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Sep. 01, 2006

Serial killer came to end of the trail in Pahrump


Quejo's last resting place, on the edge of Cathedral Canyon southeast of Pahrump. The Hidden Hills Ranch airfield is in the distance. The epitaph inscription for "Quehoe" reads, "Nevada's last renegade Indian. He survived alone."


Some dozen miles south and east of Pahrump proper lies the grave of an outlaw who once terrorized the Las Vegas Valley and eluded lawmen sent out after him on several organized manhunts over the course of three decades.

For those rural Pahrump haters of Las Vegas, Quejo could be their legendary hero, and it's fitting that his bones lie buried in the Pahrump Valley, just this side of the Clark County line.

California has its bandit Joaquin Murrietta; Arizona its Wyatt Earp and Geronimo; New Mexico, Billy the Kid. Nevada owns Quejo.

"This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend" goes the famous line from the 1962 John Ford film "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence."

But the Indian behind this Nevada legend lived too late in history, an anachronism whose story would have rivaled other frontier legends, if only he had lived a little earlier.

When prospectors finally discovered Quejo's body in 1940, long since dead in his hidden cave hideout high above the Colorado River, Nevada's frontier era was long over.

Yet the Old West of legend and myth was in full swing. Modern, mid-twentieth-century Las Vegas was founded on its legendary frontier heritage as a dude ranch-resort.

Las Vegas traces its beginnings as a city to 1905. Emerging from its dusty railroad town origins, shades of the Wild West lingered. Indians still lived in the area then, but they were a peaceful lot, eking out a living in the surrounding area.

The year 1910 marked the appearance in the dusty rail center of a "river Indian" known as Long Hair Tom, or more commonly by his Spanish name, Quejo (pronounced Kay-ho or Kayo, first recorded in writing as "Queo" with the omission in speech of the near-silent Spanish "J").

Quejo was a workman on the Colorado, catching driftwood to fire mill boilers at Lonesome Wash in Eldorado Canyon, near the little town of Nelson, between Boulder City and Searchlight. His spree of murder and petty theft during the early part of the 20th century is believed to have resulted in the deaths of at least a dozen people and possibly twice that number.

The Las Vegas Age in January 1910 blared optimistically on its front page, "Quejo, the bad Indian, is in a bad fix."

The story told how "a band of whites and Indians, making up what is probably the most determined band of scouts and trailers remaining in the West today, men who are tireless on the trail, persevering and never failing in carrying out their purposes; who know all the ways of savage cunning, and who are familiar with the country in which he is hiding, are after Mr. Quejo."

Quejo's legend became that of a renegade who refused to be caught. When his body was found in February 1940, the Las Vegas Review Journal summed up his career under its banner announcement: "A bad Indian is better dead. Quejo was a bad Indian, and Quejo is dead."

Quejo became as much a sensation in death as he was in life. The Las Vegas Elks Club built an exhibit for Helldorado Days, recreating the lonely cave scene in which the body was found.

The mayor wanted the bones to be put into a time capsule and buried at the railroad depot; the state museum, Nevada Historical Society and even the National Park Service had dibs on the Indian's remains.

Finally, retired Las Vegas District Attorney Roland H. Wiley obtained the bones. After a small ceremony at Wiley's Hidden Hills Ranch south of Pahrump, Quejo was at last put to rest.

Quejo's story begins with his illegitimate birth in the 1880s in Eldorado Canyon on the Colorado River. His mother was a Cocopa Indian, his father a white soldier stationed at Fort Mojave in Arizona.

Quejo was born either with a deformed foot or broke his lower leg early in life, never getting the medical attention to properly set it and leaving him with a permanent limp and a distinctive footprint -- a heel mark and only the edge of his foot.

Much of Quejo's early life is shrouded in myth and legend. According to differing accounts, Quejo's mother fled with her child when she learned that her tribesmen would kill him because he was a "half-breed," or because he was illegitimate. Forced to survive alone, she soon perished while Quejo was still young, and the boy was found and adopted by Paiutes, ancient enemies of the Cocopas.

According to one perhaps apocryphal tale, Quejo's soldier-father ordered the mother to throw the baby over the edge of a cliff, which she reluctantly did. She later sneaked back and found her baby with a broken leg, feebly crying. He lived, but his leg marked him for life.

"Growing up in a foreign tribe, where he was considered somewhat of an outsider, Quejo grew up to be a sullen and introverted youth," wrote Paul Eastman in an article in the Las Vegas Sun Magazine appearing in January 1980. "He worked at various odd jobs around Searchlight, Nelson and Eldorado, and he even ventured as far north as the sleepy little village of Las Vegas from time to time."

"Quejo" was the Indian's Spanish name, which probably was an abbreviated nickname given him by Spanish speakers for his disgruntled nature: "Quejon" in Spanish means "a grumbler," and the adjective "quejoso" means one who always complains or whines.

As the story goes, Quejo's first killing took place when he was 17 and the Paiutes selected him to kill his half-brother Avjote.

According to early accounts, Avjote, prompted by white desire for retribution, had assassinated his own brother for his robbing and killing of a white mail carrier on a lonely road near Kingman, Ariz. But Avjote was tormented after this act of atonement and went on a killing spree, slaying a judge, a miner, two teamsters and the founder of a mining community by the name of Nelson.

Now the whites demanded justice for the new deaths, and Quejo delivered it when he brought back the severed head (or hand, by some accounts) of Avjote, who had himself been the earlier "scapegoat" assigned to avenge his brother's murders.

According to the legend, Quejo killed Avjote, his half-brother, on Cottonwood Island, where Cottonwood Cove is today on Lake Mojave on the Colorado River. Quejo was also reportedly born on Cottonwood Island, mythically signifying, perhaps, his predestined life of blood-letting.

The spiral of revenge killings lays the basis for Quejo's grisly legend.

Shortly after the killing of Avjote in 1910, Quejo's first skirmish with a white man came when he got into an argument with one Hi Bohn in Las Vegas. According to the story, he broke both of Bohn's arms with a pick handle and then hit him in the head, escaping into the mountains southwest of the town.

Quejo murdered Harry Bismarck in Las Vegas when the German reportedly called the Indian a "half-breed."

In another, conflicting account, Quejo killed an Indian named Bismarck.

Quejo fled into the McCullough Range near Searchlight, where he got a job cutting wood for a man known as Old Man Woodworth. When the timber cutter refused to pay Quejo for his work, Quejo complained, then shot Woodworth in the back as he walked away.

Harriett and John Reid, the grandparents of Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, were on their way in a wagon, going to their mine near Searchlight one fall day in October 1910, just after the Indian's murder of Woodworth. They ran into Quejo, whom they knew from having seen working at menial jobs around town.

The Reids exchanged greetings with Quejo, "and after a brief visit went their separate ways," Sen. Reid tells in his autobiography.

Next week: more of Quejo's story.

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