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Adobe jail that Billy the Kid broke into will be restored

By CHRIS ROBERTS

Friday, March 7, 2003

Associated Press Writer

SAN ELIZARIO, Texas (AP) - The thick adobe walls are pitted and bricks are dissolving along the base where concrete footing traps destructive moisture. But help is on the way for the old San Elizario courthouse, where legend says Billy the Kid broke into jail.

El Paso County will spend $105,000 to restore the 1,200-square-foot courthouse that is one of the oldest buildings in the county and is listed on the National Registery of Historic Places. It was built around 1860, when its one room housed a jail and was the seat of county government.

The courthouse will be restored to look the way it did when William H. Bonney, better known as Billy the Kid, made a legendary midnight ride to San Elizario to free a friend.

According to legend, the incident took place in 1876 or 1877 during Bonney's "lost years." He wasn't well known and didn't get in too much trouble in those years, so there is a spotty record of his whereabouts, said Skip Clark, who researched the legend and wrote his master's thesis about it at the University of Texas at El Paso.

Combining the many versions of the ride -- the first of them published by former Sheriff Pat Garrett in 1882, a year after Bonney's death -- the incident began when the Kid's friend, Melquiades Segura, went to San Elizario to visit his parents.

Segura's association with Bonney wasn't well received in San Elizario, about 10 miles southeast of El Paso and, at the time, the largest town in the county. Segura was hauled to jail.

As a mob mentality swirled through town, it looked like Segura might end up dancing at the end of a rope. He sent word to Bonney, who was near Mesilla, N.M., and somehow rode about 80 miles in a little more than six hours.

Bonney arrived sometime after midnight and began banging on the door, identifying himself as a Texas Ranger. In Spanish, he told the jailer, "Turn out, we have two American prisoners."

The jailer reluctantly opened the door and Bonney immediately shoved his revolver in the guard's face.

Another guard, awakened by the noise, quickly surrendered. Bonney ordered a jailer to free Segura, who was shackled to a hefty post anchored in the jail's clay floor.

"All this was accomplished in the time it takes to relate it," Garrett wrote. Just as quickly, the jailers were gagged and bound.

Bonney, stiff from the long ride, urged Segura to use his horse while he loped alongside. They crossed the Rio Grande into Mexico and hid out with a compadre.

Segura, fearing the noose, decided to head south into the interior of Mexico.

Bonney went on to earn his reputation as a gunslinger in the Lincoln County War, a bloody economic struggle among New Mexico ranchers and politicians. In 1881, Bonney, who reportedly had killed 27 men, was shot dead at the age of 21 by Garrett, then a New Mexico sheriff.

Some have questioned the jail break legend because it comes from oral histories passed down through generations.

Clark said he found that people who speak only Spanish and couldn't have read Garrett's book had passed the story on to their children. Clark said that could mean the legend began in San Elizario when local residents with direct knowledge of the incident began telling the story.

He thinks Garrett, who worked in El Paso as a U.S. Customs collector, might have originally heard the story in Spanish while researching his book.

The story is plausible and "there is generally a grain of truth in every legend or folk story," he said, but added, "I'll never be able to prove it. Nobody will."

The courthouse's early history, like Bonney's, suffers from a lack of information. According to the El Paso County probate court, records about the building were in large part lost, destroyed or casualties of the Civil War.

According to Clark's research, another room was built sometime in the 1870s and two wrought-iron jail cells were added in the 1880s. The heavy and bulky jail cells were mostly likely brought in by train shortly after the rails reached San Elizario.

"All these walls will be repaired and stuccoed," county planner Al Tellez said. "They will use a real lime stucco that allows the adobe to breathe."

The lime stucco is hard, but it wasn't used in San Elizario in the 1880s, so it will be colored brown to resemble the old mud plaster. The plaster would require annual maintenance if used in the restoration, Tellez said.

The walls may take the most repair, particularly around the water-damaged base, said Frederic Dalbin, with Wright & Dalbin, the company contracted to plan the restoration. The restoration will start in spring and take about a year to complete.

"There's quite a bit of work to be done," Dalbin said. "It's not very complicated, but it needs to be done right."

Cement floors will be restored to clay but stabilized with asphalt, Dalbin said. The mud roof, which is original, will be restored and a protective wood-and-asphalt cover will be removed.

The roof construction includes widely spaced tree trunks called vigas that provide the main support and smaller branches called latillas set perpendicular to the vigas to create a platform. On top of that, a mat probably made of cattail reeds keeps the mud from seeping through.

The vigas have held up over the years, but some of the other parts may need to be replaced, Dalbin said.

While Billy the Kid's story is the most famous, Clark says the tiny building saw another jail break in the early 1930s and was used off and on for county business until the late 1960s.

"It's amazing how much history and how important to the community a two-room adobe building can be," he said.

End adv

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