THANKS to Tom McCourt & the Tibbetts Family.
For years, I have been watching Moab move farther and farther away from its roots, to the point where it seems few people even know the history of the place anymore. Some of them don’t know OR care, but I think there are still many who have a respect for the past (I hope so, at least).Last winter I read Tom McCourt’s book on Bill Tibbetts and think it’s his finest work. I knew a bit about Bill,but the story was told so beautifully and I felt it was a very moving tribute, not just to Bill, but to those far off times.I see Moab as some alien world now, and I feel the most significant contribution I can make with the Zephyr these days, is to try and preserve the past in some fashion, or at least make it available for those readers who are interested. With Tom’s permission, the Canyonlands Natural History Association who published it, and with the good wishes and approval of Bill Tibbetts’ son Ray and the Tibbetts Family, we are pleased and honored to offer, over the next few months, excerpts from Tom’s excellent portrayal of ‘the Last Robbers Roost Outlaw.” JS
Lightning flashed on the mountain and thunder rolled across the valley. Big drops of rain dripped from the roof of the jailhouse and splashed in little puddles in the darkness. A cool breeze filtered in through the window bars on the iron door.
“Is that you, Joe?”
“Shut up, Bill, we’re still makin’ sure nobody’s around.”
Bill’s younger brother Joe was standing outside of the jail while his companions snooped around the neighborhood. The Moab jail sat off by itself, a little ways from other buildings, and the jailer went home at night leaving the prisoners there by themselves. There was no streetlight. The outside of the jail was as dark as the inside. It was a good setup for a jailbreak.
Finally, another voice whispered from outside. “Looks good, Joe, there ain’t anybody around.”
“Is that you, Sog?” Bill asked. Sog Allred was Bill’s half-brother, one of Winny Allred’s sons.
“Shut up, Bill,” was the whispered reply, again from his nervous brother, Joe.
A moment later the end of a heavy metal bar came in through the window bars on the iron door, almost hitting Bill in the face in the dark.
“Good Lord, Joe, What ya doin? I thought you had a hacksaw.”
“Pry bar from the county road shed,” came the answer. “Stand back.”
The pry bar locked against the window bars on the massive iron door as pressure was applied from outside. Metal began to squeak and bend. Grunts, groans, and heavy breathing could be heard out in the night as three or four men pushed, pulled, and strained against the heavy pry bar. Rivets popped and iron plate bent.
Finally the pry bar was jerked back outside and a face appeared in the open space between the bent and twisted bars. “Can you get out through that?”
“I’m not sure,” Bill offered.
“Let me try, I can do it,” Tom Perkins insisted. He was real anxious to get out of jail. The prisoners slid a chair over to the door and Tom climbed up on the chair and started out through the bent bars on the window, head first. He squeezed, puffed and panted, but quickly became stuck, halfway in and halfway out.
“I’m stuck, boys. I can’t make it.”
“Be quiet, damn it. Don’t make no noise,” came the whispered reply.
Three sets of hands took hold of Tom anywhere they could get a grip. One took the arm sticking through the bars, another got his head and another his shoulder with a grip on his armpit. On cue, all three began to pull for all they were worth.
“Agggg, wait … don’t …Gawd, you’re pullin’ my damn head off … jeez … I can’t breathe.”
The men turned him loose and he hung there, hopelessly stuck.
From behind, Bill stood on the chair, wrapped his arms around Tom’s waist, put one foot against the iron door, and with a mighty heave he pulled Tom back into the jail. Both men crashed to the floor in a tangle of arms, legs, and chair.
“Damn, I think you broke my elbow,” Tom groaned, rolling around and gasping for breath on the jailhouse floor. There was a knot on his head and his ribs were bleeding where the metal door had peeled his hide. Bill laughed while untangling himself in the darkness. “For a man who hates jailhouse food, you seem to have gained a few pounds, Tommy, ol’ boy.”
“Shut up in there, damn it,” Joe hissed from the window bars. “You’re gonna wake up the whole darn town.”
Bill slid the chair back up to the window while Tom nursed his wounds on the floor in the dark. On the chair, Bill stuck both arms and his head through the opening in the bars, and with a little help from his friends on the outside, he was able to squeeze through with only a few scrapes and bruises. Then the boys put the pry bar back against the window bars and, with Bill’s help, they were able to open the gap another inch. Tom was able to wiggle free on his second attempt.
Bill went back to the window and stuck his head back inside the jail.
“Are you coming with us, Ed?” Edward Cottrell was in the jailhouse, too, waiting to face his second trial for murder in the first degree. His first trial had ended in a hung jury. His second trial, on the same charge, was coming up in just a few weeks.
“No, Bill, I can’t go with you.”
“What are you thinking, Ed? Here’s your big chance to get out of here.”
“I’m innocent. I’m going to stay and face the charges.”
“Well, I’m innocent, too, but I’m not gonna let ‘em hang me for it.”
“Tell Joe not to worry. I won’t say nothin’ about who broke you out,” Ed promised. “I’ll tell ‘em I didn’t see nothin’. You can count on that.”
“Well, okay, if that’s the way you want it. I hope it all works out for you, Ed. Good luck. We gotta go.”
In the dark alley behind the jail, Joe gave Bill and Tom their getaway instructions. “There’s a boat tied to the big cottonwood down near the old swimmin’ hole on the river. In it we got purdy well everything you boys will need to lay low for a few weeks. Keep an eye out for Uncle Ephraim. Once the dust settles, he’ll be bringing supplies to the cow camps along the river. He’ll be watchin’ for ya.”
Bill and Tom thanked their partners in crime, but the pry bar crew had no time for small talk.
“You better get movin’ and put some river between you and town before it gets light,” the nervous Joe admonished. “We gotta get this pry bar back to the county road shed and then we’re all goin’ home so we can wake up in the morning and be surprised that you broke jail, just like everybody else in town.”
“Thank you, brother, you saved our lives. We won’t forget this.”
“Shut up and head for the river,” Joe mumbled as he reached out to take his older brother in an awkward handshake.
Bill shook his brother’s hand and then pulled him close, put his arm around his neck, knocked his hat off and messed up his hair, just like he had done a million times when they were kids. “Thanks, Dody,” he said, using his kid brother’s pet name. “Tell Mother I’ll write.”
The storm clouds departed as the morning sun touched the canyons of the Colorado. Two men in a boat were drifting along with the current, taking inventory of the supplies they found in the boat. Bill and Tom’s saddles were there, along with a wooden box containing flour, beans, bacon, and canned goods. There was also a canvas sack with a small frying pan, a couple of tin cups, a butcher knife, a salt sack, a can of coffee, a canteen, and a tin of matches. There were a few items of clothing lying about the boat like they had been thrown aboard as an afterthought: a couple of shirts, three pairs of old socks, a couple of bent-up straw hats, a small tarp, some rope and a pair of gloves. Wrapped in a scrap of canvas, they found one of Ephraim’s old rifles, a Winchester 30-30 with three boxes of bullets. Bill’s .44 Special revolver was there, too, with a cartridge belt full of ammunition. Bill had left the gun at his mother’s house before turning himself in to the sheriff.
The boys decided they were pretty well equipped, considering the circumstances. The canyons were clean and bright after the summer rain and the air tasted like freshly scrubbed pinyon and rabbit brush. The boys reveled in their freedom. They decided to drift on down to the confluence of the Colorado and Green rivers and stash the boat and supplies there. They would then walk the 15 or 18 miles up the Green River to the mouth of Horse Canyon where they could access the Laterite country on foot. There were horses they could catch there, and they had camp equipment cached at a couple of cow camps along the Green River. They kicked back in the boat and congratulated each other on making such a fine and well-equipped escape.
In the late afternoon they were still drifting along, enjoying the scenery and their newfound freedom, when Tom sat up straight and turned to face back up the river.
“Listen, Bill,” he said with some alarm.
“What?” Bill asked.
“Can you hear that hum? There’s an echo in the ledges. Sounds like a motor. But there ain’t no roads around here anywhere.”
“Oh, my God,” Bill whispered. “I’ll bet it’s that damn motorboat from the Moab Garage Company.”
“What we gonna do?” Tom’s eyes were big and his mouth hung open after the words had fallen out.
“Grab that other oar and paddle like hell. We gotta get off the water. If it’s the sheriff and they catch us on the river, we’re dead meat.”
As the echo in the ledges grew louder and louder, the boys paddled harder and harder. They were motivated and they made the water fly. They beached the boat in some willows, grabbed what few survival items they could gather up in a hurry, and began scrambling up the steep hillside away from the river. They were near the mouth of Standing Rock Canyon, about 15 miles up the Colorado from the confluence with the Green River.
Their fears were well founded. It was the sheriff in the motorboat. After the jailbreak was discovered early that morning, the law officer had trailed the fugitives to the bank of the river, following their tracks in the mud. The sheriff then rented the only motorboat in town, a launch belonging to the Moab Garage Company that was usually used to haul miners and oil workers up and down the river. The boat was small so there were only three posse members aboard: Sheriff Murphy, County Commissioner Mel Stewart, and Deputy Sheriff Albert Beach. A man named Ross Thompson was also there as helmsman and captain of the ship. He was an employee of the company that owned the boat.
Many years after the event, Ross Thompson told Bill’s son, Ray, his version of what happened next. Thompson’s story is much different from what was reported in the newspaper. His story is more like the one Bill Tibbetts told his sons. In deference to the law officers involved and the sensibilities of their families, Thompson didn’t reveal this information until 1984. By then he was the only surviving eyewitness of the incident.
Kenneth Westwood provided a second corroborating account. Ken wrote down what Bill Tibbetts told him about the affair back when the two of them worked together in the 1940s. Westwood’s story fits hand in glove with Thompson’s account.
“Over there, in the willows. That’s got to be their boat,” Deputy Beach called over the roar of the engine while pointing to the north bank of the river.
The engine was throttled back and the boat turned sharply toward the shore. The three law officers picked up their guns and scanned the rims above the river for any sign of the fugitives. The boat operator cut the engine just shy of the riverbank and the boat went skimming in over the waves, stopping with a thump against the wet sand. The boat sat rocking slightly with waves lapping against the sides. The passengers stood up to get out, and that’s when a rifle bullet hit the water alongside the boat with a smack like a beaver’s tail on the water. The thunder of the rifle shot echoed in the ledges, reverberating like a tuning fork. The lawmen dived onto the sandbar and then piled up on top of each other in the willows, cursing and clawing for cover.
“That shot hit purdy close,” Tom Perkins observed from his hiding place on a rocky rim, a few hundred yards above the river and the cowering law officers.
“The closer, the scarier,” Bill grinned. “I didn’t intend to hurt any of those fellers, but I think I got their attention. What do you think?”
For a long time nothing happened. The lawmen couldn’t see out of the willow thicket to locate the fugitives. The fugitives couldn’t see the lawmen in the willow thicket. Everyone just held their ground and waited to see what would happen next.
Finally, Tom spoke. “Bill,” he whispered, “There’s one of them sneakin’ off to the right there. He’s headed for those big rocks.”
“Good deal,” Bill whispered back. “Let’s let ‘em get a little farther away from the boats. We gotta get back down there and get some more of our stuff. It’s a long ways up on top of the mesa and we’re gonna need some of those things.”
“The other three are moving now,” Tom said. “They’re in those big boulders. See that big flat rock down there by those cottonwoods? They’re just to the left of that.”
A short time later a tiny head popped up like a prairie dog from behind a big rock, and then another, and another. “They’re gettin’ kinda brave down there,” Tom, the observer, pointed out.
The roar of the 30-30 took Tom by surprise. A puff of dust exploded in the middle of the big flat rock and the ricocheting bullet went screaming off into the atmosphere. The slug hit several yards from where the heads were peeking up, but the heads all disappeared in an instant and never showed themselves again.
“Can they hang a guy twice for breakin’ jail and shootin’ at the sheriff ?” Tom asked with a worried voice.
“Naw, once usually does the trick,” Bill said with a wry smile. “What the heck? If they’re gonna hang us, we might as well give ‘em a good reason. What we got to lose?”
Soon it was dark and the canyon got very quiet. Bill took a chance and sneaked down to their boat to recover more supplies while Tom stayed above and threw rocks once in a while to make noise and keep the posse occupied and on guard. Bill also took a few items from the sheriff ’s boat and dumped other stuff overboard into the river. He then disabled the sheriff ’s boat by adding water to the gasoline tank.
When the sun came up the next morning, the sheriff and his posse were still pinned down along the river while Bill and Tom held the high ground with their rifle. The sheriff ’s party had spent a miserable night hunkered down in the willows while being eaten alive by millions of mosquitoes. Bill and Tom shared a can of peaches as they sat in a cool, bug-free morning breeze, keeping an eye on things down along the river.
Finally, later that morning, Bill called down to the sheriff. “Do you guys want to lie there all day in the hot sun and mosquitoes, or would you rather go home?”
It was an easy decision to make. The sheriff called back that they would leave if Bill promised not to shoot. A truce was negotiated and the sheriff and his men took to the river and started back for Moab.
From their perch on a rocky rim, Bill and Tom watched as the posse retreated. They were happy to see them go, but it was a bittersweet victory. They had won the first round, but they knew the real fight had just begun. They were in big trouble now. Breaking jail and shooting at duly sworn law officers was no small matter. They knew the sheriff would soon be hot on their trail again and he would be mad as hell for all of the mosquito bites and humiliation. The posse’s version of the encounter, as told in the newspaper, is much different from the story told by Bill, Tom Perkins, and the riverboat man, Ross Thompson.
Bill Tibbetts and Tom Perkins Make Escape to Rimrocks;
Are Now in Rough Country Between the Rivers
Bill Tibbetts and Tom Perkins, accused cow rustlers who escaped from the Grand county jail last Thursday morning are still at liberty, having succeeded so far in evading the officers searching for them. They are now thought to be in the rough country between the Colorado and Green rivers, where, it is conceded, they may be able to evade capture indefinitely.
Tibbetts and Perkins, who escaped down the Colorado river in a row boat, were overtaken Friday afternoon by Sheriff Heber Murphy and posse, who went down the river in pursuit of the fugitives in a motor boat. The officers, rounding a bend in the river some six miles above the junction of the Colorado and Green rivers, came upon the fugitives boat, which they had evidently quitted in great haste only a few minutes before. Apparently Tibbetts and Perkins had heard the motor boat while still several miles distant, and had decided to make a break for the rocks. Their boat was left with its nose in a sand bar, and the tracks of the two men indicated that they were in a great hurry in getting away. They left their entire outfit in the boat, taking with them a supply of food. The sheriff and his posse, consisting of Deputy Albert Beach, Commissioner Mel Stewart and Ross Thompson, stopped their motor boat on the sand bar and the sheriff started to look over the contents of the smaller boat. As he was doing this, the fugitives, who were apparently hiding in the rocks above, fired a shot, apparently for the purpose of throwing a scare into the officers. Sheriff Murphy and Deputy Beach then took up the trail of Tibbetts and Perkins, while Commissioner Stewart and boatman Thompson stayed with the boat to prevent the cow rustlers from getting possession of it.
The sheriff and his deputy trailed the fugitives for about ten miles. The tracks led back up the river several miles, and then headed up the north rim in a northerly direction towards the Green river.
Apparently the fugitives had given up all intentions of returning to their boat, as their trail led in a direct route towards their cattle range along the Green river, which was no doubt their objective. It was useless to attempt to follow them, as the country is probably the roughest and most inaccessible in the west. After following the men for eight or ten miles, the two sheriffs returned to the river, and it was decided to give up the chase for the time being. Accordingly the officers started back to Moab, a day and a half being consumed in the return trip. They reached Moab Monday night. Tibbetts and Perkins had evidently intended to go in their boat to their range along the Green river, some forty miles above its junction with the Colorado. However, they had no oars, and for this reason made rather slow progress down the river. They took with them in the boat their complete camp outfit, including saddles, a bed, their boots and spurs, and a supply of food. All of this was left in the boat when they ran to the rocks. Among the articles found by the officers in the boat were the outfit mentioned, together with two boxes of cartridges, a sack of flour, baking powder, coffee and preserves. Tibbetts and Perkins no doubt gathered up some provisions before their hasty departure from the boat, as particles of bacon wrapper were found on their trail. They probably have enough supplies to last them a week or more.
The officers left the stolen boat and its contents on the sand bar where it was beached by the fugitives. It would have been impossible to have towed the boat back to Moab. The trail of the fugitives headed directly towards their cattle range and indicated that they had no intentions of returning to the boat, and the officers saw no reason for destroying the boat and its contents.
Sheriff Murphy and Deputy Beach left Moab Tuesday on horseback for the country where it is thought Tibbetts and Perkins are in hiding. The officers will deputize a number of cattlemen now in that section and a vigorous hunt for the fugitives will be conducted. The plan will be to guard the trails and the few water holes, as it is believed the men will show up sooner or later. However, it is recognized that Tibbetts and Perkins may be able to evade capture indefinitely, as they know that country like a book and are well versed in the art of roughing it in the hills.
It is thought possible that the fugitives are short of ammunition, as two boxes of .30-.30 cartridges were found in their boat. The officers believe they overlooked the cartridges in their hasty departure, although they may have an additional supply with them.
Although Tibbetts and Perkins were not seen by the officers down the river, there is little doubt that the sheriff and posse were on the right trail. While it is possible that the river excursion could have been pulled off by friends or the fugitives in order to lead the officers on a blind chase, this theory is not seriously subscribed to. The natural place where Tibbetts and Perkins would seek to evade capture is the rough country along the Green river, where they are so familiar with the surroundings and would be at a decided advantage in outwitting their pursuers.
No word has been received from Sheriff Murphy and Deputy Beach since they left on their second trip for the outlaws. Among the people who are assisting them are Special Deputies Felix Murphy and Dale Shafer. A.T. Taylor, O.V. Riordan, Otho Murphy and several other cattlemen are also along the Green river and will no doubt cooperate with the officers in trailing the fugitives.