The Dark History of the Mojave Desert: The Last Great Manhunt

Image by nightowl from Pixabay

The Mojave Desert has served as the backdrop for many disturbing events in California history. From body dumps to the filming of Western films, the Mojave Desert is know for many things.

To understand what happens in the Mojave Desert requires you to first understand where the desert actually is. You will find the stark, dry land about an hour and a half outside Los Angeles as you drive to Las Vegas. The area can feel isolated, which means it makes sense that crimes can go 25 to 60 years before they are solved.

My attention was first brought to the Mojave Desert and its surroundings when I heard about the McStay family’s disappearance. I’d followed their case until the news came in that the family of four had been found buried near Victorville.

Today, so many crimes have occurred in and around Mojave that it’s hard to keep up. In researching these cases, I found so many that had more information available than I could fit in a single post. I hope to come back to those cases later on.

In this series, I will share some of the darkest stories associated with the Mojave Desert. They are intriguing and disturbing, and some of them have been solved after years of investigation. Others remain unsolved, at least for now.

If you love Westerns, you may have already heard the story of Willie Boy, an antihero for the ages. Willie Boy was a young Chemehuevi man who would lead a group of men on a trek across the desert, perhaps over a span of 500 miles, in 1909.

Before Willie Boy became infamous, he was working in the town of Banning, picking fruit. Willie had a reputation for being a quiet and hard-working man. At the age of 19, he’d taken in some boys without parents and provided for them. He also had a marriage that had failed.

But let’s get back to 1909.

He’d been courting a woman named Carlota, but her family and the tribe was unhappy about it because the two were related. On September 26, 1909, Willie went to Gilman Ranch and spoke to Carlota’s father, Mike Boniface.

Some debate exists as to what exactly went down during their confrontation, but it ended when Willie shot Mike with a Winchester rifle. Some say the shooting was in self-defense.

Willie then ran into the hills, 16-year-old Carlota in tow. Supposedly, Carlota’s family gave the couple a head start before reaching out for help.

A group of men took chase, and the posse sometimes grew to more than 100 men, some with wagons and horses. All with weapons and with many resources. Willie Boy, meanwhile, was eating anything he could find and drinking water when it appeared. Still, he was traveling about 50 miles per day on foot.

On the fourth day on the run, the posse found Carlota’s body. Today, the belief is that the group of white men accidentally shot Carlota, but they initially tried to pass it off as Willie Boy shooting her. Carlota had apparently been shot from a distance, so this checks out.

Keep in mind that this entire mess was happening around the same time President Taft was meant to visit the region, so the story made some waves. Some people even believed Willie Boy was going to assassinate President Taft.

At Ruby Mountain, Willie Boy allegedly ambushed the group by shooting their horses. He also shot one man in the hip. Then, the group of men claimed to have heard a lone shot up in the rocks.

Willie Boy had been on the run for two to three weeks (depending on who you ask), armed with only a rifle and enough knowledge about the desert to get by. He was known as a fast runner in his community, so he also had speed on his side.

Later, the group went to search for Willie Boy’s body. They claimed to have found him, dead and bloated. A reporter allegedly took a photo of the body before the group decided to burn it on-site, but that photo apparently showed some inconsistencies with what Willie Boy would have looked like. They had claimed he was too badly decomposed to be moved, so they burned him right there. And poof —any evidence was gone.

Questions remain if Willie Boy actually did die at Ruby Mountain. While the group of white men chasing Willie Boy claimed to have seen and photographed his body, local Native American men claimed he got away, potentially getting back to Nevada. In fact, people who knew him claimed they had seen him.

This is one of those cases where history is not quite clear about what happened. Obviously, the posse had reason to lie about Willie Boy being dead. Different stories paint very different pictures of the events that occurred in 1909.

Today, an outlet shopping mall sits at the site where Willie Boy started his run.

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