On March 1, 1908, while on his way to Las Cruces, New Mexico's most famous lawman was shot and killed near Alameda Arroyo on the Mail-Scott Road. Garrett was riding in a buggy with Carl Adamson, one of two partners who were prospective buyers for Bear Canyon Ranch, property Garrett had been trying to sell. About four miles east of Las Cruces, they met Wayne Brazel, a cowboy who had leased Garrett's ranch for a goat-raising venture. Garrett, angered at the presence of goats on his property, had tried unsuccessfully to break the lease with Brazel. The only way Brazel would agree to cancel the lease was if Garrett's prospective buyers would purchase the goats. The idea of purchasing eighteen hundred goats did not appeal to the buyers, and the deal was on the verge of collapse.
As the men made their way west, Garrett and Brazel argued about the goats. Garrett was infuriated, and he told Brazel that he would get him and the goats off the land one way or another. Adamson stopped the buggy to get out and urinate, and Garrett decided to do the same. Both men had their backs to Brazel. A shot rang out, followed by another, and Garrett fell to the ground, mortally wounded. The first bullet smashed into the back of Garrett's skull, the second hit him in the stomach while he was on the ground. The famed lawman died without uttering a word. He was 57 years old.
Adamson turned to see Brazel astride his horse, a smoking .45 caliber revolver in his hand. Wayne dismounted and handed the revolver to Adamson, and the two men rode in the buggy to Las Cruces where Brazel surrendered to authorities. A bond of ten thousand dollars was set, and it was quickly raised by a group of local men led by W. W. Cox, a rancher for whom Brazel worked. In April, a grand jury indicted Brazel on a charge of first-degree murder, and on April 19, 1909, the trial opened.
Albert B. Fall had been retained to defend Brazel, and his defense was something of an old standby in New Mexico: a preemptive strike in the face of mortal danger. Brazel admitted the shooting, but denied shooting Garrett in the back. He claimed Garrett threatened him with a shotgun, and he shot in order to save his life. The prosecution was a lackluster, indifferent affair, and when the jury was given the case that evening it took less than half an hour to return a verdict of not guilty. A barbecue was held at W. W. Cox's ranch in celebration of the trial's outcome, and many New Mexicans concluded it was as much a celebration of Garrett's death as it was an expression of relief at Brazel's vindication.
As time passed, fewer and fewer people in Southern New Mexico who thought about the case accepted Wayne Brazel's story. How could an obscure cowboy have killed the killer of Billy the Kid? How could an experienced manhunter of Garrett's caliber have allowed himself to be killed while urinating? Why did the prosecution conduct such an obviously inept case? Why did so many prominent men rush to assist Brazel? The trial itself seemed too simple, too cut-and-dried, and too contrived; it had been unworthy of the murder of a man of Garrett's stature. Many people came to believe that there was another story behind the murder, and that led to a number of conspiracy theories, many of which are current today. Conspiracy theories are easy to construct and difficult, if not impossible, to refute. The most elaborate conspiracy story regarding Garrett's death begins with an alleged meeting at the St. Regis Hotel in El Paso in the fall of 1907. In attendance at the meeting were W. W. Cox, Oliver Lee, Jim Gililland, Albert B. Fall, A. P. “Print” Rhode (Cox's brother-in-law), James P. Miller, Carl Adamson, and Mannie Clements. They were there to decide how to rid themselves of Pat Garrett. There were a number of motives: vengeance for Pat's activities while a lawman, fear that Garrett was continuing his investigation of the Fountain case, the desire for the water on Pat's ranch, and a seething anger over Garrett's killing of an alleged fugitive harbored on Cox's San Augustine Ranch.
The alleged conspirators offered Jim “Killer” Miller ten thousand dollars (accounts vary) to kill Garrett. He accepted, and the money was delivered to him at Fall's El Paso law office. The goats were part of the plan, as was the compliance of Wayne Brazel. Wayne was intensely loyal to W. W. Cox and could be depended upon to obey the cattleman's orders, no matter what they were. The goats would assure Garrett's anger, and his anger would lead to threats. Adamson would assure Pat's arrival at the predetermined spot where Miller would do the shooting, Brazel would take responsibility, and Adamson would swear to the truth of the matter.
A number of variations of the conspiracy theory have developed. One has W. W. Cox doing the actual shooting, and a surprised Brazel offering to take responsibility. George Curry, Governor of the Territory at the time, advanced this theory. A third names Carl Adamson as the shooter, this being the theory accepted by the Garrett family. A fourth theory has Oliver Lee as the shooter. Lee was widely known as a deadly shot and, according to some contemporaries, had proven it on at least eight occasions. A fifth theory names Print Rhode as the assassin. This theory identifies Rhode as the man Brazel was seen talking to on the road to Las Cruces shortly before Adamson and Garrett caught up to him.
Two men who were widely accepted as privy to reliable information about the case were Attorney General James M. Hervey and Captain Fred Fernoff of the New Mexico Mounted Police. Governor Curry wanted more information about the murder, and Hervey and Fernoff visited the murder site with Carl Adamson. Near the place where the buggy had stopped, they found an empty rifle cartridge, boot prints, hoof marks, and horse droppings. Both wondered if they had found an ambush site, particularly because they had come to doubt the stories of Adamson and Brazel. Curry, too, was concerned and began to talk of a conspiracy. The territory had no funds for a lengthy investigation, and Hervey and Fernoff decided to pursue the matter on their own.
Hervey's ardor for the case cooled somewhat when Emerson Hough, novelist and folklorist, told him, “I know that outfit around the Organ Mountains, and Garrett got killed for trying to find out who killed Fountain and you will get killed for trying to find out who killed Garrett. I would advise you to let it alone.” In El Paso, Fernoff heard that Jim Miller had been paid fifteen hundred dollars to kill Garrett, the money furnished by “a wealthy rancher near El Paso,” who also provided a man to say he had shot Garrett in self-defense. Hervey continued quietly to collect information about the killing, and shortly before he died in 1953, he was persuaded to write what he had learned. He did so with the understanding that it would not be released until eight years after his death.
In 1961, Hervey's story was published, and it implicated Jim Miller as the killer. According to the story, the rancher who hired Miller and provided both the witness and the man who would confess to the shooting had died “recently.” W. W. Cox died in 1923, Lee died in 1941, and Hervey's account was seen by some as “proof” of Oliver Lee's implication in Garrett's murder. Hervey's account rested on the assertions of one Joe Beasley, a petty thief and generally worthless individual who was frequently in trouble with the law. According to Beasley, Miller was to ride to Fort Worth after the murder and send a telegram to a party in Portales confirming his whereabouts, thus providing an alibi. Hervey accepted the story as confirmation of his suspicions, and concluded that Miller had, indeed, assassinated Garrett.
Conspiracy theories have occupied the attention of most writers who have studied the Garrett case, and few writers have applied a literary Occam's razor requiring that the simplest of competing theories be preferred to the more complex. Wayne Brazel had reason to fear Garrett. Pat had become increasingly quarrelsome and violent as his economic fortunes declined, and he saw Brazel as the major obstacle to a deal that would bring an end to his troubles. Aware of Garrett's reputation as a cold-blooded killer, Wayne had to take Garrett's threats seriously. In the end, he did.