a protest against Padilla’s threats. Upon their return to Arivaca, Padilla stood in the road with a loaded rifle and without warning began shooting at the three. Cortez, to protect the women, leaped from the car and returned fire. Nine shots were exchanged with no damage but several dents in the body of the car. Padilla disappeared and the following day the trio came to Tucson and obtained a warrant for Padilla, charging him with assault with a deadly weapon. The warrant was never served.” Sheriff Bailey had apparently talked to Santiago and had reason to know that there are always two sides to every story. “Trouble over a woman” didn’t seem to him to merit an immediate arrest.
On Christmas Day the two men met and began to talk together as they walked towards Arivaca creek. Frank Cortez apparently took out his gun and shot Santiago Padilla once in the back, then again in the mouth. There were witnesses who would later testify at the trial that Padilla did not have a gun or knife, which contradicted Cortez’ testimony that it was “either him or me.”
Cortez ran away across the cienaga and hid in a shack south of town. By and by, he decided to give himself up to Frank Edgells, the local border patrol officer, mostly because he was afraid the friends and brothers of Padilla might find him first. Some say he was persuaded to give himself up. Cortez freely admitted he shot Padilla, but with reason. Assisting in the search for Cortez were George Smith and Fred Pyatt, customs officers stationed at Ruby. (Yes, there was local law enforcement in those days.)
The coroner’s inquest was held in Arivaca. The Arizona Daily Star reported: “The little school house was packed with the neighborhood of Arivaca, for the most part friends of the slain man and enemies of Cortez.” According to the Citizen, “The jury sat in the small and uncomfortable school seats while the judge and county attorney used kitchen chairs hurriedly brought from a nearby ranch house.” As the inquest began, one could hear in the distance, the hammering together of a coffin and “the clink of the pick and shovel of the friends of the dead cowboy who were preparing his last resting place in the cemetery adjacent to the school. The digging of the grave kept up monotonously and as the sun was slowly sinking behind the purple hills, a brother of the dead man asked the judge to excuse him in order that he might drive 60 miles across the desert and hills to secure a priest to officiate at the last rites.” The Star patronizingly considered this a “primitive setting,” to which the Coroner and Sheriff brought law and order. Frank Cortez pleaded not guilty.
The wheels of justice moved more swiftly in those days, and in February, 1932, the trial was held, lasting only a few days. Although charged with murder, the jury found Cortez guilty of manslaughter, and recommended the full punishment of 9-10 years in the State prison. Apparently Cortez served at least eight years. They say he came back to Arivaca at some point, but of course, he didn’t stay.
Vaquero friends composed and sang a corrido in memory of Santiago Padilla and the day on which he was killed.
The second murder recounted here took place some thirty years prior, in 1893. Frank Oury, the victim, was an exceptional, good looking young man whose parents, William S. Oury and Inez Garcia Oury were well-known Tucson pioneers. Frank was born in Tucson in 1864. He grew up there and later graduated from Berkeley. His parents had passed away some years before and he had returned to stay in Tucson. In 1893 he was just beginning the profession of mining engineer, and was in Arivaca to meet with General R.H. Manning who had mining interests here.
On September 19, the two men were in the hotel (the white house across the street from the Merc), along with Pedro Miranda, the owner, and Ignacio Ortiz. According to the Citizen: Three masked men entered the place and demanded money. Frank chose to grapple with the knife-wielding bandit nearest to him and seemed to be getting the better of the struggle when one of the others ran over to Frank, placed a gun against his ribs, and pulled the trigger. Frank continued to fight, following the bandit out the door, whereupon he was shot again, and this time the wound was mortal. A number of other shots were fired, but no one else was hurt. The bandits made their escape.
One of the outlaws apparently had ties to someone in Arivaca. The search for them extended into Mexico. Eventually, four men were implicated in the murder.
Tucson mourned the passing of its golden boy with an extensive funeral and daily articles in the newspapers, lamenting the loss of such a fine young man. Arivaca’s image slipped: it became known as the place where Frank Oury was killed.
References: Pima County public records; The Arizona Daily Star; Tucson Daily Citizen; William Sanders Oury: History-maker of the Southwest by Cornelius C. Smith, Jr. In regards to the Padilla murder, thanks also to the excellent memories of several former Arivacans who were there at the time of the shooting, but who have since passed on.