In May 1874, a sheriff’s posse descended on a remote, rough-hewn adobe cabin in Rancho La Brea, six miles west of Los Angeles, and captured the West’s most-wanted bandit, Tiburcio Vasquez, in a hail of bullets.
The cabin belonged to “Greek Geroge” Caralambo, a former cameleer with the U.S. camel corps, a project of the Army Quartermaster Corps in the 1850s. The adobe was situated by pool in a stand of sycamores near present-day Melrose Place in West Hollywood. Greek George had moved to the adobe with a half-dozen of the camels in 1864, making him the first known non-native settler in the city. He eventually freed the camels. They were seen roaming what are now the Hollywood Hills for decades.
Tiburcio Vasquez was born in 1935 into a well-respected Californio family in the colonial capitol, Monterrey. (The Vasquez family adobe is still standing in downtown Monterrey.) The arrival of the Yankees after gold was discovered near Sacramento was a clear threat to the Californio way of life. It radicalized quite a few young Mexican colonials. Vasquez was unique among them, however, in that he was relatively well-born and well-educated. He could read and write in both Spanish and English, for example.
In his twenty-year career, Vasquez is said to have stolen the equivalent today of millions of dollars, much of it he spent in pursuit of his insatiable compulsion for seduction – in fact, it was a sordid sex scandal that led to his betrayal.
In August 1873, Vasquez and his gang robbed a hotel at a remote stagecoach stop at Tres Pinos in Central California. The marauders had been drinking, and things quickly skidded sideways. In the gunfire that ensued, Vasquez shot a newlywed husband, who died in the arms of his bride. The story of the rampage and its tragic consequences burned up the telegraph lines and spilled out onto front pages across the country. Reacting to the outrage, the governor of California put up a reward for Vasquez that topped out at $13,000 – roughly equivalent to $500,000 today.
The scandal that brought Vasquez down occurred while he was on the lam after Tres Pinos. He spent a few weeks hiding out in the desert while visiting his brother and his family on their ranch near present-day Acton, California.
Vasquez was traveling incognito, and while his brother and sister-in-law knew who he was, their children didn’t. Tiburcio became smitten with the oldest daughter. The two often went riding together, and during one of these excursions, he seduced his 18-year-old niece. He was long gone by the time her parents learned she was pregnant. This latest outrage spread quickly through the network of Californio families across the state.
In the families network were the Lopezes, a prominent family in Los Angeles. One of them, Cornelia Lopez, was a cousin of the pregnant girl’s mother. She was also Greek George’s wife. Her husband was a friend of Tibiurcio. In fact, he had been hiding out at their adobe for weeks. Cornelia sent Greek George into Los Angeles to betray Vasquez by notifying the sheriff.
News of the famous gang leader’s arrest became the first national story reported out of future West Hollwyood. News of the search and capture was reported in the New York Times and the Boston Globe. He was hanged on March 19, 1875, in San Jose, California.
The area where he camped out near his brother’s ranch in Acton was known for its dramatic geologic features – huge outcropped slabs of sandstone jutting up out of the desert floor and 45-degree angles. The rock formations are known today as Vasquez Rocks, and are located in Vasquez Rocks Park. The eerie landscape is popular with filmmakers. The park has doubled for foreign planets in several episodes of “Star Trek,” for example.
Finally, in a quirk of history, Vasquez’ career as a celebrity gangster foreshadowed those of twentieth-century Sunset Strip mobsters Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel and Mickey Cohen. With Seigel he shared an insatiable sex drive. Like Cohen, he was a clever strategist. All three shared a love of gambling and easy money and business with a propensity of violence.