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FADED MEMORIES

SHOOTOUT AT SHAFTER

Texas Ranger Meets His End
on New Years Day 1940

Written and Photos Contributed by William G. Howell
As a child I always heard the story of my grandfather killing a Texas Ranger in Shafter, Texas. Although it was said to be in self defense, he was almost being lynched for it. I always thought the stories were folklore and the wild imaginations of my father to justify his drinking. As I got older and heard several slight versions of the stories from different family members, I began to notice that the stories were close in their versions and I began to believe that they were true. I think much of this had to do with my experiences as a cop interviewing witnesses. No one witness tells the same story but they are always similar. Finally one day while on the job, I met another cop that I had never worked with and throughout the shift began to talk about our families. As it turned out his father was from the same area of Texas and he recalled similar stories. A few days later he returned and told me that the stories that I had heard all these years were true according to his father. In the coming years my continued research would bring me to a conclusion that was, in part, based not only on stories told by my family and eye witnesses that were still alive, but documented fact.
Shafter Texas mainstreet  1930s
Shafter Main St. in the early 1930's.
In the foreground is the "Howell Package Store."
Shafter Texas mainstreet today
Shafter Main Street in April 2006.
Again the "Howell Package Store" in the foreground.
In its day, Shafter was a booming mining town with Silver ore as the primary product of the mines. Judging from the newspaper accounts of the time, Shafter had quite a social life. It was the typical boom town that you would read about in old westerns. From my research it appears that the town was basically run by the mining corporation. The law of the town was a Presidio County Deputy Sheriff by the name of Robert Eustis Speed, who was called "Botas," because of the high riding boots that he always wore. Speed also worked part time for the mining corporation in a variety of jobs but mostly security. He was also said to have had the reputation of beating people, especially the Mexican mine workers "just because." It appears that his favorite thing was to walk into any of the several bars in town, pick out an individual whose only crime was being drunk and beat that individual within an inch of this life, and then drags that person off to jail. This fact was documented in an article written by a Sheldon Wimpfen, who worked part time as a deputy Sheriff during the time. Robert E. Speed was 60 years old at the time of this death. Enlistment records from the archives of the Texas Rangers showed that in his younger years, he was a Ranger for about eight years.

My grandfather, William B. Howell, Sr., was for the most part the owner of the only bar, "Howell Package Store," in Shafter that could sell liquor in the town, seven days a week. This upset the mining corporation because the miners would drink all day Sunday, which would affect their work in the mines on Monday. This is probably the main thing that started the trouble between my grandfather and Deputy Speed. One other incident that escalated the problems between the two, started one day when Speed walked into the "Howell Package Store," and beat a G.I. that was in the bar drinking and hauled him off to jail. According to the stories, my grandfather stood his ground and told Speed that he would never do that again in his bar.

Additional troubles between my grandfather and Speed seemed to have started coming to a head around September or October of 1939. This incident was somewhat confirmed, although not in detail, in a newspaper article in the Big Bend Sentinel. It appears that my father (William B. Howell, Jr.), and uncle (James A. Howell), were somewhere near the package store with a family dog, when a shot rang out from the area of the local jail which was just up the hill from the package store. The dog was hit and ultimately died of a gunshot wound. What the newspaper never reported was that my father was holding the dog at the time and my Uncle was standing next to them. The article only reported the incident as an argument over the death of a family dog. It was believed by my family that Speed was responsible for gun shot.

The second incident occurred in December 1939, shortly after nightfall. My grandfather sent one of his employees to the gas pumps in front of the package store to turn them off. He then went out himself and at that time and saw a green 1936 Dodge Coupe, with three men in it. Driving the vehicle was Pedro Bustillos, who was the godfather to my father and uncle. In the front passenger seat was Mariano Fuentes, a long time employee of the Brooks Family, a very prominent family in Shafter at the time of which Robert Speed had married into. Fuentes would in years marry the godmother to my father and uncle. In the back seat was Speed.

It appears that my grandfather called out to Speed, acknowledging his presence and then turned his back to them as he walked back into the package store. Witness accounts state that at that time shots from the vehicle then rang out striking my grandfather in the back. My Grandmother, Father and Uncle, along with an employee of my grandfather all stated that my grandfather was shot by Speed and the front passenger of the vehicle. My grandfather suffered a through and through gunshot wound to the lower right side of his back with a rifle and a shotgun wound to his back. A photograph of my Uncle Jimmy, now 77, points out some of the bullet holes from that ambush in front of the store. The holes remain in the door to this date.
Jimmy Howell showing bullet holes in Shafter Texas shootout
Jimmy Howell showing bullet holes
Later that evening, Presidio County Deputy Sheriff's came to my grandparents home to claim the body of my grandfather believing that he had been killed. To their surprise they discovered that my grandfather was still alive. Unknown to them he had been treated for his wounds by my great grandfather who although thought to be a doctor was actually believed to be a "Healer."

What happened next surprised me as I have not been able to find anything that supports the actions of the local district court. My grandfather received a summons from the district court of Presidio County. In this action, my grandfather had all his weapons confiscated by the court. Why has never been revealed. There was nothing to indicate any charges against my grandfather, Robert Speed or the others in the vehicle.

Sometime after that, my grandparents traveled to El Paso, where my grandfather purchased two handguns. I am assuming for protection against Speed.

On January 1, 1940, rumors had circulated throughout the town that Speed had been drinking and touting that he was going to kill Bill Howell. I know for sure that in the morning Speed had picked up Mariano Fuentes, to show him some property that Speed had recently purchased. Fuentes did not want to go with him because Speed had been drinking. It is believed that Fuentes did not know that they would end up at the "Howell Package Store," that afternoon.

There are two accounts of what happen next in the bar. The first is that Speed walked in and stood at one end of the bar with my grandfather at the other end. Speed was armed with a 45 cal. Pistol that was holstered. Unknown to Speed, my grandfather had heard the rumors of Speed's drinking and earlier statements that he would kill my grandfather. He placed two 32 cal. revolvers underneath the counter of the bar near a back door. My father, who was 12 years old at the time, was sitting on several cases of beer at the end of the bar next to the back door. My Uncle Jimmy had just walked into the bar from the back door at exactly 5:00 PM, as he remembers the whistle from the mine going off. He had just asked my grandfather if there was anything to eat, when he was told to go outside by my grandfather. While Speed stood at one end of the bar a conversation took place between the two. Speed was said to be fingering the holstered 45 cal Pistol at the time. My grandfather was heard yelling out "No Bob," at which time several shots rang out. The second version of what happened was similar only Speed was said to have drawn his pistol and fired at my grandfather twice and missed.

In any case the end result was the same as Robert E. Speed lay dead on the floor of the bar. Shot several times in the front and back as I believe he spun around driven by the rounds hitting him. It was said that one of the issues in the subsequent trial was the fact that Speed's 45 cal. Pistol came to rest up right on the floor of the bar as if intentionally placed there. Efforts by the court to duplicate the positioning of the pistol failed. The other issue was that Speed had received a gunshot wound to the back. It was alleged that my grandfather shot Speed in the back however no mention of the other fatal wounds are ever mentioned by those making this allegations.
Elephant Rock near Shafter Texas
Elephant Rock near Shafter
After the shooting, my grandfather was arrested and taken to the county seat, Marfa, about 40 miles north of Shafter. While in enroute, he and the deputies that were escorting him were stopped at a place just outside of town called, "Elephant Rock," where the intent of the mob was to lynch my grandfather. If it were not for the efforts of my grandmother and an unknown local rancher they would have completed the job.

My grandfather was indicted, tried and convicted of murdering Robert E. Speed. But the strange thing is that he was sentenced to 5 years in prison and at the recommendation of the jury, the sentence was suspended. In short, other that the time he spent in jail before he was bailed out, no jail time was imposed.
William S. Howell, Mattie A. Howell and William B Howell Sr.
From left to right, my great grandparents William S. Howell (Healer), Mattie A. Howell, and grandfather (William B. Howell., Sr.) the one who killed Deputy Speed.
Almost a year later, another uncle (Arthur O. Howell) who had been away from Shafter all that time was approached by an individual who claimed to have been on the jury panel. He was told that the vote for the conviction of my grandfather was 10 to 2. But he was also told that because Speed was not well liked by both the Sheriff and Presiding Judge of the time, that the sentence was a compromise.

Having read the newspaper articles of the time and getting copies of the names of both the Grand Jury and Trial Jury, I have many questions. The one the jumps out at me the most is the fact that relations to both the Sheriff, the Brooks Family of which Speed was a part of, and the Presiding Judge, were on both panels. According to the witness list not all witnesses present during the shooting were interviewed. Attempts to obtain court transcripts or any reports of the incident have proved to be in vain for a variety of reasons. This surprises me that such records were not maintained.
Children in Shafter Texas, 1930s photo
My father (William B. Howell, Jr.) and my uncle (James A. Howell) Photo circa 1930-32
My biggest question is this; having retired from law enforcement I am somewhat aware of what happens after the death of an officer killed in the line of duty. Why has there never been an attempt by the Presidio County Sheriff's Department to include Deputy Speed's name into the National Law Enforcement Memorial in Washington D.C.? If he was the hero that his family claims and I have no doubt of that, why is he not honored as he should be and in the manner that other law enforcement agencies honor those that have paid the ultimate price?

These questions have been asked of those agencies involved and of family members on both sides. All that prevails are unanswered questions and "Faded Memories".
- William G. Howell, Estes Park, Colorado
William G Howell
Author William G. Howell

Related Topics:
Shafter, Texas
Texas Small Town Sagas
Texas Old Photos
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