Crime in Las Cruces

Who doesn’t love a treasure hunt? It is that same excitement that draws me deeper into my research, as much for my fiction as for history.

I do not write fantasy. My crime mystery novels occur in a different location each time––real, identifiable places. It is my purpose to describe the area in such detail that my reader can go there and find the very spot Zack Tolliver or Eagle Feather trod.

It is the same for the culture and history of my settings as well. All the history described is scrupulously researched and real. Sometimes even the locals are unaware of events I uncover.

One such case involves an event that occurred in Las Cruces, the setting for a future novel. Las Cruces is an original Mexican land grant located just north of the Gaviota Pass, a break in the Santa Ynez mountain range guarding north Santa Barbara county. It is a narrow, wild, and scenic cut where after dark the only light comes from cars passing through on the freeway.

It is also the setting for a terrifying triple murder that took place in 1864. A stage coach stop was burned down around the owners, George and Lucretia Corliss. Both had been stabbed and dumped one on top of the other before the door was locked from the outside and the dwelling set ablaze. The body of a shepherd who tended their sheep was found days later a short distance from the scene, partially scalped with his throat cut.

Some folks in the area know the story. Most do not know that the couple had moved to this place from Oregon Territory hoping to find peace and tranquility after barely escaping a very similar attack by Indians on Whidbey Island, Washington at the home of a friend. Although their host was killed and beheaded, George and Lucretia were able to escape out a window. Lucretia ran to the house of a neighbor instead of hiding, a brave act under the circumstances.

Despite her courage, Lucretia remained incapacitated by her fright. George ultimately gave up his holdings in Oregon Territory in exchange for land in sunny, peaceful Las Cruces in hopes of restoring her nerves. Lucretia’s letters home do reveal a gradual recovery and she encouraged her relatives to join them. It was soon after this letter the home attack came from which neither escaped. The murderer was never found.

The irony is incredible. It is difficult to write fiction more dramatic than this.

Lucretia Corliss was born Lucretia Judson. Her brother Holden married Phoebe Goodell, author of “A Pioneer’s Search for an Ideal Home”.

2 thoughts on “Crime in Las Cruces

  1. Lawson;
    I’m looking forward to reading “Las Cruces”. It is an interesting place. Although not mentioned in the same paragraph, there is the Gaviota Hot Springs, just a short walk away. No doubt this was a reason for past indigenous peoples living in the area. It is a steep hike up the hill, but an interesting view.
    I found more about the Corliss family and incident in
    A few years ago, a thief would wait in the parking lot for people to head up the hill, then break into their car. He was caught after a while.

    If I recall, Las Cruces declined after the introduction of the 101 freeway bypassed it. The intersection of two roads generally brings some form of civilization to the area and no doubt, it happened here too. Reminds me of Cholame, east of Paso Robles. Highways 41 and 46 meet there. There is a diner there that my family has stopped at for over 70+ years, sort of a halfway point on way to Fresno. Had it not been for James Dean’s wreck, Cholame would be just that, a sleepy intersection set among cattle grazing land. Between Cholame and the 41/46 intersection is the cuttoff to Parkfield, the Earthquake Capital of California.

    Well, going to sign off now. Keep up the good work.


  2. Ann and I actually had lunch at Cholame about three years ago. Fascinated by the pictures on the wall of James Dean. We hadn’t known about the location until we stumbled on it. Las Cruces will be fiction but as always woven into the real landscape and factual history. I searched for the Corliss murder site and despite a healthy dose of poison oak may actually have found it. I found an old iron pail half buried in the sod and some charred 6×6 hand-hewn lumber. Who knows?

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