TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. — In May 1894, George F. Sprague, a former Southern Pacific Railroad employee informed the company of a plot by Anthony Azoff, an unemployed sign painter to rob the Boulder Creek train depot in Santa Cruz County, Calif. Once alerted, Southern Pacific assigned detectives Leonard Harris and William Kelly to the case. The two men were among the railroad’s best lawmen, especially Harris, a well-respected veteran who had taken on many violent criminals in more than 40 years as a peace officer.Armed with Sprague’s details about the planned heist, Harris, Kelly, and local constable Isaiah Hartman hid in an empty box-car placed on the tracks in front of the depot. They may have had the element of surprise and plenty of firepower, but their plan would go tragically wrong.On May 15 at 8:10 p.m., Azoff, Sprague, and an unidentified third accomplice approached the depot from the north. All three were wearing masks but only Azoff entered the Wells Fargo office waiting room. The other two men waited outside on the deserted passenger platform. As Azoff silently slipped inside the office, the bandit pulled a huge six-shooter out from under his coat. The old-fashioned Colt revolver was 14 inches long and loaded with .44 caliber slugs that could blow a hole through a wall. Azoff immediately leveled the fearsome pistol at Wells Fargo agent William Gass and tossed him an empty sack. “You take this bag and put all the money you have in it, and be damn lively about it, too!” Azoff commanded.Gass had just started stuffing cash into the bag when Detective Harris advanced to the outside door and called out in a loud voice: “Hold up your hands and surrender, as you are surrounded!” But instead of obeying the order, Azoff wheeled around quickly and opened fire on the veteran detective. He fired several times in rapid succession, working the pistol as skillfully as an expert cowboy. Azoff fired his first shot through the door that separated him from Harris, and then, leaping to a window, fired two more rounds before the detective could use his own weapon. Two bullets struck Harris in the abdomen and the wounded detective collapsed to the floor. The whole event took less than 10 seconds, so by the time Detective Kelly and Constable Hartman reached the scene, Azoff had hit the street running. Kelly shot several rounds at the fleeing assailant and Hartman fired his shotgun, but Azoff escaped into the darkness. The two officers then opened fire on George Sprague who was still out on the depot platform. For some reason Detective Harris had not told the other officers that Sprague was the informant and not to be harmed. Sprague threw up his hands protesting his innocence and was quickly handcuffed by the officers. Despite being mortally wounded, Harris was able to confirm Sprague’s innocence and he was released from custody. The mysterious unknown third accomplice had vanished and Sprague claimed he had never gotten a good look under the man’s mask. News of the shooting quickly reached Southern Pacific’s General Superintendent, J. A. Fillmore, in San Francisco who immediately ordered a special engine and car to carry the critically injured lawman to the hospital. Officials in Northern California were alerted by telegraph to be on the lookout for fugitive Anthony Azoff, described as a 35-year-old man of Russian origin, who stood 5 feet 9 inches tall, weighed 160 pounds, and wore a long drooping mustache. He was considered armed and extremely dangerous. Family and friends prayed for Officer Harris, many of them remembering when a train robber shot and nearly killed him less than three years earlier. Tragically, this time Len Harris couldn’t overcome his injuries and he lapsed into a coma and died around midnight on May 16. The deadly incident and subsequent escape by Azoff galvanized citizens as the extensive hunt for the vicious murderer captured everyone’s attention. Despite the fact that Azoff had only a 60-minute head start before the first posse hit the road behind him, it took three more days before the fugitive was captured near Redwood City. At the June 25 trial, George Sprague’s testimony convinced the jury that Azoff had planned the robbery, while Agent Gass identified Azoff as the man who had shot Detective Harris. It took the jury just 45 minutes to find Azoff guilty of first-degree murder, a conviction that carried a mandatory death penalty. Despite the death sentence, Azoff projected a cocky and unrepentant attitude as he was led off to San Quentin Prison for his stint on death row. Repeated legal appeals delayed his execution until June 7, 1895, when the violent defiance of Anthony Azoff was finally extinguished by a hangman’s noose. This article is an excerpt from “Murder at Boulder Creek,” published in McLaughlin’s award-winning book, “Western Train Adventures: The Good, the Bad andamp; the Ugly.”— Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local bookstores or at www.thestormking.com. You can reach Mark at email@example.com. Check out his new blog at: www.tahoenuggets.com
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