Column No. 20

The Capture and Trials of the Pearson Murderers

Bob Ring, Al Ring, Tallia Pfrimmer Cahoon

On August 26, 1921, seven Mexican bandits raided the mining camp of Ruby, Arizona, robbed the Ruby mercantile, and brutally murdered the store’s proprietors, Frank and Myrtle Pearson. Witnesses identified Placido Silvas and Manuel Martinez as two of the killers, who escaped into the borderland wilderness.

Santa Cruz County Deputy Sheriff Oliver Parmer described the search for the murdering bandits:

“Days in the saddle and nights beneath the stars were the order of the day. Cars were of practically no value . . . The country was too difficult and there were few roads. . . An airplane was chartered from the army post at Nogales . . . It was the first airplane ever used in Arizona for a manhunt. A reward of $5,000 dead or alive was posted for each of the murderous outlaws.”

Silvas First Trial

Surprisingly Nogales police arrested Placido Silvas for “disturbing the peace” on September 5th, only nine days after the Pearson murders.

Silvas went on trial in Santa Cruz County Superior Court, Nogales, for the murder of Frank Pearson, on December 15, 1921.

Key witnesses for the state included three Mexican neighbors of the Pearsons. The three witnesses testified that Silvas was the second (behind Manuel Martinez) of seven people they saw going to, and afterwards leaving, the Ruby store. They also testified that Silvas was one of three bandits (with Manuel Martinez) who entered the store, the other four remaining outside until after the shooting subsided.

Frank Pearson’s sister, Irene Pearson, who witnessed the crime from inside the store, returned to Nogales from Texas and testified that Silvas was one of three bandits who entered the store and the “one who fired the first shot” at her brother.

The defense countered with three witnesses (two were relatives of Silvas) who testified that Silvas was not even in Ruby on the day of the murders, having been in Arivaca all of that day.

The case went to the jury at 11:00 am on the morning of December 24th.

Later that Christmas Eve, with the Silvas jury still deliberating, dramatic word came that Manuel Martinez had been arrested at Saric, Sonora, four days earlier and deported in the morning of December 24th.

After his arrest at the border, Martinez reportedly made a complete confession. He named Placido Silvas as a member of the gang and admitted that they got about $130 in the robbery.

Rumors of the arrest and confession of Martinez reached the Silvas trial jury during their deliberation of Silvas’ fate. Believing that this new information might unfairly influence the jury decision, the judge declared a mistrial and ordered Silvas held for another trial.

Martinez Trial

Manuel Martinez’ trial for the murder of Frank Pearson started on May 16, 1922 in the same courtroom that held the Silvas trial.

The Pearsons’ neighbors in Ruby gave the Martinez jury the same damaging eyewitness accounts that they presented to the Silvas jury. Irene Pearson, again brought back from Texas, testified as before. Myrtle Pearson’s sister, Elizabeth Purcell, who both witnessed and was shot during the raid, at the time of the trial living close by in Patagonia, Arizona, tearfully testified that Martinez was the man who shot her.

Martinez admitted that he participated in the crime, but said that he remained outside the store while others committed the murders. Virtually the only other witnesses called by the defense were Martinez family members who tried to suggest that Martinez was weak minded or insane.

The case went to the jury at 12:20 pm on May 18th, only the third day of the trial. After being out but a few minutes, the jury returned a verdict of guilty in the first degree and fixed the penalty at death.

The judge sentenced Manuel Martinez to be hanged on August 18, 1922 at the state prison in Florence, Arizona. Martinez was to be the first person hanged from Santa Cruz County since it was formed in 1899.

Silvas Second Trial

On the same day that one jury convicted Manuel Martinez, jury selection occurred for Placido Silvas’ second trial for the murder of Frank Pearson.

The trial started on May 19th, again in the same Santa Cruz County Superior Court.

Testimony of the Pearsons’ Ruby neighbors and Elizabeth Purcell was the same as that at the earlier trials.

Martinez, brought to Nogales from prison in Florence, testified for the state. He claimed that Placido Silvas did participate in the crime, but remained outside the store with Martinez while the murders occurred.

The case went to the jury at 1:30 pm on June 2nd, the fifteenth day of the trial. This was the longest criminal trial in the history of Santa Cruz County to that date, primarily due to the number of witnesses, lengthy testimony, and detailed cross-examinations.

On June 4th, at about 10:00 am, the jury returned a verdict of guilty of murder in the first degree and recommended life imprisonment.

On June 17th, the judge sentenced Placido Silvas to life imprisonment at the Arizona state penitentiary at Florence.

Silvas Third Trial

Later that month, Santa Cruz County Attorney A. H. DeRiemer decided to try Silvas for the murder of Myrtle Pearson. Presumably, DeRiemer hoped to get a sentence of death for Silvas.

Silvas’ third trial began in the same Santa Cruz County Superior Court on June 27, 1922.

After the three previous trials (two for Silvas, one for Martinez) in the same courtroom, jury selection for this fourth trial was difficult. The judge dismissed many people from serving on account of prejudice for or against the defendant, fixed opinions as a result of newspaper articles, or having discussed the case with others.

Essentially, witnesses against Silvas and Martinez repeated the same testimony from the preceding trials.

Again brought back from Florence prison, Martinez testified that Silvas was one of the bandits.

The case went to the jury on July 11th at noon. After 30 ½ hours of deliberation, at 4:30 pm on July 12th, the jury told the judge that they were hopelessly deadlocked at eleven for conviction and one for acquittal, with the one juror adamantly opposed to conviction and unwilling to discuss the matter further.

Regretfully, the judge declared a mistrial, discharged the jury, and set a new trial date for August 28th. However, prosecuting attorney DeRiemer decided not to go ahead with a fourth trial because of the difficulty in getting an unbiased jury.

So, on July 13, 1922, the two convicted killers were set to be transported from Nogales to the state prison in Florence so that preparations could be made for Manuel Martinez’ hanging and Placido Silvas could begin serving his life sentence.

(Sources: Oliver Parmer and Kathleen O’Donnell, “How We Trapped the Deadly Border Bandits,” Startling Detective Adventures, 1936; Nogales Herald; Santa Cruz County Superior Court Criminal Cases 548, 580, 581, 582; Arizona Supreme Court Criminal Cases 544, 550)
Accompanying Figure: Reward poster

Post Office authorities circulated this (retyped) reward poster for the murder of Postmaster Frank Pearson at the Ruby mercantile. (Image of original reward poster courtesy of Scot Anderson)



 Next time: The Pearson Murderers Escape

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