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An autopsy showed Fantz had been shot once by a .22-caliber rifle. The only two pieces of evidence found near the shooting scene were the rifle cartridge and the button. Smith concluded the button had either fallen off a piece of clothing worn by the killer, most probably an Army jacket, or it had been ripped off by the victim during a struggle.
None of the buttons on Fantz' leather jacket and wool shirt were missing, eliminating the possibility that the brass button came from his clothing. And there were no signs of corrosion on the button which might indicate that it had been laying in the underbrush for some time.
Smith and his men interviewed the victim's wife, hoping to come up with any clue to who might have shot her husband and why. The only stranger who they had seen in the area in recent weeks was an old miner, she said, who had stopped by their cabin seeking food and other provisions. But she said her husband had to turn the man down, saying there was hardly enough for them to survive.
And the miner didn't seem too happy when he walked away, she recalled. Immediately, Smith and his men began searching the Siskiyou Mountains for the old prospector. They located him the following day, digging on the floor of a huge crevice -- his .22-caliber rifle laying on a rock next to him.
Smith and Rogue River guide Larry Lucas caught up with the prospector, questioned him and then confiscated his rifle for ballistic tests. The old man admitted he was mad at Robert Fantz for not offering him food and provisions, but he denied shooting the rancher. Unfortunately for Smith, tests performed on the rifle showed it was not the murder weapon.
Next, sheriff's investigators focused their attention on Fantz' recent activities, hoping to learn whether the rancher had made any recent enemies or whether someone might have a grudge against him.
A Gold Beach tavern owner provided them with a lead. He said Fantz had come into the tavern a few weeks earlier to get a sandwich before returning to his mountain ranch. A man and a woman got into a heated argument and Fantz stepped in to protect the woman. The tavem owner said Fantz decked the man with a stiff punch, and the man left the tavern, rubbing his chin and swearing revenge.
But the youth came up with a fool-proof alibi. He was playing poker all day Nov. 9 at a pool hall in Gold Beach. Several others at the pool hall verified his story.
That put Smith and his men right back where they started -- with a big brass button and a tiny .22-caliber slug. But what good was a slug if you don't have the gun that fired it, Smith reasoned.
He decided to try a new approach. If the killer wasn't wearing a military-issue jacket when he arrived in the area, maybe he purchased it in the area. Smith had his men check Gold Beach clothing, war surplus and second-hand stores to find out if anyone had recently purchased an Army jacket.
Their search paid off. One merchant recalled selling such a jacket to a 52 year-old hermit, Hugo Mayer, who had a cabin in the mountain wilderness, high above the Illinois River. Mayer had survived by trapping, fishing and hunting, and rarely made his way into town except to pick up needed supplies.
Smith and his men wasted little time heading back to the mountains. They located Mayer's cabin, but found it empty. They searched the mountain area by foot and by plane for about two weeks, but saw no sign of the old hermit. Just when they were ready to call off the search and head back to Gold Beach, searchers noticed smoke coming from the area of Mayer's cabin. They arrived to see smoke pouring out the chimney of the old log cabin. Smith called out to Mayer, told him the cabin was surrounded and ordered him to come out peacefully or his men would go in shooting.
Mayer eventually emerged from the cabin. He claimed he had been out trapping, but returned when the weather turned cold. Initially, he denied shooting Robert Fantz, but sheriff's deputies found an Army jacket with one brass button missing and a .22-caliber rifle inside the cabin. Confronted with the evidence against him, Mayer confessed. He claimed Fantz wanted to move him off the mountain, even threatened to report him to authorities for trapping out of season. Mayer said he hid in the underbrush along the path, waited for Fantz to come by, then ambushed the rancher.
It wasn't until later that Curry County authorities discovered the murder actually occurred just over the Josephine County line.
Mayer was transfered to the Josephine County Jail in Grants Pass and was later indicted for first-degree murder. He pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. The jury didn't accept his insanity plea and found him guilty as charged. But they recommended the judge show mercy on the hermit. Mayer was sentenced Jan. 19, 1935, to life imprisonment by Circuit Judge H.D. Norton.
SHOOTOUT AT PISTOL RIVER
Photo Right: Allen Boice
More than 16 years have passed since Donald and Gary Miller were fatally wounded by two Curry County Sheriff's Deputies outside the Miller family cabin along Oregon's rugged Pistol River. But the incident remains a subject of controversy in Curry County.
Donald Miller, 31, had been accused of raping a Gold Beach woman, a former live-in girlfriend. The warrant for Miller's arrest was issued Jan. 7, 1975, but the Curry County Sheriff's Office learned Miller and his younger brother Gary, 28, had moved into a cabin on the Miller family farm, in a remote area about 12 miles south of Gold Beach accessible only by boat or by foot.
Sheriff Allen Boice, who had known the Miller boys' parents for years, had met with the parents several times and had tried to persuade them to have Donald turn himself in voluntarily. Boice had told the Millers that he wanted a peaceful solution. He had told Donald Miller that same thing, prior to Miller's move to the remote cabin on Pistol River. But Donald Miller refused to surrender peacefully.
Finally, in frustration, Boice sent two of his deputies-- Jerry Lea and Verlin Denton -- to the Miller cabin on Feb. 17, 1975, to serve the arrest warrant on Donald Miller.
But the Miller brothers were ready. The two managed to disarm the deputies and took them hostage. After being held captive several hours, Denton talked his way out of the cabin by telling the brothers he had to relieve himself. Once outside, he escaped, made his way through the thick underbrush and ran to the road where he flagged down a passing motorist. He was driven to a Pistol River store where he called Boice.
Wasting little time, Boice decided to send two deputy sharpshooters in to take the brothers -- dead or alive -- and to free Deputy Lea. What followed has been the source of controversy ever since.
Police reports indicate Donald Miller came out of the cabin and fired at the deputies, but was killed by returning gunfire. Those same reports indicate Gary Miller was shot and killed when he picked up his dead brother's gun.
But Mabel Miller, mother of Donald and Gary Miller, took issue with the official version of the Pistol River shooting incident. She contended that the sharpshooters shot Gary first by mistake, thinking he was Donald, then shot and killed Donald. Miller and her husband Ken, filed a $12 million lawsuit against Sheriff Allen Boice.
Testimony presented during the trial indicated the two sharpshooters positioned themselves in the brush, about 225 yards from the cabin, and waited. Gary Miller came out first to relieve himself, then returned to the cabin. The deputies, according to court testimony, did not fire or yell anything at Gary Miller.
About five minutes later, Donald Miller came outside with his gun. Both deputies reportedly aimed and fired at him, killing Miller instantly. The deputies testified Gary Miller ran outside, saw his brother lying on the ground, picked up the gun and turned back toward the cabin. The deputies assumed he was going back inside to shoot Lea. One of the deputies shot Gary Miller. He died minutes later.
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