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Finding Col. Fountain: Dona Ana County Sheriff's Office pursues 118-year-old cold case as family waits for answers

By: Genevieve Curtis
DONA ANA COUNTY, N.M. -- One hundred and eighteen years after a pillar of the Mesilla community disappeared outside of the Las Cruces area, the case is still open.

Members of the Dona Ana County Sheriffs Office are investigating the murder of Col. Albert Jennings Fountain and his 8-year-old son Henry in what may be the oldest cold case still being worked in the United States today.

On February 1, 1896 Fountain, a prominent politician and lawyer was returning to his home Mesilla with Henry.

Their horse-drawn wagon carried them along the white sands of the New Mexican desert and they were never seen again.

In almost all place of time, there are bad people, said Capt. Manion Long of the Dona Ana County Sheriffs Office. The evidence at the time indicates empty rifle cartridges and a pool of blood, he said.

The mystery still eludes investigators today.

It truly was the wild, wild west, said Stephanie Johnson-Burick, the great-great-great granddaughter of the colonel.

After more than a century, the family still wonders what exactly happened to the colonel and Henry.

Why hasn't something been found? Stephanie wonders.

The Fountain family and investigators believe they know who likely killed the colonel and his son.

The killers, Oliver Lee, James Gilliland and Bill McNew were hired by Albert Bacon Fall to get rid of

Col. Fountain, said Albert Jennings Fountain, the great-great grandson of the colonel.

The colonel is considered one of the founders of the Las Cruces area. He was a renaissance man and pioneer who was a leader of the Mesilla community.

Historians credit Fountain with helping move the New Mexico territory closer to statehood.

Whenever the history of the territory of New Mexico comes to be written, the name of Col. Albert J. Fountain deserves and should have first place in it. The colonel was far and away her most distinguished and most useful citizen. As soldier, scholar, dramatist, lawyer, prosecutor, Indian fighter and desperado hunter, wrote Edgar Beecher Bronson.

The colonel stood for everything right and (for) justice and fairness and integrity and ethics and for always doing the right thing, said Johnson-Burick.

The colonels ideals clashed with many of those in the wild, lawless land, giving him many political enemies.

One in particular, Albert Bacon Fall, is suspected to be the mastermind behind the colonel's murder.

Days before his disappearance, Fountain, then an assistant district attorney, journeyed to Lincoln County where he secured indictments for cattle rustling against Fall and a cast of Fall's associates.

People, friends, told him he had signed his death warrant, said Albert Jennings Fountain.

The powerful gang of Fountains enemies was alleged to be stealing cattle from ranchers.

The colonel actually, allegedly received a note while he was still in Lincoln that said drop this or you wont make it back to Mesilla alive, said Long.

But the colonel pursued justice.

One of the reasons he took little Henry on the trip is that no one would hurt a little boy, said Johnson-Burick.

Fountain set off on the journey home with the indictments in hand. The story goes that while on the road the colonel told passersby he was being followed by three men on horseback.

Some offered him refuge, but the colonel pressed on. Investigators said historical records indicate Henry may have been sick and the colonel wanted to get his son home.

The fact of the matter was, the colonel was well-armed and he was a fighter, said Long.

The next day the colonels wagon was found, along with blood and rifle cartridges. But there was no sign of the Fountains.

There was a trial for both Oliver Lee and James Gilliland.

But they were acquitted maybe largely in part because no bodies were ever discovered.

The sheriff in charge of the case, Pat Garret, later was also murdered; to this day some believe it was because of his connection to the case.

Then just three years after Col. Fountains murder, his nemesis, Fall was serving as state senator and helped create Otero County.

The new county lines just barely cut the crime scene out of Dona Ana County.

In 1899 the Otero and Doa Ana county line fell just west of what was believed to be the crime scene in 1896, placing that out of the jurisdiction of the Dona Ana County Sheriffs Office, said Long.

For many years that forced the sheriffs to stop investigating the disappearance and murders, officially.

Now, 118 years later, the Sheriffs Office claims historical jurisdiction and the case remains open.

Its probably one of the coldest cases in the western United States if not the entire United States that is still being actively worked, said Long.

Long grew up hearing the tales of Col. Fountain, now he has a hand in bringing him home.

We dont have a body, so technically it is missing persons. But we consider it a homicide so we are working it as a homicide. Theres nothing to suggest that the Colonel and Henry disappeared under anything other than some nefarious circumstances, said Long.

Another retired investigator with the office has worked the case for more than 20 years and continues to do so.

We would just like to bring some closure to this for the family, for the Fountain family, said Long.

Generations later, decedents of Colonel Fountain continue to hold out hope.

I would love to find his remains, said Albert Jennings Fountain.

Albert Jennings fountain bears the namesake of his great-great-grandfather and has always carried the story of that winter night the colonel disappeared.

I never get tired of telling people about it, said Albert Jennings Fountain.

In fact, stories are what the Fountain family clutch closely. Dozens of books have been written about the Colonel and family stories have rolled down the family tree almost genetically.

As a kid, Albert Jennings Fountain accompanied his dad and his grandfather on a search expedition in 1950 to look for the remains.

My grandfather hated what happened to his grandfather, but he would always get a twinkle in his eye when he would tell the story, said Albert Jennings Fountain.

The search never yielded any results.

I really wish we would have found something that day, he said. They went to their graves not knowing what happened to their loved ones."

The Colonels wagon was found at Chalk Hill, which is now White Sands Missile Range, but there is a historical marker nearby to commemorate what happened 118 years ago.

Long believes the colonel and Henry are likely buried somewhere on White Sands.

Whether we will be able to locate that spot, that's a big question, said Long.

The federally protected land helps shield any possible burial site from being disturbed from independent searchers but it makes it harder for the sheriffs to investigate.

Of course nothing is simple about a 118-year-old cold case.

Memories fade, landscapes change. Roads change. Its a long shot. Its a long shot. But we think its worthwhile, said Long.

Anyone who may have had a hand in the killings is long dead themselves but that's not what drives the sheriffs to close the case.

It is 118 years old; we recognize that justice will probably never be served in any way shape or form. But we would like to bring the colonel and Henry back to Mesilla, said Long.

Reuniting the Fountains with their loved ones keeps the cold case alive.

I kind of think about being able to have something finally that we could actually bury him with the rest of his family at the Mesilla cemetery, said Johnson-Burick.

With the passage of time, new clues continue to present themselves and new leads are explored.

Many of the Colonels artifacts are on display at the Gadsden Museum.

Members of the Fountain family believe someday they'll find their relatives.

You know Im confident that we will. I don't know how, said Albert Jennings Fountain.

Thanks to dedicated investigators, that may just happen.

I'm optimistic. I'm optimistic. Its a needle in a hay stack, said Long.

The Colonel despised wrong and hated the criminal and spent his whole life trying to write the one and suppress or exterminate the other. And in this work and of it, ultimately he lost his life, wrote Edgar Beecher Bronson.

In the legends of the western frontier, the colonels name may be less infamous but his imprint on New Mexico carries through today. Somewhere in the Land of the Enchantment, the Colonel and Henry Fountain rest, waiting to be found.

The Dona Ana County sheriff asks anyone with knowledge of the crime to come forward.

The masons still offer a $700 reward for information leading to the discovery of the colonel and his son Henry.

Members of the Fountain family run the Gadsden museum, which holds many of the Colonels prized possessions. Tours are available by appointment.

Additionally, the Fountain Theater was started by decedents of the colonel; it is no longer in the family, but still holds a portrait of the Colonel and Henry.

The colonel was also instrumental in securing the land for a university which today is New Mexico State University.