By Don McAlavy: Local Columnist
One of the first real shootouts in Clovis happened on Aug. 15, 1909. That’s one of the first stories I heard when I started writing about Clovis history. Old Tom Pendergrass, the first historian of Clovis, told me the story. He was a lad of 9, who was in the alley and witnessed the death of a killer through a window.
Just recently in the October 2005 Wild West magazine was the story of the “Silver City Shooting,” featuring gambler John W. Childers and his shooting of 37-year-old Thomas Heflin, a prominent Silver City Territory attorney.
I knew about Childers shootout with Gus Von Elm in Clovis in 1909, but had never heard about the Dec. 13, 1901 killing, or his other killings.
Childers, from Texas, “just drifted around from one place to another” before he moved to Silver City with his wife and son. “I have made my living working around gambling houses, it is true,” admitted Childers.
The Childers and Heflin friendship started out as an attorney-client relationship. Heflin had defended Childers in a lawsuit. The friendship ended when Childers wouldn’t pay Heflin’s bill because he thought it was exorbitant. The irate attorney threatened to “stop Childers’ clock.”
In the Club House bar on Friday the 13th they met again at the bar. Four men, including Childers and Heflin, again insulted each other. Heflin had to lean forward to look past the two men between them.
“I’ll go out in the street and pull triggers,” said Heflin.
“This place suits me,” countered Childers.
Childers stepped away from the bar and made a move toward Heflin, who stood some eight feet away. His action set off a “lively scramble among those standing at the bar for a place of safety.”
Childers cleared his gun. Heflin had figured Childers would pull his gun with his right hand, but Childers used his left hand, catching Heflin unprepared. One of the men named Savage caught Childers’ arm and Childers cried, “turn me loose.” The gambler pulled the trigger twice. At least one bullet found its mark and Heflin in turn, drew his revolver and fired; the bullet barely missed. Twice more he fired wildly.
Childers shot again, shattering Heflin’s right hand. Childers shot twice more before he realized that Heflin was now unarmed.
Heflin died the next evening. A corner’s jury found Childers guilty of killing Heflin. A trial which ended in a change of venue was held eight weeks later. It was taken to a grand jury on April 21.
The gambler turned out to be the scion of a prominent and powerful Texas family. Childers’ father was the honorable John W. Childers Sr., and he and a team of attorneys made a big difference with the sitting judge and in the jury. The case was handed over to nearby Dona Ana County, where the notable Judge Albert B. Fall was on the prosecution team.
On April 26, at almost midnight, the jury had reached a decision and the clerk read the verdict.
“Guilty of murder in the second degree.”
Amid the rising clamor, the clerk tried to gain the attention of the court; he had read the wrong verdict. As the crowd quieted down, he began to read again.
Pandemonium again erupted as Childers and his family celebrated an acquittal that reportedly cost the senior Childers $8,000.
One of the jurors told the others that Judge Parker, Major Llewellyn and Albert Fall wanted the defendant acquitted.
“We did not discuss the evidence,” one juror admitted. “We thought he was guilty, but we were told he was a very rich man and was going to live here and all the ladies in the court room were friends of his wife and had come to see him acquitted and the judge and the lawyer wanted us to acquit him. We are very sorry we were mistaken.”
Next week: The conclusion of the John Childers’ story on the shooting incident in Clovis.
Don McAlavy is Curry County’s historian. He can be contacted at: