Utah History to Go
In Another Time
The Salt Lake Tribune Arch
Bones In Bolivia Are Key To The Wild Bunch Legend
Hal Schindler
Published: 10/10/1993 Category: Sunday Features Page: C1

Outlaw legends die hard. Some never do. Consider for a moment the folklore surrounding Utah's Robert LeRoy Parker--the "Robin Hood" of the Old West, known more familiarly in bandit annals as Butch Cassidy, leader of the notorious Wild Bunch. Stories abound about the Circleville, Piute County, cowboy-turned-bank robber, who, tradition tells us, perished in 1909 in a hail of gunfire during a suicidal shootout with Bolivian federales in the village of San Vicente. The soldiers were after two norteamericanos who had robbed a silver-mine payroll and escaped.

Cassidy died, it is said, after putting a bullet into the forehead of his wounded sidekick, the colorful Harry Longabaugh, alias The Sundance Kid. Then, Butch turned the gun on himself; this in preference to languishing in a Bolivian lockup for the rest of his days. But if ever two desperadoes refused to be snuffed out by mere bullets, it was Butch and Sundance. For while two "gringos" assuredly knocked over the payroll and perished in the ensuing gunbattle, there is no hard evidence that it was the two Utah alumni of the Hole-in-the-Wall gang. The stolen payroll as well as loot from other robberies was recovered from saddlebags of the dead men, but no proof that they were Cassidy/Longabaugh.

Legend has it that not only did they not die in Bolivia--but that the trapped pair actually were two other outlaws plying the trade in the vicinity (Bolivia and Argentina were havens for American hardcases in those days). That would explain the persistent reports since that Cassidy had been seen alive in America variously from the 1920s to as recently as the 1940s.

Frankly, the "Butch Cassidy lives" story is so resilient it rivals Elvis sightings. And a number of history buffs lend credence to the notion that friends of Cassidy and Longabaugh in Bolivia helped cover their tracks by encouraging the idea that they had been killed there. The most recent investigation into the legend will be treated on KUED Tuesday at 7 p.m. when "Nova," the highly regarded PBS science series, airs an account of forensic anthropologist Clyde "Doc" Snow of the University of Oklahoma, and his expedition to Bolivia to exhume bones believed to be those of Cassidy and Longabaugh.

Snow reveals the results of his efforts in the "Nova" episode titled "Wanted: Butch and Sundance." If Snow verifies their Bolivian demise, it will forever squelch the years of yarn-spinning about the two bandits, specifically:

That the late Lula Parker Betenson, Robert LeRoy Parker's sister, was in error in insisting that Butch survived Bolivia, that she knew what had become of him--where he ultimately was buried; and that he returned for one last reunion with family members in Circleville in 1925, sixteen years after the San Vicente payroll robbery and shootout. (She for many years said she would reveal all in her book, Butch Cassidy, My Brother. But she did not, and there are many skeptics who doubted whether she ever knew.)

That the wild story that Hiram BeBee, doing life in Utah State Prison for killing a city marshal in 1945, was, in fact, The Sundance Kid. If physical features were any indication, BeBee would have had to wither substantially. Sundance was from 5-foot-10 to 6 feet tall, while BeBee at the time of his arrest was 5-foot-5. And BeBee's ears were ailerons, compared to Longabaugh's dainty lobes.

Author Larry Pointer's contention that Cassidy lived out his days in America as William T. Phillips, a Spokane businessman, and died in 1937.

Idaho mechanic Budd Anderton's claim that Butch spent his last "four or five years" in relative seclusion in Richfield, Utah, where he died and was buried in the 1930s.

But more personally, such a pronouncement from the forensic sleuth would refute an account, given in the fall of 1991 by a retired Utah Highway Patrol trooper (since deceased) and his wife, that they had seen, heard and spoken to Robert LeRoy Parker--Butch Cassidy--in Kanab in the summer of 1941--thirty-two years after the episode at San Vicente. In a telephone conversation with retired UHP Trooper Merrill Johnson in August 1991, he confirmed the story and provided additional details pulled from memories of a chance encounter a half-century earlier.

As a rookie trooper six months on the highway patrol, Johnson was assigned the district "south of Panguitch." He was parked in his patrol car at the Mount Carmel Junction, seventeen miles north of Kanab, on a slow, hot summer day in mid-July 1941. There was little traffic to speak of, but from his vantage point, he said, he watched as a car with California license plates cruised down the "Zion Park highway" (State Route 9) and ignored a stop sign.

"I thought to myself I probably wouldn't see another car that day, so I pulled him over and wrote out a warning ticket. The driver--he was alone--didn't say much, as I recall, just took the ticket and went on his way," Johnson said. Trooper Johnson continued his patrol and at the end of shift turned his car toward Kanab and headed home. As he pulled into his driveway, he was mildly surprised to see the California car parked near the house. "My wife and I were living with her father at the time," he said. "When I walked into the house, I saw my father-in-law, John Kitchen, talking to the man I'd written the ticket to earlier in the day. The fellow was startled to see me. I was wearing my uniform, you know and he made a move to get up from the chair, when John said, It's all right; it's my son-in-law, he lives here; he's OK.'"

After the initial confusion passed, John Kitchen made a remarkable announcement: "Merrill, this here's an old friend of the family, Bob Parker--Butch Cassidy--he was passing through and dropped in to say hello. Butch, this is my son-in-law, Merrill Johnson, and that's my daughter, Ramona, in the kitchen." Everyone in southern Utah knew of Butch Cassidy, but not everyone was certain that if he was still alive, he might still be wanted on robbery charges. Statute of limitations and all, Cassidy hadn't been posted in the States since 1900, though the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, smarting from the fact that it hadn't been able to catch him, kept an open file on all living members of the Wild Bunch. (There is reason to believe the Pinkertons were never totally convinced that Cassidy and Longabaugh were rubbed out in Bolivia.)

Having been thus introduced by his father-in-law, Johnson sat down with the two old-timers and listened as they traded reminiscences about the days of their youth in Utah. The Kitchens, John and his father before him, John G., worked the East Nipple Ranch in the Paria River area northeast of Kanab in the 1880s. That's where they first met the Parkers as cowboy ranch hands. "Cassidy told us he'd been in Bolivia, I remember that much of the conversation," Johnson said, "but meeting him wasn't such a big deal then; he had been out of the news for years and years.

I recall he said he'd been in an automobile accident in California and spent some time in a hospital, I believe he said in the Los Angeles area, and that he had only just been released. He was on his way to see his brother, Bill Parker, in Fredonia just over the Arizona line. Then he decided to stop in and see the Kitchens," Johnson said.

"They talked for hours," Ramona Johnson remembered. "I walked in and sat down to listen for a time, then I went to bed. I didn't pay close attention. But it was definitely Butch Cassidy. My father knew him well."

"He spent that night with us," Johnson said, "and the next morning I drove him in the patrol car, over to Fredonia to see his brother. Butch stayed, and I went to work. His car was still at our place in Kanab, and his brother drove him over later that day. He told me, Butch did, that he only wanted to see Bill Parker, and he wasn't planning to go to Circleville or anything. When he drove away later, he said he was on his way to Wyoming.

And that's all I remember, except that I've tried to find the copy of that ticket, and I couldn't. I even went up to Salt Lake to check through the records there, but since it was a warning citation, Cassidy wouldn't have had to appear. I do recall it was written on July 17, 1941. And I really don't remember the name he gave me at Mount Carmel Junction. I even may have told him later at the house to forget the ticket. I don't recall. There's no question that it was Butch Cassidy, I saw photos of him later, and they were the same fellow. When the movie 'Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid' came out and caused all the fuss about him, I tried to tell the newspapers what had happened in '41, but no one was interested." Merrill Johnson died in Kanab last March.

Coincidentally, John Byrne Cooke in 1989 wrote South of the Border, The Return of Butch Cassidy, a novel predicated on the notion that many of the West's cowboys (and outlaws) drifted toward California after the turn of the century, to find work with the fledgling motion-picture industry. Cooke theorized, fictionally, of course, that Cassidy and Charles Siringo, an ex-Pinkerton detective who had turned author, crossed paths in, of all places, Hollywood, while making a movie about Old Mexico. After considerable research, his novel was right on the money in speculating on what happened to Cassidy and Longabaugh. All of it adds to one of the great legends of the West--unless, of course, the two died in Bolivia.

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