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Snap Judgment

King Tiger

In 1967, one man in New Mexico sought justice in the most unlikely way, turning him into a fugitive. Some called him a bandit, others a hero. From Snap Judgment's "Legendary" episode. 

GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST: Welcome back to SNAPJUDGMENT, the "Legendary" episode. Today, we're diving headfirst into the real stories of larger-than-life people - real people, maybe someone living next to you, maybe someone whose exploits will be studied by our children's children. To that end, we sent our own Nancy Lopez west out in search of a modern-day legend. SNAP JUDGMENT.

NANCY LOPEZ, BYLINE: The year was 1967. Larry Calloway was a young reporter who just moved to Santa Fe, N.M., to take on a new job. He didn't know much about the local politics - that is until he first encountered a man by the name of Reies Lopez Tijerina.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOREIGN LANGUAGE SPOKEN)

LARRY CALLOWAY: Tijerina was weaving this dream of restoring the old land grants in northern New Mexico and establishing almost something like a separate country where people could live and speak Spanish and follow their own traditions. He had been an evangelistic preacher and when he spoke in Spanish or English he was - he transfixed his audiences and that's the first time I'd seen him and I thought, wow, this man has really got some power.

LOPEZ: Tijerina's followers were the descendants of the Native American and Mexican people who had lived in the region decades and even centuries before the U.S. took over. Tijerina insisted they were still the rightful owners of the land and that they should fight for it, literally by any means necessary.

CALLOWAY: I thought that it was a great story and that it had a lot of potential, so I covered the land grant movement in those days as best I could. I had other duties as a state capitol reporter, but when I had a chance, I would try to call him and get his comments on stories.

LOPEZ: And it was one small quote Larry got from Tijerina that would ultimately change the course of history for Tijerina, for the land grant movement and even for Larry. Larry had interviewed Tijerina about a big meeting that he and his followers were organizing.

CALLOWAY: A meeting that he said was going to be a showdown between his group and the forest service. A lot of people were feeling oppressed by forest rangers because they could not just go out and use the forest as they always had for generations, for centuries even. And the quote they were going to have a showdown went national, and it was my quote that I took from him.

LOPEZ: But this quote didn't sit well with Santa Fe's District Attorney, Alfonso Sanchez, who was fed up with Tijerina's antics. So he took drastic measures to keep the meeting from even happening. One day, Sanchez ordered local police to set up roadblocks on the highways and to arrest any of Tijerina's followers. They arrested 11 of his men. The following Monday, these men were to be arraigned for unlawful assembly in a small courthouse in the town of Tierra Amarilla.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: When I heard on the radio that they had gotten so many of our people and that they were going to arraign them that morning, oh, God forbidden. I felt something - a spirit. First thing that came to me is, go to Tierra Amarilla, and get Sanchez at all costs.

CALLOWAY: It was a rainy day, and this courthouse had a tin roof. And they had to stop every now and then because the rain was too loud and nobody could hear. There were about a dozen defendants there and there were a lot of people watching. And the judge - an old frontier type, a lawyer called - named Scarborough - James Scarborough obviously thought that the charges were sort of trivial so he just released everybody without asking for bond.

LOPEZ: The defendants walked out of the courthouse, and Larry went to file his story.

CALLOWAY: I was in the lobby in a little makeshift telephone booth - had, you know, a glass window in the door. And I was talking to my editor in Albuquerque and suddenly there was a shot behind me in the hall where a state police officer had been standing.

And so I turned around, I saw a couple of guys - one of them had a gun. I got crouched down in the phone booth and kept talking on the phone and told the editor, you know, somebody just fired a shot, but they'll probably get him in a minute. And then all hell broke loose. I didn't know what the hell was going on except that there were a lot of angry people with guns. I told the editor it looks like a raid, and I knew who it was - it was the land grant people, obviously.

LOPEZ: Larry had just caught a glimpse of none other than Tijerina walking past him in his hiding spot.

CALLOWAY: He had a semiautomatic handgun and that's about all I saw of him.

LOPEZ: What Larry didn't know was that Tijerina was searching for the district attorney, Sanchez, to put him under citizen's arrest. What Tijerina didn't know was that Sanchez was not even there and that the judge had freed his comrades a half hour before. The chaos continued.

CALLOWAY: There was a whole lot of people running into the courthouse. There were a lot of gunshots everywhere. There were people screaming and running up and down the stairs. A lot of the shooting was pretty wild. Outside, the deputy got shot and the state cop that got shot. And I knew that fear does not help you in a situation like this, it - as a matter of fact, it can get you killed, so you try to be as cool as possible.

LOPEZ: But then the Larry, still crouched down in the telephone booth, was surprised by one of Tijerina's men.

CALLOWAY: A young man named Baltazar Martinez, the most fearsome of all of them - a guy with a beret and a trench coat with dynamite in the pockets and an army carbine in his hand, he bashed open the door of the phone booth where I was crouched down, stuck the carbine in my face and prodded me down into the same room with everybody from the county. They're all sitting there looking pretty scared.

Baltazar Martinez, the guy with the trench coat and the beret said something else in Spanish, which I didn't understand. And somebody poked me and said he's talking about you, man, get out. So I got up and walked out into the hall. He had a compatriot, an old man with a pistol who had handcuffed the deputy with his own handcuffs behind his back. And they tied my hands with an electrical cord behind my back. The old man and Baltazar kicked us outside, put us into the deputy's car. My whole instinct was just to survive and wait for my chance if it ever came up to get away from this.

LOPEZ: Tijerina wanted to make a getaway too. He had a 2-way radio on him and that's when he heard that the state of New Mexico was calling all units to descend on this Tierra Amarilla courthouse. He knew his time was up. Tijerina went one way and Larry was stuck with Baltazar going another.

CALLOWAY: We were in the deputy sheriff's car. Baltazar was driving and he picked up the microphone in the sheriff's car and on the police radio said, I've got hostages, I don't want to see no cops. And there were no cops anywhere - the highway for 20 miles completely empty.

LOPEZ: But then they came upon a roadblock full of state police officers. Baltazar stopped the car.

CALLOWAY: And he got out and took the deputy sheriff with him as a shield with a gun to his head. The old man pushed me out of the car and put the carbine to my head and started toward the ranch house, which was where they were going - and using me as a shield. At that point, I was quite concerned that I could get shot either from one side or the other. So I decided to act and I turned as fast as I could, slapped the gun away, kicked the man and took away the carbine and threw it in the mud. And the cops jumped over the cars and came and knocked him to the ground and handcuffed him. And I was free. And that's when I probably started to get - to show signs of being afraid. It took me 20 minutes or so to recover.

LOPEZ: Soon as he did, Larry was back on the phone with his editor in Albuquerque.

CALLOWAY: I knew this was a big story.

LOPEZ: Larry went back to the courthouse in Tierra Amarilla where a big encampment had already been formed. That same night perched on a mountain, Tijerina looked down to see the largest manhunt in New Mexico history being staged - all those forces looking for him.

CALLOWAY: By then the national press and all the networks were there.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS BROADCAST)

REPORTER: The county courthouse in New Mexico where the wild West is still plenty wild. A band of disgruntled Spanish-American rebels claiming millions of acres under ancient land grants shot up the court and kidnapped 20 persons.

LOPEZ: And that's when the press dubbed Tijerina, King Tiger. The National Guard was trying to track him down, but their search kept coming up empty.

CALLOWAY: It caused a great deal of national worldwide attention to the land grant movement in New Mexico and made Tijerina a worldwide hero to some people.

LOPEZ: A song praising Tijerina's battle played over the radio even as authorities locked him up in jail.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

LOPEZ: But the standoff between Tijerina and the authorities was far from over. What happened in the following weeks and months was just as surprising as the courthouse raid, especially for Larry. Tijerina was thrown in jail for 35 days before his case went to trial.

CALLOWAY: The prosecutor of Tijerina was the very same district attorney, Alfonso Sanchez. The prosecution had a story that incriminated Reies Lopez Tijerina man of a lot of things that really were not consistent with what I had seen. The prosecution did not call me as a witness but then Tijerina called me.

REIES LOPEZ TIJERINA: I had educated myself on the question of citizen's arrest. How far could you go? It says that you must use all possible force. We had the right to arrest even the president.

LOPEZ: Tijerina had fired all his lawyers and was now defending himself.

CALLOWAY: And I was called as a hostile witness by Tijerina in his trial. And I testified about what had happened.

LOPEZ: Tijerina was finally face-to-face with Sanchez and could argue his case for citizen's arrest. As far as he was concerned, Sanchez was a criminal but no one believed Tijerina's argument actually stood a chance.

CALLOWAY: But Tijerina got off. The jury found him - acquitted him of a whole bunch of charges in the courthouse raid on the basis of his defense.

LOPEZ: The land never did go back to the people, but Tijerina's fight became legendary. Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez reached out to him soon after the raid. Once free, Tijerina was back speaking to his people and fighting for his cause.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

TIJERINA: (Foreign language spoken) This is the fire that is coming out of the volcano which is in the northern part of New Mexico. And as much as the devil, as much as the enemy, as much as the oppressor would like to have the world believe that I'm a King Tiger, that I'm a militant, that I'm a violent man, he's mistaken, for I am as violent as Jesus Christ.

LOPEZ: Today, Tijerina's 88 years old. He feels as strongly now as he did then about the justice he sought at Tierra Amarilla.

TIJERINA: Incredible, incredible, turning me into the (unintelligible). Wanted by the cops and the army. Oh, wow. That day was the greatest day of my life.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WASHINGTON: Big thanks to Larry Calloway. Now, you see that? You see him go back into work after being held hostage? We could use some more of that around here, I'm telling you what. Thanks to King Tiger as well for writing a new chapter in our history books. And big thanks to Latino USA for their extraordinary support in helping us bring this story to life with real voices from real people. That piece was produced by our own Nancy Lopez with sound design by Pat Mesiti-Miller, Renzo Gorrio and Leon Morimoto.

Now when SNAP JUDGMENT returns, it's the legend of the office park. You do not want to miss this. SNAP JUDGMENT. Stay tuned.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


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