EAST DESERT SHOOTOUT
EAST DESERT SHOOTOUT
By Bill Glenn with the indispensable help of the Agents involved.
Ten little smugglers smuggling pot,
Some made it back and some did not.
Funny how little things can cause big things, mused Jesse Shaw recently when we were reminiscing about our days in El Centro back in the '70s. On the evening shift of May 29, 1972, he and fellow Border Patrol Agents Harold Slocumb and Bill Brunell were assigned to patrol the desert in separate jeeps. That night they were to work both the east and west deserts. That was a pretty big order for one shift. Duty Senior Carl Phillips had told them to take care of the east desert first. Bill and Harold set off to cut and rake out the drops along the All American canal while Jesse drove on out to cut the drag road east to the sand dunes. Jesse had his unauthorized .30 caliber M-1 carbine with a thirty-round clip in his jeep, so when he crossed the canal at remote Drop #2, he paused briefly to do some target practice at the resident carp population.
About halfway through the shift the three finished east and rather than heading west right away, they decided to regroup for a quick break behind a canal bank near the nearly deserted I-8 freeway. That pause gave Fate the next hand to deal. While they were sipping lukewarm thermos coffee and listening to one of Harold's wild stories, they observed two cars approach from the east and attempt to make a U-turn across the sandy median. One got stuck, but the other made it across and parked on a frontage road, a well-known pickup spot. The three PA's pounced on both cars and neither driver could give a convincing reason for being there. That naturally set off some bells and whistles. Jesse had Harold and Bill secure the two drivers while he drove south to make another quick cut on the east end of the drag road. The desert there is mostly soft sand dotted with greasewood bushes.
Shortly, Jesse radioed the others that he had cut sign of eight or ten and was on the trail. As he followed the tracks, they began to change directions, the group apparently having spotted the lights of the pursuing vehicle. Harold radioed that he was heading over to give Jesse a hand, but about then Jesse spotted something off to his right. Turning in that direction, his headlights played across six large white bags under a bush.
Beyond the bags he saw a row of men about thirty feet away aiming guns at him. He grabbed the mike and shouted, "Marijuana. They're armed," as the first volley hit. Jesse said it sounded like rocks pounding into the vehicle. He jammed his jeep in reverse and grabbing his carbine, bailed out the door, rolling into the desert sand. As he did so, he saw a shadowy figure skirting around to his right in an attempt to flank the empty jeep.
The man was in a low, almost duck-walk position and apparently hadn't seen Jesse abandon the vehicle. Jesse took a quick shot with his carbine and saw the man go down.
The abandoned jeep continued in reverse in a slow arc that played the headlights over Jesse as he was seeking cover. The tendency at night is to shoot low and fortunately the smugglers were doing just that. Jesse said they were hitting so close to him that the bullets were knocking sand in his face. He said he felt a wave of anger and figured he was dead, but would take a few of them along for the ride. As he rolled away back into the darkness, the jeep's headlights suddenly went out. The vehicle had become the second victim of the battle.
Jesse then began to return fire, aiming just to the right of the muzzle flashes of the smugglers' guns. (He was hoping they were right handed, he said.) It was fortunate that he had his carbine. As Jesse put it later, "Everyone knows we only have six shots before we have to stop and reload, so after I had fired more than six, the smugglers were ready to break it off and leave." Jesse had turned the tables. Now he was the aggressor.
All during the battle Jesse had been moving and firing in near total darkness except for muzzle flashes. When he had expended the fourteen rounds left over in his clip from his earlier "carp shoot," he drew his S&W .357 service revolver only to discover that it was packed with sand. He first tried to fire it double action, but it was jammed. Then he tried cocking it, but could not get the hammer back. He tried to open the cylinder, but it wouldn't budge. In frustration, he pushed the cylinder release once more and hit the cylinder hard against his knee and it finally opened. He spun the cylinder and blew on it to remove the sand, closed it and tried double action. No go, but he was able to cock the hammer. The concussion of his first shot freed up the mechanism and he was back in business.
By the time he emptied his six pistol rounds, he was about a hundred yards from where the fight had begun. He had only six refills left and decided to head back to his jeep.
Early into the fight, his jeep had sustained a fatal wound to the engine block. The smuggler Jesse downed with his first shot had received a crippling leg wound and, unable to join his comrades, tried to commandeer the abandoned vehicle. As he was attempting to start it, Harold Slocumb arrived in the vicinity unaware that a gun battle had taken place. (He later explained that he had not been able to understand Jesse's radio warning but had sensed the urgency. Also, the noise of gunfire in the open desert does not carry well over engine noise.) Harold spotted Jesse's jeep and pulled up behind and to the right of it. In his headlights he could see that the occupant was wearing a blue bandanna on his head, so he knew it was not Jesse. The smuggler further confirmed that fact by exiting the jeep and pointing a semi-automatic pistol at Harold across the few feet separating them. Harold remembers him saying in Spanish to throw out his pistol, "tira la pistola". Thinking Jesse had been killed or wounded, Harold's response was immediate. Following the alternate meaning of tirar (to shoot), he drew his revolver and emptied it through his open window. Harold said the man was not a good target because he was partially shielded by the jeep's cab and he kept bobbing up and down like a jack-in-the-box. The smuggler managed to get off a shot or two before three of Harold's found their marks.
The first hit the smuggler in his gun hand, the second in the neck and the third ricocheted off the jeep's rear bed and keyholed through the center of the smuggler's forehead. He died instantly.
Bill Brunell, who had driven up from another direction and was ready to join in with his shotgun, observed the gun battle between Harold and the smuggler. He saw the smuggler drop heavily alongside the disabled jeep out of Harold's sight and said there was no doubt the man was dead by the way he fell. He shouted that information to Harold who was still looking for a target, having replaced his emptied revolver with a shotgun. Harold rolled out of the jeep and looking under the other vehicle could see the fallen man in Bill's headlights. He returned to his radio and called SPA Phillips, "Carl, you better come out here, I just had to kill a man."
Bill and Harold then turned their attention to finding Jesse, but it was Jesse who found them. When he got within shouting distance of the jeeps, he yelled out, "Hey, Harold, bring me some ## ammo." ("##" is a code we used for emphasis.) Said Harold later, "Those words were like music to our ears.
We thought he had been killed." By this time the smugglers were well on their way back into Mexico, so they made no further attempt to pursue them.
The dead smuggler had fallen so heavily against the side of Jesse's jeep that he came to rest partially under it. As the three turned their attention to the lifeless body, they saw that a sidewinder had crawled onto his chest. A rather strange sight to behold. It was later determined that Jesse's earlier shot had penetrated the man's right knee dead center from right to left, destroying the joint. That would account for his bobbing action when Harold was trying to zero in on him. Jesse figured the man had been trying to circle the jeep to catch him while he was still in the cab to finish him off at close range, but got "kneecapped" instead. It was just not his night.
Jim Martin was working Anti-Smuggling near Gordon's Well a couple of miles away when the battle began, so was the first of many who responded. He said Jesse's radio call had been punctuated by the sounds of gunfire. Shortly after the battle ended, the desert began to get crowded with PA's from El Centro, Calexico and Yuma eager to pursue the smugglers south. Their enthusiasm was reined in by Jim's better judgment when he pointed out that an armed invasion of Mexico was probably not a good idea.
The next morning, tracks and other evidence revealed that there had been ten smugglers in all. They had been armed with semiautomatic weapons including .30 Carbine, .38 Super, .357, and 9mm. Over fifty empty cases were recovered in the area. Jesse's jeep had been hit some fifteen times, many of the shots penetrating the cab after it had been vacated. The man killed
at Jesse's jeep had been armed with a nickel-plated Colt .38 Super with an extended clip that could hold about twenty rounds. He had two or three left. Jesse noted that those calibers are restricted in Mexico to all but military and law enforcement. For that reason, he is inclined to think there were policemen or other officials in the group.
In addition to the one Mexican smuggler killed at the scene, information was later received from the county coroner that two men had been admitted to the hospital in San Luis, Rio Colorado, with gunshot wounds and had died there. Two more had been found dead in the farming area of Ejido Zacatecas, directly south of where the battle took place. There were also unsubstantiated reports that some of the remaining had been wounded.
Mexican Judiciales captured two suspects in the desert early the next morning, then released them for "lack of evidence" - but only after relieving them of their firearms.
The day following the shooting, the Yuma Sun published a story identifying Harold by name and after that, he began receiving threatening telephone calls. He moved his family to San Diego and lived alone until the Service finally transferred him to San Clemente station. Word got out later that one of the victims was related to a big-time smuggler in Sonora who offered a $10,000 reward each for the deaths of the three Border Patrolmen.
Fortunately, no one ever tried to collect.
Reflecting on the gun battle, Jesse was peeved at himself for leaving only fourteen rounds in a carbine clip that could hold thirty and not having brought spares with him that evening. He vowed never again to waste ammo on shooting carp. Last time I was out that way, the carp seemed happy about that.