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True Crime in the 1910s

For those who think stagecoaches went out with the turn of the twentieth century, think again. As late as the onset of World War I, while “Little Willie,” the first British tank, rolled out and the prototype of the Mark I spun from design to demonstration before British brass, stagecoach lines still covered much of the American west.

The Lakeport to Hopland stage route proved typical in the second decade of the twentieth century, spanning two counties and carrying a Wells Fargo & Co. express box. Jesse James was long dead and the marshaling Earp brothers were either deceased or retired by the last days of 1915, but horse riding stagecoach robbers still prowled the roads.

On December 22, the Vassar brothers of the Sanel district, inland Mendocino County, spotted a lone rider lingering near the old toll house. Perhaps due to their presence the rider drifted away from the scene. Not long after he passed from sight, the Lakeport to Hopland stage rumbled by, carrying more than $12,000 in the Wells Fargo strong box.

The following day, in the afternoon, a masked, solitary rider appeared at the same spot. With pistol drawn he stopped the stage, demanding the Wells Fargo box. The driver threw it down and ran his team on into Hopland, where he promptly telephoned Mendocino County Sheriff Ralph Byrnes. The lawman arrived in the vicinity of the crime that evening, with knowledge that the strong box that day contained only about $1,000.

The Vassar boys rode to the sheriff's side to relay their tale of seeing a rider the day before. The three of them then trailed the bandit's horse's hoof prints several hundred yards through the brush to the side of a creek where they located the strong box. It had been broken open and its contents were nowhere to be found.

The next morning, while riding in the area, Sheriff Byrnes happened to meet a young horseman named Albert Counts. The sheriff joked that since he hadn't broken the case yet, Counts must be the man he was trailing. After a short laugh and a few more pleasantries the two parted. Counts, as he had told Sheriff Byrnes, headed into Hopland to catch the southbound train.

Byrnes got to pondering all the evidence, including the hoof prints of the animal just departed for Hopland. He rode back to the place where the strong box had been found the night before. Just enough matching irregularities in those horse tracks sent him into Hopland as well. He called law enforcement in Santa Rosa, gave them a description of the rider he'd encountered but an hour or so before, asking that Counts be taken into custody and returned to Ukiah. The Santa Rosa authorities forwarded Counts' description to Cloverdale. Game Warden Alonzo Lea boarded the train at that place and detained Counts until Wells Fargo detectives took possession of him in Santa Rosa. They, in turn, accompanied Albert Counts on a return train to Ukiah. During the trip the Wells Fargo men attempted to elicit a confession, but got nothing more than a sulky, tight-lipped countenance from their prisoner.

A newspaper account of the time states that once Byrnes and Counts united in company at the county jail in Ukiah, the sheriff gave the supposed bandit the “once over” and the suspect confessed to the crime. Readers may decide for themselves what the “once over” translated to in action.

Initially, Counts' confession did not include the precise whereabouts of the stolen money. He told Byrnes he'd serve his time then have something to fall back on when he got out. However, after several hours consideration, Counts decided $1,000 wasn't worth extra prison time. At one in the morning, traveling by automobile instead of horses, Sheriff Byrnes returned Counts to the creek side where the strong box had been located. Counts walked the sheriff a relatively short distance to a tree. Lodged between one of the limbs and the trunk, just high enough to remain out of sight, the young desperado had stashed a bag, containing almost every dollar of the stolen money.

At the scene of the crime and on the return journey to the jail Counts recounted much of his life story. He'd been orphaned at nine, made his way as a roustabout, had done some bootlegging, but this was his first act of robbery. Yes, he had planned to rob the stage the day before, but he'd given up the idea, not because he'd spotted the Vassar boys watching him, but he simply lost his nerve, didn't believe he was cut out to be a highwayman. That touch of nerviness returned the following day. Counts went on to tell Sheriff Byrnes he (Counts) contemplated traveling to Mexico with the loot. He thought he might invest much of the money in a business venture there, but only after the Mexican Revolution resolved itself.

A preliminary hearing was held the following Tuesday. On Wednesday he formally pleaded guilty in front of Judge White while waiving all rights to further court proceedings and requesting an immediate sentencing. Judge White obliged with a ten year all-expenses-paid tour of San Quentin.

Greed turned on Albert Counts. Less than a month later fate would turn for another Mendocino County citizen. In late January, 1916, fifty-nine-year-old attorney Carter W. Rohrbough left Covelo for his hunting cabin, some twenty-five miles distant. When he departed, Rohrbough rode atop a mule, known for its slow pace. He told friends and acquaintances he'd be back in a few days. More than a week passed with no sightings of the man at his cabin or in town. Sheriff Byrnes was sent for and a search party organized. The lawman's detective work led to the solution as to Carter W. Rohrbough's mysterious disappearance.

Locals told the sheriff that Rohrbough had to employ a great deal of persuasion to make his mule proceed at anything more than a snail's pace. Said rider habitually grabbed the muzzle of his shotgun then brought the butt end of the weapon down on or near the mule's head. He'd done this so often the safety had broken.

Eventually, the sheriff tracked down the mule to a spot where its bridle had snagged in a picket fence, holding it prisoner. It had a large number of welts about its head, neck, and face. It also suffered from dehydration and had nearly reached the point of starvation.

Dried blood covered the mule's saddle. Backtracking, Byrnes found the shotgun with one spent shell. Ninety yards farther on, Rohrbough's body lay partially hidden by trees and brush, a fatal wound had torn his clothing asunder at, and below, the chest.

Obvious powder burns indicated the fatal wound had been inflicted from extremely close range. Blood had seeped down into one of Rohrbough's boots, indicating he'd remained in the saddle for some time after the shotgun triggered, probably from catching part of the bridle apparatus as the victim struck the mule with the butt end. Collected together, all the evidence pointed to a killer blast and a ninety yard stroll by the animal before the rider fell. Carter W. Rohrbough got his comeuppance for holding the barrel of a loaded gun facing him while pounding the head of his mule.

(Choose your gauge at

One Comment

  1. George Hollister May 30, 2019

    There were so many stories of gun accidents in those times, often fatal. “Gun safety” was not standardly taught. A person was expected to use “common sense”. The NRA has been instrumental in establishing and teaching gun safety, which has resulted in a dramatic decrease in the rate of gun accidents. The requirement a person take a hunter safety class prior to getting a hunting license, is a good one. Teaching gun safety in public school would be a good idea as well.

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