Ambush at Wingate
Pass became headline news throughout the southland in 1906. From the top of the Wingate Pass,
two men huddled behind a pile of rocks prepared to fire on a caravan that
slowly made it way up an old road. A road that extended from the Harmony Mine in
Death Valley to a railroad station located in the town of Mojave. Twenty mule-team wagons, pictured on cans of
borax soap, moved through this pass during the 1880s
Walter Scott, popularly known as “Death Valley Scotty”, his
brother Warner Scott, A.Y. Pearl, Daniel Owens, Albert Johnson and a number of lesser
beings were on their way to inspect Scotty’s storied gold mine in Death Valley
-- a mine that many believed did not exist.
Mining engineer Daniel Owens made it clear to Walter Scott
that the mine needed to be inspected before he could approve a sizable
investment in its development. Wealthy Eastern
investors had hired Owens to make that determination.
Suddenly, gun shots erupted as the party approach the canyon
wash. At almost the same instant, Scotty started yelling and waving his hat,
“stop the shooting, stop the shooting, Warner’s been hit” When the dust settled, Warner Scott was found
laying on the ground with a bullet in his thigh -- a condition that called for serious
medical attention. To save Warner, the
party prepared to leave at first light for the two day ride back to the
railroad station at Daggett. From the
station, Warner was transported to a hospital in Los Angeles where he made a successful
Bill Keys, one of the men perched behind the rocks, had shot
his rifle in the air as his part in the staged ambush intended to scare Owens
into retreating from his mission. Jack
Brody, the other man behind the rock pile, was believed to be the one who shot
Warner. Keys said that Jack had been drinking
at the time of the shooting. Both men
would be charged with “assault with a deadly weapon”.
The early years
of the 20th Century found Bill Keys working at a number of mines as
a laborer and at a number of cattle ranches as a cowboy. He served a year as a deputy sheriff in Kingman, Arizona before moving
on to Nevada and California to begin his career as a
around the mining camps of Goldfield and Rhyolite where he met Walter Scott. Both
men moved on to Death Valley where Keys located
a number of prospects in the Virgin Springs area located above the famous
Ashford Mill. He gained a sizable interest
in the well-known Desert Hound Mine and served as its manager until 1910. It was here that Scotty talked him into
taking part in his Wingate escapade.
After the ambush,
Keys returned to his mine and prepared to go into hiding.
Sheriff Ralphs, a few deputies and a newspaper reporter headed
north on a two week trip with a warrant for the arrest of Keys and Brody. The posse camped near Wingate Pass
before moving on to the canyon where Keys maintained his belongings. Men working there claimed that the two
fugitives had left the canyon on foot
and headed west. Before returning to San Bernardino, Sheriff
Ralphs deputized Jack Hartigan to continue the hunt.
Following Bill Keys distinctive boot tracks, Hartigan travelled
across Death Valley, through Warm Springs Canyon,
around Butte Valley,
up and over Mengel Pass and down Goler Wash to the old Panamint City
The pursuit ended at a table in Chris Wicht’s saloon in
Ballarat; a small mining community located near the center of the Panamint Valley.
Hartigan arrested Keys and arranged for his passage by stage to San Bernardino. Brody was never found.
Meanwhile, Death Valley Scotty, a man also being sought by
the sheriff, had other plans and took flight to Portland, Oregon where he played
the lead role in a production titled, ”Scott King of the Desert Mine”-- a role in which he
The legal entanglement that followed the incident at Wingate Pass made more headlines and added to
the fame of Death Valley Scotty. As the
wheels of justice slowly turned, Bill Keys would remain in the San Bernardino
County Jail with plenty of time to considering his future.
At the preliminary hearing before Judge Benjamin Bledsoe, Scotty
played his ace informing the court that the shooting had taken place in Inyo County
and, therefore, outside of the jurisdiction of the San Bernardino courts. On that note, the judge ordered that a survey
be conducted to determine the county boundary-line with respect to Wingate Pass. (Old timers claimed that Scotty had one of his
men move boundary corner markers one mile to the south.)
Shelton Stoddard (of
Stoddard Wells fame) performed the survey and found that indeed the county line
fell one mile south of the Pass. All
charges against Scotty and Keys were dropped and Inyo County,
having no interest in the affair, decided not to pursue the matter.
The second half
of Bill Keys eventful life took place on a 160 acre homestead located near a
mine that he acquired for unpaid back-taxes.
The ranch would eventually be surrounded by Joshua Tree
National Monument much to
Keys’ displeasure. As the years passed, the
Desert Queen Ranch would support a wife and five children.
The neighboring Barker & Shay ranch ran a sizable herd
of cattle over the open range and had maintained a cow camp on what later became
Keys’ property. Problems arose between
the two outfits after Keys put in a fence that closed out the neighbor’s cows
Homer Urton, an uneducated, holstered-up young man, worked
for the Barker & Shay. He hoped to
advance his reputation as a gunfighter by baiting Keys into a fight by driving
a herd of cattle across the Keys’ ranch near the cabin.
Fortunately for Keys, the incident that followed was
witnessed by a man who would testify that the shooting was self-defense. The
fight went down quickly. After choice words were exchanged, Urton started to draw
his gun. It hadn’t cleared the holster
when he realized that Keys had shot him in the arm. Keys, never one to hesitate in a gunfight,
claimed that he could have killed the man but decided not to. Wow.
Bill was arrested, tried by a jury, and found “not guilty” based
on the witness’ statement. Shay’s
brother was the Sheriff of San Bernardino County, a fact that would complicate
things for Keys the next time that he was forced to draw his gun.
Worth Bagley had retired from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s
office because of a mental problem for which he had received treatment. Some speculate that the county sheriff and
others encouraged Bagley to take up residence near the Keys’ ranch. Bagley tested expert with both pistol and
rifle -- the stage was set for trouble.
The day started out like most days on a desert ranch with
Bill Keys driving his 1925 Victory Dodge truck on the road that crossed
Bagley’s property. Keys had it on good
authority that the road was open to public travel by usage. In other words the road had been in use for a
long time. Bagley didn’t see it that way and warned Keys not to use it.
When Bill arrived at the well he found that the pump engine
needed a replacement part which meant a return to the ranch. On his way back he
stopped to read a sign that had popped up in the road. The sign red, “Keys This is My Last Warning
Stay Off My Property”. Bagley had
written it out on a piece of cardboard and placed it in the road while Keys was
at the pump. Keys decided to see what was
ahead and stepped out of his truck.
Keys walked up a short rise. As he reached the top of the
rise he spotted Bagley with pistol in hand crouched behind a dead Yucca. Bagley turned, saw Keys and started after
Keys ran back to his truck and grabbed his repeater rifle. Bagley took a shot that came within inches of
Key’s head and grazed the door of the truck.
Keys wasted no time opening fire.
The first shot caught Bagley in the arm as he ran down towards the truck
in a zigzag pattern holding his pistol out in front. Keys next shot spun Bagley as it entered his
chest. Bagley went down. Keys got back in his truck and headed on to
Keys viewed this incident as simply a gun fight between two
men.. He didn’t need to go over and view
the body because he new Bagley was dead.
And besides, he needed to get the pump fixed so that the cattle would
have water. He would turn himself in to
the local constable later.
The investigation revealed that Bagley’s body ironically had
fallen just across the San Bernardino
–Riverside county-line. The Riverside
County District Attorney would prosecute the case. Bill’s attorney would claim self-defense. After all, Bagley shot first and came down
off of the rise with intent to kill
The District Attorney charged that Keys had shot Bagley in
the back as he, Bagley, retreated from
Keys. The County Medical Examiner
testified that the location of the wounds and other matters gave evidence that
Bagley was shot in the back.
On July 23, 1943, the jury found Bill Keys guilty of
manslaughter based on the Medical Examiner’s testimony. He was given a sentence one to ten years to
be served at San Quentin State Penitentiary.
The jury ignored the fact that footprints showed that Bagley was moving
forward not retreating.
Earl Stanley Gardner, author of the Perry Mason mysteries and
founder of “The Court of Last Resort”, an
organization dedicated to solving case involving wrongful convictions, agreed
to review the evidence in the Bagley shooting case.
Through analysis of crime scene photographs by a distinguished
forensic pathologist, Gardner was able to convince the California Adult
Authority that Bagley was shot in the chest that the bullet had entered his
left side consist with the defenses argument
that Bagley was facing Keys. Bill
Keys was given parole followed by a full pardon issued by Governor Goodwin J.
Back on the ranch Bill kept busy rebuilding his irrigation
system, visiting with friends and looking to the future. His relationship with Park employees had improved
as he took pleasure talking with park visitors that dropped by.
Bill Keys died on June 28, 1969, and is buried next to his
wife at the family cemetery located on the ranch..
Postscript I met Bill Keys in the spring of 1958. I was with my boss Garnet Jones, who had known
the Keys for many years. On our way home
from the ranch, Jones filled me in on some of Bill’s adventures including the legend
of the Ambush at Wingate