Story and photo by Denise Tessier
Toward the end of the 1980s, when the late Tomás Herrera was a Bernalillo County sheriff’s deputy covering the communities east of the Sandias, a man’s remains were found somewhere in the San Pedro Mountains. An autopsy revealed the remains were more than 100 years old, but their identity was, and still is, a mystery.
Herrera and other deputies were pretty sure they could identify the dead man’s killer, though. It was likely Marino Leyba, the leader of a band of thieves and murderers who in the 1880s terrorized the villages of the Sandia Mountains and beyond.
At more than six feet tall, with blue eyes and a dark red mustache—some say he was handsome in a surly kind of way—Leyba’s rampaging career and erratic punishment for his crimes ended with his own shooting death at 27 years of age in what is now San Pedro Creek Overlook II.
In 1996, before Overlook II was developed, I accompanied Herrera to the spot where Leyba was killed. After a short walk, we arrived at a rocky, scrub-dotted patch of land located off a barely distinct trail north of where NM 14 crosses San Pedro Creek between San Antonito and Golden.
“They killed him right here,” Herrera said, pointing to scattered pieces of wood and stones—all that was left of the cross that once marked the spot where Leyba had fallen. Nearby was trash from the 1950s and 1960s—a corned beef tin, an old beer can (the kind you had to open with a “church key”), a .22 bullet shell.
One day some years previous to our visit, while showing the site to his wife, Herrera said he saw a glint in the brush that turned out to be a gold watch whose engraving marked it as belonging to a Professor Scott. Most likely Leyba had stolen the watch and it had fallen out of a pocket the day he lost his life. “Marino was accused of killing a lot of people,” Herrera said matter-of-factly.
One of those people was Colonel Charles Potter, who came to Albuquerque in 1880 to document mining activity for the U.S. Geological Survey and ended up becoming the first USGS employee murdered in the line of duty.
On October 14 of that year, Potter had ridden horseback through Tijeras Canyon, planning to travel to Santa Fe. He was never heard from again. As step-son to the governor of Rhode Island, his family posted a $1,000 reward for information leading to his whereabouts.
No clues about Potter surfaced until January 1881, when Bernalillo County Sheriff Perfecto Armijo learned that Potter’s gold watch had been pawned back in November in Albuquerque by Pantaleon Miera, later determined to be a member of Leyba’s gang. Miera could not be questioned, however; he had been lynched in Bernalillo at the end of December for stealing horses. Armijo then found and arrested a known Miera associate, Escolastico Perea, who confessed being complicit in Potter’s murder. He named the others involved and told the sheriff where to find Potter’s body, which had been covered with brush and burned.
Armijo arrested Miguel Barrera and a man who went by the name of “California Joe” and placed them with Perea in the Bernalillo County lockup. Jailers did not interfere when 200 or so men dragged the three accused outside in the night and hanged them. That left two murderers at large: Faustino Gutierres and Leyba. The former was arrested in February, and helped Sheriff Armijo find Leyba near the village of Puerto de Luna, south of Santa Rosa. But while riding back to Albuquerque, Leyba escaped. Gutierres was jailed, and like the three before him, was lynched in the night by vigilantes.
Eventually, Armijo and a posse of 14 men surrounded Leyba near Puerto de Luna, where he was wounded in the ensuing gunfight and taken into custody. Unfortunately, it turned out he could not be indicted for Potter’s murder since all the witnesses had been lynched. Instead, he was indicted for assault with intent to kill Sheriff Pat Garrett at a local store, due to his alleged work as a “spy” for Billy the Kid. Garrett mentioned the encounter in his book The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid: “. . .a Mexican named Mariano Leiva [sic], the big bully of the town, entered, his hand on a pistol in his pocket, walked up to me, and said he would like to see any d---d Gringo arrest him. I told him to go away and not annoy me.”
Leyba went out onto the porch, where he swore a highly insulting oath at Garrett—“No cabron can take me!”—and raised his left arm in a threatening manner, his right hand still on his pistol. Garrett slapped him off the porch. Leyba got to his feet and fired “without effect” and Garrett shot him in the shoulder.
In August 1881, a month after Garrett famously killed Billy the Kid, Leyba was tried in Las Vegas and found guilty of assaulting the sheriff—and merely fined $80. Some speculate that’s because locals had sympathy for Billy the Kid, and none for Garrett.
But the law wasn’t giving up. A year later in March, Leyba was convicted of horse larceny and resisting an officer, the last charge related to the shootout with the posse. This time he was sentenced to more than seven years in prison. He spent four of them at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, before being transferred in March 1886 to the newly completed territorial prison in Santa Fe. That summer, a man whose testimony helped send Leyba to prison told Gov. Edmund G. Ross that he had been mistaken about the horse thievery. Leyba was pardoned soon afterward.
But the outlaw did not mend his evil ways. He spent the next four years terrorizing the villages of the Sandia and Manzano Mountains until he was implicated in a second celebrated crime, the death of three men at a sheep ranch in the Estancia Valley. The ranch house had been robbed and set aflame on March 4, 1887, with the body of rancher Joseph Lackey inside, shot. His business partner, Julian Tessiere, was found about 200 yards from the smoldering cabin, also dead, shot three times in the back. A third victim, Juan Trujillo, was found two days later. He apparently had been chased a half a mile before being killed.
Eyewitness testimony placing Leyba and two other men in the vicinity of the ranch was enough evidence for the Santa Fe County sheriff. Leyba managed to elude the law for several weeks, but on March 29, deputies Joaquin Montoya and Carlos Jacomo encountered Leyba on the road from San Antonito to Golden. Gunfire was exchanged, and Leyba was shot dead on the spot. His body was taken to Santa Fe and laid out on a table in the jail, where 2,000 people reportedly came to view it.
In spite of his crimes, Herrera said that Leyba had friends and family in the East Mountains, including a wife and son. While it is unknown who placed the marker at the outlaw’s death site, apparently he was loved enough that, for years, someone left flowers there, at the foot of a simple wooden cross anchored by rocks.
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