By Dixie Boyle
Shortly after dawn on April 6, 1923, a man named Francisco Vaisa was led out of his jail cell in Estancia, New Mexico, and walked under guard to the front of the town’s courthouse. According to newspaper accounts at the time, over 200 people had pushed themselves into the area, with another 1,500 spectators perched on nearby rooftops, including the roof of the courthouse. They were there to see Vaisa hang for his part in the murder of popular Duran, New Mexico, merchant Anton Coury. After the crowd was silenced and the executioner given his orders, Vaisa’s body would be the last to hang from the gallows in New Mexico.
Anton Coury and his wife, Raffna, had emigrated to the United States from Lebanon with the dream of owning a mercantile store. Duran, located about 50 miles southeast of Clines Corners on NM 54 between Corona and Vaughn, prospered during the first two decades of the 20th century. It is difficult to imagine this once-booming community when passing through the sleepy village of present-day Duran, but in the 1920s, it was a bustling railroad town that served as a division point on the Southern Pacific Railroad. There were four mercantile stores, a meat market, pool hall, barber shop, newspaper and post office, railroad section house, stock-yards, a round house for building and storing locomotives, and more. It seemed to the Courys to be the perfect place to go into business.
In 1913, the Coury family purchased the Kilmer Mercantile Company and soon turned it into a thriving business. When their store was destroyed by fire four years later, Coury rebuilt and threw a community dance in celebration. He was a highly respected and well-liked member of the community, and his death was a huge shock to the town.
There are several versions of how the merchant was killed. The following account is the most consistent: Shortly after dark on the evening of Saturday, September 2, 1921, Coury had just closed the store when he heard a knock at the door. Being a friendly and accommodating man, he unlocked the door, which was immediately shoved open by a large, mustached man, who was followed closely by three other men. One asked for a drink of water and another for 25 cent’s worth of cheese. While Coury went to get the cheese, his wife and 12-year-old son Fred entered the store.
Coury cut and wrapped the piece of cheese, and the man placed a two-bit silver piece on the edge of the counter. When Coury reached for the money, he accidentally knocked it into a bin of potatoes on the floor. He knelt to retrieve the coin, and when he stood up, the man shot him at point-blank range, killing Coury instantly.
Mrs. Coury tried to rush to her husband, but one of the robbers detained her, demanding to know where the money for the store was kept. When she didn’t answer, he beat her over the head with the gun, causing it to explode. A bullet entered Mrs. Coury’s left side but was luckily deflected by her corset, saving her life.
The robber tried to shoot again, but the gun jammed. This gave Mrs. Coury time to grab the gun by the barrel, preventing the robber from taking a second shot. Fred began shouting and throwing cans of food at the robbers. When he knocked the hat off one of the men, they all ran for the door. By this time, the gun shots and commotion had alerted the neighbors. They tried to follow the gang, but to no avail.
Torrance County Sheriff John Block of Estancia and three of his dupties soon arrived on the scene in a Model T Ford. Fred gave Block a detailed description of the murderers, and Block alerted all county sheriffs in southeastern New Mexico, as he suspected that the group was heading to the Mexican border in order to escape prosecution. Posses from Torrance, Eddy, Chavez, and Lincoln Counties were organized to intercept the men.
Block then took stock of the evidence, which included the gun and one of the men’s hats. In addition, one of Coury’s daughters insisted that a fifth man had stood guard outside the store. Later, the deputies found the tracks of someone who had not only likely stood guard but had also walked around a small nearby tree. When the Torrance County bloodhounds arrived, the deputies discovered that someone had crashed into a stand of cactus, an incident that would later help identify the gang.
Over in Roswell, authorities were alerted to two local men that fit the descriptions of the murderers. Both denied their part in the crime, stating that they had been working at the time and had never been to Duran. But when a doctor was asked to examine the men, it was found that one of them had cactus thorns embedded in his lower leg—and there was evidence that many more thorns had been pulled out. The men’s names were Francisco Vaisa and Carlos Renteria, and Sheriff Block soon extracted a confession out of them. They also disclosed the names of the three remaining men: Ysidro Miranda, Luis Medrano, and Esequel Pachuca. Miranda, they said, was the leader of the gang.
According to the two men’s confessions, they left Roswell on August 31 to look for work in Duran. Upon arriving in town, Miranda suggested they get something to eat before finding a place to bed down for the evening. While exploring the town, Miranda decided that the Coury Store would be easy to rob. The other men agreed. They approached the store, leaving Vaisa on watch. After the attempted robbery and murder, Vaisa and Renteria returned to Roswell. The three remaining members of the gang headed for the Mexican border.
Vaisa and Renteria were scheduled to be housed at the Torrance County jail. During their trip over, they were approached by more than one vigilante group who wanted to lynch the men. Block, fearing that one of these groups would overpower him and his deputies, decided to take the men directly to the state penitentiary in Santa Fe instead, where the facilities were more secure.
n the meantime, the Chavez County Sheriff’s Department in Roswell received word that a man was driving erratically near Artesia. After making a fruitless search, deputies were just about to give up and head back to Roswell when they noticed a car speeding along near the Pecos River. They caught up with the car, pulled it over, and apprehended Ysidro Miranda. He confessed to his identity and to his crime and was taken into custody and jailed in Roswell. As soon as he could, Block arrived and took Miranda straight to the penitentiary, where he too would remain until the trial.
A few days later, another tip came in, alerting authorities to the location of Luis Medrano, who was easily apprehended at a friend’s house in Hagerman. Esequel Pachuca, unfortunately, had already made it across the Mexican border. On the day of the trial, the men were taken to Estancia under heavy guard. A jury found them guilty of first-degree murder after less than two hours of deliberation. The sentence was death by hanging for all four men.
There were many who felt Francisco Vaisa should not have received the same sentence as the rest of the gang, since he only stood guard and never killed or threatened anyone. Some members of the community even raised funds to hire a lawyer to defend him. In the end, however, Vaisa would receive the same fate as his partners in crime—plus the distinction of being the last person to be executed by hanging in the state of New Mexico.
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