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A MOUNTAIN OF TROUBLE

FOR YEARS THE LEGAL BATTLE OVER THE TAYLOR RANCH PITTED THE LOCALS AGAINST A WEALTHY OUTSIDER. NOW THEY'RE FIGHTING THE STATE--AND EACH OTHER.THIS LAND IS MY LAND FOR SALE: 77,000 ACRES. COLORFUL HISTORY. EASY ACCESS TO LOCAL RANGE WAR. INQUIRE WITHIN.

The situation quickly generated a series of confrontations between Taylor and locals, both on and off his ranch. Taylor barricaded the roads to la sierra; someone shot his bulldozer full of holes. Taylor and two employees tangled with three Hispanic cowboys on his ranch and marched them into San Luis; one of the suspects was hospitalized, and Taylor was fined for assault.

Gene Martinez found out about the fuss when he came back to the valley from a tour in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. He went up to the mountain to collect some slabs of firewood--and ran smack into Taylor.

"He blocked the road," Martinez recalls. "I blocked his way, too. He had two of his hands with him. My kid brother was with me. He had a rifle and I had a pistol."

Scribbling in a notebook, Taylor beckoned him to his vehicle, Martinez says, "like he was God."

"I got out and unsnapped my weapon. He said, `Who are you and what are you doing here?' I said, `Who are you and what are you doing here?'

"He said, `For your information, I'm Jack Taylor, blah blah blah...' He had my license plate, and he wanted my name--`Tell me your name and you can come up here and get all the slabs you want.' I told him I didn't have a name.

"He's sitting there, and the notebook starts trembling in his hand. A punk with money, right?"

Taylor complained bitterly that the law in Costilla County was less than diligent in protecting Anglo property rights. He fared better in Denver's federal court, however. In 1965 Judge Hatfield Chilson ruled that sole title to the land had passed from Gilpin through his successors to Taylor. "Spanish-Americans cannot make claims to another's land based on old Mexican law," Chilson declared.

Taylor went on to register his title under Colorado's Torrens Act--an unusual statute that provides the registrant with virtually unassailable ownership. But in Costilla County, as Calvin Trillin once noted in The New Yorker, "a man sometimes owns only the land his neighbors acknowledge he owns."

"The people in the hills have never surrendered their rights," says Gene Martinez, who served in local law enforcement during the tense years that followed his first encounter with Taylor. "He brought in mercenaries and started shooting at people. Then the people started shooting back. Taylor actually said the white man was superior to the black and brown man. He didn't know that bullets don't discriminate."

On the night of October 15, 1975, several bullets ripped through the roof of Taylor's bedroom on the ranch. One shattered his left ankle. He left Colorado with a limp and ran the operation from his home in New Bern, North Carolina. The sniper was never caught, but Taylor had no doubts that locals were responsible.

"We know who did it, but we can't prove it," he told me several years ago. "People told us. I offered them a $25,000 reward to testify, but they wouldn't do it. When it comes to a face-down between them and an Anglo, they're gonna side with their blood kin every time."

Since Jack Taylor's death, tensions over the ranch have eased considerably; Zach Taylor has even permitted various local groups to use the land for picnics or religious celebrations. But the limited access to la sierra hasn't arrested the decline of the county's traditional agrarian economy, which was hurting even before Jack Taylor arrived. Small landowners on the fringe of la sierra had come to depend on the mountains for summer pasturage, wood for heat and building, even meat and fish for the dinner table. Today the only public land in the county is the vega, a 630-acre meadow on the edge of San Luis, the last trace of Beaubien's common lands.

Faced with dwindling options, the herederos have been compelled to sell off their herds or pack up altogether.

Economic desperation led to the formation of the Land Rights Council in 1978, and ultimately to the filing of the class-action lawsuit, which argues that Taylor hadn't provided proper notice to the herederos when he went about clearing the "cloud" on his title in the 1960s. Minimally funded from the outset, the suit was given little hope of success, but the recent 4-3 Colorado Supreme Court ruling ordering a hearing on the notice question has breathed new life into the legal battle.

Jeff Goldstein, the Denver attorney who has shepherded the LRC case since 1981, says the hearing is only the first step in seeking another trial on the merits of the heirs' claims, which would present more thorough legal and historical research than the original plaintiffs were able to muster in the 1960s. But even getting to that stage, he says, is cause for celebration.

"Obviously, the implication of setting aside a thirty-year-old judgment is astronomical--courts don't do that," he notes. "This is an extremely good opinion. It's a branch of government saying they're going to look at a human-rights issue, how people may have been ripped off thirty years ago. That's incredible, given the notions we normally have about private property."

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