Gabriel Jara and Tom Threepersons’ Border Shootout.
by Bob Chessey
On the summer evening of Saturday, June 14, 1924, two US Customs Officers (Mounted Inspectors), Tom Threepersons and Rudolph M. Wadsworth, were conducting routine surveillance for liquor smugglers along the northern bank of the Rio Grande River that set within the city limits of El Paso. In the days that followed, El Paso’s three newspapers printed stories on the cross-border confrontation that erupted during their shift that warm weekend night. However, the details of that night’s events presented in this article predominantly sources a recently discovered official report written by Tom Threepersons on June 16, 19241 in response to questioning by W. W. Carpenter, Acting Customs Collector, in the presence of C. C. Webb, Mounted Inspector in Charge, and Mounted Inspector R. M. Wadsworth.i The content of Threepersons report differs several times from the newspaper accounts.
In Threepersons’ official report the officer states that on the evening of June 14, 1924, Threepersons and fellow Mounted Inspector Wadsworth parked their vehicle at the Union Stockyards and walked the short distance from the end of First Street toward an area along the Rio Grande near the International Monument (Boundary Marker) No. 2 (as a result of the Chamizal Treaty this section of land is now part of Mexico). A 1939map of El Paso in the collection of the El Paso County Historical Society shows that Boundary Markers #3 and #4 were those closest to the end of First Street and Boundary Markers #1 and #2 were the two nearest the Union Stockyards.
The pair set up their stakeout close to a tree in the scrub brush near the river and began watching for smugglers in possession of contraband alcohol crossing into the US from Mexico. At approximately 10:30 p. m., with no movement observed in the vicinity, the federal officers decided to call an end to their surveillance. Both men agreed Wadsworth would hike back to their vehicle at the Stockyards and that Threepersons would remain another 30 minutes at their stakeout location before meeting his partner at the railroad tracks about 300 yards west from his dusty observation point.
After Wadsworth’s departure Threepersons remained hidden in high weeds for approximately five minutes before he noticed on the night horizon the silhouette of a man walking along the American side of the river, who stopped about six feet from the concealed customs officer. The suspicious male looked around, coughed, and then crossed the river to the Mexican side of the border. Several minutes later the same individual, this time hauling two sacks of liquor, returned from the Mexican riverbank, crossed the Rio Grande, and entered the U. S. side of the international line.
Threepersons stepped out from the night shadows and identified himself before placing the suspect under arrest. When the prisoner was asked, he denied that others would be following with additional contraband. The prisoner’s mendacity was quickly exposed when the customs officer turned toward the river and spotted several more men carrying liquor across the border in his direction. The officer hobbled his prisoner by deftly placing his only pair of handcuffs on the man’s right hand and right foot.
After having secured his prisoner, an additional seven contrabandistas, who in groups of two and three had crossed the river in short intervals, also were taken into custody by the lone Customs Officer.
Soon two additional smugglers exited the river and halted approximately 20 feet from Threepersons and his eight prisoners. Men toting contraband continued arriving until a second group of eight violators had stepped foot on American soil. At this point Threepersons’ description in his submitted official government statement deviates from the newspaper accounts. Threepersons never claimed in his report to have placed into custody the last eight men who had crossed into the United States.
Threepersons testimony described the pivotal moment when a member of the latter group, “hollered to the man I had arrested and said, ‘Pancho, where are you?’ Then the shooting began from the direction of Monument #2,”ii aimed directly at the officer.
With 50 rounds of ammunition set in his cartridge belt, Threepersons dropped to the ground and laid still for several minutes before crawling approximately 30 feet behind a tree for cover. From this position, though he was unable to see his assailants clearly, he returned gunfire by aiming toward the flashes from their gun barrels.iii
Wadsworth heard the exchange of gunshots and raced back toward the surveillance site. However, his attempt to assist his partner was stymied when the drivers in two cars parked on the Mexican side of the river noticed his approach and turned on their headlights. Suddenly illuminated, the frustrated Customs officer was caught in a surge of the smugglers’ crossfire. Cutting his losses, he raced back to the city and phoned his office for additional officers to rescue Threepersons.iv
After approximately 20 minutes of exchanging gunfire Threepersons found himself completely surrounded. His handcuffed prisoner informed the customs man that Mexican Fiscal guards protected each liquor load as it crossed the border and that the Fiscales would eventually kill the outnumbered officer if he failed to release him. However, if he would let him go the assault would end and his life would be spared. Emphasizing the severity of Threepersons’ predicament, two inches above his head a bullet splintered the bark on the tree offering his only protection. That shot was followed by a second round hitting the ground six inches from the officer’s leg, and an additional burst of lead kicking up dust around his feet.
Threepersons declined the offer to trade his life for the release of his prisoner, instead he hovered closer to the ground and scooted through the dirt and placed himself closer to some of his other prisoners as he returned fire. The assailants surrounding him were also changing their positions by tightening their encircling perimeter around Threepersons, moving to within 20-25 feet of the officer, so close that he could hear one smuggler curse as he squeezed off a shot at the customs officer. Threepersons returned fire and the swearing gunman fell. In response to his deadly shot, Threepersons received four incoming rounds discharged from behind, followed by a volley from all around him.
After holding off the liquor runners for one hour the encircled lawman realized he was down to his last three rifle cartridges. With incoming rounds continuing to pound the ground around him, Threepersons concluded that he needed to break free of his trapped location; perceiving their captor’s precarious plight, his eight unrestrained prisoners refused to budge from the area. Grabbing his one handcuffed prisoner the Customs’ man began pulling the shackled smuggler through the brush. Once Threepersons began moving the incoming gunfire from both automatic and single shot weapons intensified, forcing both he and his prisoner to once again drop to the ground for cover.v
In a yarn informed more by a scene plagiarized from a pulp western than journalism, the El Paso Herald spun a highly sensationalized account of Threepersons’ escaping certain death at the hands of the heavily armed contrabandistas. According to the Herald’s tale, the lawman, who was of Cherokee ancestry, executed his retreat by using an “Old Indian Trick” –grabbing his handcuffed prisoner and positioning the arrested smuggler between himself and his assailants so the encroaching gunmen could not shoot Threepersons without striking their captured comrade; while, at the same time, Threepersons backed away while repeatedly firing his weapon until he and his prisoner had escaped to a safe distance.vi Nowhere in the short article is Threepersons quoted or sourced for having personally provided this erroneous version of his eluding his assailants.
In his official report Threepersons relates that he was hesitant to use his last three rifle rounds and instead drew his pistol to blast an opening on his west side, forcing his armed adversaries to withdraw from the brush. Threepersons, still dragging his sole prisoner, bolted toward the railroad tracks, and extricated himself from the siege. After the customs officer and his arrestee arrived at the train tracks Threepersons noticed a car approaching from the direction of the Union Stockyards. As a precaution he remained concealed behind the tracks. When the vehicle was close Threepersons blew his police whistle and hollered, hoping the vehicle’s driver was his partner Wadsworth; fortunately, it was.vii
When interviewed by the El Paso Post two days after the gunfight, the federal lawman never mentioned having held his prisoner in front of him as a shield when he realized that he was down to his last three rifle cartridges. Instead, the customs officer gave an account of his escape similar to his official report, “I pulled out my pistol, dragged my prisoner behind me and started firing into the brush to clear the way to the road.”viii
After Threepersons assured Wadsworth that he was not wounded, his partner informed him that he had attempted to return and assist but that he came up against heavy incoming gunfire on all sides. Fearing the worst, Wadsworth raced to a phone and called Inspector in Charge C. C. Webb to report the ongoing gun battle and the urgent need for backup officers.ix Wadsworth then sped back toward Threepersons where he heard his partner’s whistle blow.
Inspector Webb and heavily armed reinforcements soon arrived with both a machine gun, and a Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR), and proceeded to route the remaining smugglers who quickly scrambled back to Mexico.x Entering the section of the border where Threepersons’ had stood his ground, the custom officers discovered 13 five-gallon cans of alcohol, 79 pints (tequila), 34 quarts of tequila, 13 pints of whisky, 2 pints of beer and 3 quarts of cognac. Threepersons believed the smugglers, before the reinforcement customs officers arrived and drove them back across the international line, had been able to recover an equal amount of the prohibited spirits back into Mexico.xi The value of the liquor seized after the gun fight was estimated at $512.50,xii ($7,899.46 in 2020). Also retrieved by the smugglers was their slain companion; tracks showed that the fallen man’s corpse had been dragged away by a horse.xiii
The following Monday morning a page 10 article in the El Paso Times published the first newspaper account of Tom Threepersons’ gunfight against a gang of “probably 25 or 30 bootleggers” armed with “high powered rifles and a machine gun,” and inflated Threepersons actual prisoner count from 8 to 16 smugglers but allowed that the outgunned and outnumbered lawman was only able to escape with his one handcuffed prisoner in tow. The newspaper identified the customs officer’s remaining prisoner as Gabriel Jara.xiv
That same afternoon the El Paso Post provided front page coverage that included Threepersons detailing his one-man stand against the rum runners, “I had 50 rounds of ammunition in my belt and I kept up the firing for an hour.”xv In his interview with the Post Threepersons makes no claim about having captured any prisoner other than his handcuffed captive. However, Threepersons did provide a different explanation for what initiated the gun battle. As previously mentioned in his official report he states one of the smugglers hollered to his prisoner, “Pancho, where are you?” but he told the El Paso Post, “When ordered to stop one of the men in the back threw up his hands and yelled. When he gave that ‘whoop’ the shooting started.”xvi
Both the El Paso Post and El Paso Herald also named Gabriel Jara as Threepersons’ remaining prisoner.
Tom Threepersons’ isolation while waging his fierce riverbank defense brought to the forefront the vulnerability of federal officers policing the Rio Grande in the El Paso sector. Two days afterwards, Acting Customs Collector W. W. Carpenter, citing his belief that there had been at least 25 men who had laid siege against Threepersons, informed a reporter for the El Paso Times that because liquor smugglers currently were working in larger and more heavily armed groups, and providing stronger weapon coverage for the alcohol smugglers crossing by foot or animal from Mexico into El Paso, it was no longer safe for customs inspectors to work in pairs or small detachments when attempting to intercept contrabandistas at the international line. Carpenter added that, because of these larger and well-armed smuggling gangs, the number of Customs Inspectors stationed in El Paso may need to be increased and underscored the necessity for officers to integrate advances in technology such as automobiles, machine guns, and portable telephones into their standard equipment.xvii
On the Monday afternoon of June 16, 1924, Gabriel Jara stood before a US Commissioner for arraignment on a charge of liquor smuggling. When the charge was read to the sole prisoner of the original 17 (Threepersons’ report stated 8) men captured by the Customs agent to face charges Jara simply stated, “I had only two sacks of liquor”.xviii The court designated the smuggler’s bond at $1,000; the defendant informed the court that he had no money and was unable to make bond. Eventually Jara was sentenced to 18 months and a $250 fine.xix
Even though the majority of the prisoners from the gunfight had escaped arrest, the victors of the skirmish still harbored resentment. Three weeks afterwards, on the afternoon of Saturday, July 12, Threepersons met at the El Paso Times with a reporter who displayed a letter, postmarked on July 5th from an El Paso Post Office, that had been addressed to the daily. The text, written in pencil on a cheap piece of paper, read:
“El Paso Time. We going to kill Tom Threepersons. He big man and me kill he. 20 mans fight he. No can kill he. Fight to mach. I shot he 1 times. Me want to know I kill.
Below was a shorter postscript:
“Me fight he the day June 15, 1924.”xx
Threepersons dismissed the threat with a laugh, “I have received death threats before. They don’t cause me to lose any sleep;” and then intimated a threat of his own, “This fellow writes like a Chinaman and signs a Chinese name, but I don’t know any Chinese smugglers. I do know several of the men I captured and who got away from me in this fight June 15.”xxi
The most intriguing detail included in Tom Threepersons official report was absent from every newspaper article covering the customs officer’s capture of his single prisoner. The final sentence of his June 16 signed statement, written two days after the gun battle, declares:
“All of the smugglers got away, including the man I had handcuffed.”
This declaration stokes several lingering questions, was Threepersons’ escaped prisoner eventually recaptured, and, more critically, was Gabriel Jara the actual cuffed prisoner who had been taken into custody but successfully had slipped away from the battle-weary customs officer? Or was Jara a substitute for the escaped man?
In Threepersons’ report he acknowledges that his shackled prisoner escaped after the customs officer had shot his way out from the riverbank and safely had arrived at the train tracks. Threepersons’ documented, “So I drug myself through the brush with this Mexican and when I got to the railroad track I saw a car coming from the Union Stockyards. I lay down behind the track until the car got pretty close. I blew my police whistle and then hollered to know if that was Inspector Wadsworth; and he answered: “yes;” and asked me if I was hurt.”xxii During this conversation with Wadsworth, while the Customs men waited for reinforcements, the hand to foot cuffed prisoner most likely seized advantage of Threepersons and his partner’s catching each other up and silently vanished back into the shroud of darkness, crossing the short distance back to the international border.
There is no mention in Threeperson’s report that at any time between the approximate 48-hour period of his prisoner’s escape and the customs officer typing his report that the hobbled liquor smuggler had been recaptured by either Threepersons or a different law enforcement officer. Though the gunfight received heavy press coverage there was no reporting by local newspapers of the fugitive either having escaped and/or again being taken back into custody. The armed confrontation between Tom Threepersons and the band of approximately 25 smugglers began shortly after 10:30 p.m. on June 14 and lasted roughly one hour. The first newspaper reporting on the river battle was printed by the El Paso Times on the morning of June 16, the same date that Threepersons typed his official statement admitting that all his prisoners escaped; yet the El Paso Times already had identified Gabriel Jara as Threepersons’ handcuffed prisoner and the only suspect arrested after the customs officer’s one man stand against the heavily armed smugglers.
It is likely that the El Paso Times June 16 article was composed the night before the printing of the following morning’s publication, hours before Threepersons had written his report. How the Times determined that Gabriel Jara was the lone prisoner is lost to history. Regardless of the newspaper’s source, the paper published that Gabriel Jara was the “prisoner” hours before Tom Threepersons documented, “All of the smugglers got away, including the man I had handcuffed.”
If Threepersons’ prisoner, handcuffed wrist to ankle, believed that his compatriots would try to remove as much confiscated liquor as possible from the banks of the Rio Grande on the American side back into Mexico before the Customs’ reinforcements arrived, and he noticed that Threepersons was distracted by his conversation with Wadsworth, he may have risked, this time without the incoming gunfire, shuffling the short distance back to the riverbank to escape into Mexico with the retrieved liquor and his criminal companions.
A second contradiction is contained in the text of Threepersons’ report in the section that recounted the moments immediately preceding the gun battle. The arresting officer documented that a member of the smuggling party who had just crossed the river, “hollered to the man I had arrested and said, ‘Pancho, where are you?’” “Pancho” is a nickname for a person named Francisco, not Gabriel. This quote by Threepersons identifies the probable name of the first man captured and shackled as being named either “Pancho” or “Francisco”. In addition, Threepersons never identified his solitary arrested prisoner as being “Gabriel Jara” anywhere in his quoted comments to the newspapers or his official statement.
Suspiciously, during the same time period that Threepersons was documenting how all of his prisoners had escaped, the press was identifying Gabriel Jara as the sole remaining prisoner of Tom Threepersons. The timing of these two events raises the possibility that someone in Customs made the decision to switch Gabriel Jara for the escaped arrestee. One possible motivation for substituting a different liquor smuggler would have been for Customs to save face by offering to the public a smuggler to be held accountable after the high-profile attention that the firefight had created and show that the federal agency had not emerged empty-handed. The pitched battle had garnered city wide attention, the Monday after the standoff the El Paso Times reported, “The gun battle lasted for over an hour and was heard in practically every part of the city, as police headquarters was besieged with calls inquiring about the shooting.”xxiii In short, on the same evening of the gun battle Gabriel Jara, in possession of only two sacks of liquor, had been arrested at a different location without any connection to the armed confrontation, and made the scapegoat presented to the court and community for punishment.
Prior to his withstanding the assault by 25-30 liquor runners on the riverbanks of the international line Threepersons had already carved a solid reputation of being a fearless lawman and deadly marksman as a member of the El Paso Police Department who worked the rough southern section of El Paso. Tom Threepersons’ loss of all his captured liquor smugglers does nothing to diminish or tarnish his stature as an indomitable officer of the law. That the Mounted Customs Inspector was still justified to carry that reputation after leaving the Police Department is evident when the surrounded lawman refused to release his prisoner and terminate the siege upon his compromised position and survived physically unscathed.
This is Part 1 of a story in two parts.
i Tom Threepersons, official statement, June 16, 1924, Tom Threepersons scrapbook.
iv “’TOM 3’ BATTLES WHOLE GANT OF RIVER RUNNERS,” El Paso Post, June 16, 1924, p. 1.
v Tom Threepersons, official statement, June 16, 1924.
vi “Old Indian Trick Protected Officer During Gun Battle,” El Paso Herald, June 17, 1924, p. 14.
vii Tom Threepersons, official statement, June 16, 1924.
viii “El Paso Post, June 16, 1924;
ix Tom Threepersons, official statement, June 16, 1924.
x “BORDER RUM WAR CALLS FOR BIGGER LINE RIDERS’ FORCE,” El Paso Times, June 17, 1924, p. 5; Tom Threepersons, official statement, June 16, 1924.
xi Tom Threepersons, official statement, June 16, 1924.
xii El Paso Post, June 16, 1924.
xiii “CUSTOMS AGENTS IN GUN BATTLE WITH RUNNERS,” El Paso Times, June 16, 1924, p. 10.
xv El Paso Post, June 16, 1924.
xvii El Paso Times, June 17, 1924, p. 5.
xix El Paso Herald, August 7, 1924, p. 10.
xx THREATS TO KILL DRY OFFICER MADE IN LETTER TO TIMES,” El Paso Times, July 13, 1924, p. B-1.
xxii Tom Threepersons, official statement, June 16, 1924.
xxiii El Paso Times, June 16, 1924.
What a wonderful article.
It read like a Film Noir Western taking place in the dark shadows of El Paso.
I can’t wait for the next chapter!