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Mendocino Outlaws, Part 3

After the ambush of October 15, 1879, that killed two civilian members of a posse, the four outlaws escaped into the forest east of Mendocino. In town, suspicions spread.

About half of the original twenty-one members of Mendocino's Committee of Safety gathered for a private meeting. Many of them had first hand knowledge of the multitude of coincidences that seemingly linked their fellow Committee member, Dr. Wheeler, to the outlaws. Among all the other details, it was now clear Dr. Wheeler had rented a livery horse the night after Constable Bill Host first encountered the outlaws. Wheeler had been seen riding out the Little Lake Road under cover of night several times in the past week, always using the same horse. That horse possessed one slightly cracked shoe and men like Chester Ford had located a spot where a horse had been tied to an oak tree at the edge of the outlaw's last camp before the shooting. All around that oak were hoof prints of a horse with one broken shoe.

In addition, Deputy Donahue, who had recently been elected to be the next county sheriff, rode into Mendocino. A member of his posse, Charley Sheppard, accompanied him. Sheppard, who had served four years on a manslaughter conviction, recognized Wheeler as a former inmate at San Quentin Prison. Sheppard claimed Wheeler had served eight years on a charge of robbing the U.S. Mail in Oregon, having been released early in 1877. 

The Committee resolved to place Dr. Wheeler under arrest, but for awhile they remained perplexed about how to pull off the deed in a peaceful manner. Wheeler's prowess with rifle or pistol was known to all.

For some months Wheeler had practiced medicine as well as dentistry when Dr. T.H. Smith was otherwise occupied. Twenty-seven-year-old attorney C.C. Hamilton, father of a boy and girl, one and two years of age, volunteered to go to Wheeler's house that night. Hamilton's wife, Ella, four months pregnant with a third child, kept their little ones home at her side. 

As the chill of the autumn night breeze blew, Mr. Hamilton stepped up to the Wheeler front door with a lantern in hand. In the darkness, some distance away in the yard, stood Constable Alf Nelson, Jr. and Charley Sheppard. Nelson's pocket watch put the time at 11:45. Lurking farther back in the shadows, several men, perhaps dozens, who'd gotten wind of an attempted arrest, murmured and squirmed in anticipation.

Hamilton appeared to breathe a sigh of relief when he spotted Dr. Wheeler approaching from within, rather than his wife. The young attorney's face squinched into a feigned grimace. Wheeler opened the door.

The attorney employed his most convincing tones to explain in a hurried voice that one of his children seemed dreadfully ill. Without returning inside for a coat, Wheeler followed Hamilton into the night. Constable Nelson stepped out of the darkness. Wheeler nearly smiled as he looked down at the local lawman, a half foot slighter. The doctor also reached his right hand forward as if to shake. Nelson grabbed hold of it and twisted Wheeler's arm behind his back, cuffing it in a manacle then pulled the left hand back and secured it as well. 

The dentist said, “I guess you're fooling.”

“I am not,” Nelson jerked out a revolver that was jammed under Wheeler's belt on his back side. Next, the constable pulled a dirk knife from the same area and held it up for Hamilton to see. The revolver's hammer was cocked back, ready to fire. 

Nelson locked Wheeler, still cuffed, in the town jail on a charge of accessory to murder. The following Tuesday a preliminary hearing before Justice G. Canning Smith commenced with Constable Host on the stand detailing all he had witnessed in the days leading up to and on the day of the shooting of Dollard and Wright. The prosecution team included newspaper editor and publisher William Heeser's brother, August Heeser, and was led by Archibald Yell, attorney at law, who had been fired upon by the outlaws on October15th. J.A. Cooper, who usually practiced in the county seat at Ukiah, served as defense counsel for Dr. Wheeler. 

Bill Host testified and endured cross-examination for a full day's worth of proceedings, recounting the items that were found at the outlaws camp, items appearing to be identical to one's purchased by Wheeler. When the accused took the stand, he stuck to the story that several items had been stolen from his yard. A late August story in William Heeser's Mendocino Beacon noted that one recent mid-week night, the good doctor heard someone prowling about outside. He armed himself with a rifle and stepped outside to investigate. By the clatter and squawk of chickens he presumed a thief in the vicinity of his hen house. He fired a round and the next morning found traces of blood on his back fence. The newspaper account concluded, “It was, no doubt, a chinaman.”

Six months earlier the voters had passed into law a new state constitution for California. Among its clauses: “No corporation now existing or hereafter formed under the laws of this State, shall, after the adoption of this Constitution, employ directly or indirectly, in any capacity, any Chinese or Mongolian.”

If that wasn't strong enough language, another section stated: “No Chinese shall be employed on any State, county, municipal, or other public work, except in punishment for crime.” 

Both the town of Mendocino and the county as a whole voted in favor of the new state constitution.

Under a second day of questioning, Wheeler acknowledged that he had given money to former San Quentin convicts, but only as a blackmail payment to keep them from ruining his reputation in Mendocino. Feeling as if he was at their mercy he also furnished one with a gun.

As Wheeler's testimony wrapped, A.B. “Al” Courtwright was brought to Mendocino City, in custody. Courtwright had been captured at the same cabin, near Ten Mile River, where Brown, Billings, Carr, and Gaunce had holed up for much of September. 

Courtwright told Justice G. Canning Smith's courtroom that Dr. Wheeler had taken the stage from Mendocino to Westport to visit the outlaws at the cabin, that Wheeler had sent a letter to Bodie requesting the other four come to Mendocino. Courtwright identified Brown, Billings, and Gaunce by name and stated that Wheeler sent money to purchase food and supplies for them.

Courtwright's testimony proved enough for Justice Smith to bind Dr. Wheeler over for trial. In the meantime, the accused would stay in the Mendocino City jail awaiting transport to the county seat in Ukiah.

We haven't seen the last of Dr. John Fleming Wheeler

(More Old West heroes, villains, and gray areas at

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