Wyatt Earp: Terrific and Famous Gunfight at OK Corral

Last week’s blog covered the case of Gary Triano, a Tucson, Arizona, real estate developer killed by a pipe bomb placed in his Lincoln Continental. This week, we take a short trip geographically but almost a century and a half in time to Tombstone, Arizona Territory. On October 26, 1881, gunfire erupted in the infamous gunfight at the OK Corral. Although he was only one of the men who took part, Wyatt Earp emerged as the fight’s most famous participant.

Wyatt Earp

Wyatt Earp is the stuff of legend, a legend burnished by Stuart Lake’s adulatory (and highly fictitious) 1931 biography, Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal. Books, films, and an eponymous television series built an image of a straight-arrow lawman fighting for justice. The truth is more nuanced. While Earp did serve as a lawman in various capacities, he also gambled and invested money in saloons. One can conclude that money and influence motivated him as much as seeking justice.

Wyatt Earp, age 21
Wyatt Earp, age 21

The man whose reputation rests on his association with the Old West began his life in prosaic Monmouth, Illinois. About two years after his birth, the Earp family joined a group planning to relocate to San Bernardino, California. However, when Wyatt’s sister, Martha, became ill, the family stopped and settled near Pella, Iowa.

Wyatt’s older brothers joined the Union army during the American Civil War. At the same time, his father recruited local men and drilled them as soldiers. At age 13, Wyatt also tried to join the army, but his father stopped him. Rather than fighting, he tended the family farm with Morgan and Warren, his two younger brothers.

Wyatt Earp Moves West

Wyatt’s first foray west was to join older brother Virgil as a teamster in California in the summer of 1865. After the stint in California, he bounced back and forth between the west and the Midwest. He stopped in places like Wichita and Dodge City, Kansas; Peoria, Illinois; and Deadwood, Dakota Territory. Occasionally he served as town constable or assistant marshal. Other times, he found himself in scrapes with the law.

Wyatt Earp and Bartholomew “Bat” Masterson (standing) in Dodge City, Kansas in 1876

Dodge City made a lasting impact on Wyatt. Not only did he serve as a lawman there, but he met John Henry “Doc” Holliday in Dodge. Wyatt and Doc became lifelong friends after Doc saved Wyatt’s life in a Dodge City saloon fight.

Holliday’s distinguished Georgia family saw bleak times after the Civil War. But Doc managed to attend the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery in Philadelphia. Diagnosed with tuberculosis soon after graduating, he moved west. He gradually abandoned dentistry and earned a reputation as a gambler and gunslinger.

Wyatt Earp in Tombstone

By 1879, Dodge City started to settle down, no longer the wild cowtown of earlier days. Wyatt left Dodge in company with his common-law wife, his brother Jim and Jim’s wife, and Doc Holliday and his companion, Big-Nose Kate. The Earps and their women arrived in Tombstone, Arizona Territory, on December 1, 1879. Doc Holliday and Kate stayed behind in Prescott, where the gambling opportunities appeared more promising.

Tombstone, Arizona Territory in 1881 (photographed by C.S. Fly)
Tombstone, Arizona Territory in 1881 (photographed by C.S. Fly)

Wyatt’s brother, Virgil, became a Pima County deputy sheriff in 1880. He appointed Wyatt as his deputy soon after Wyatt arrived in town. On January 1, 1881, eastern Pima County split into a new entity, Cochise County, with Tombstone as its seat. Wyatt applied to be sheriff of the new county, but so did Johnny Behan. Behan, a wily—some say crooked—political operative, outmaneuvered Wyatt and became sheriff. This inauspicious beginning would have repercussions later.

Wyatt Earp at about age 39

Wyatt Earp and the Cowboys

The Clanton family owned a ranch twelve miles southwest of Tombstone and twenty miles from the Mexican border. The Clantons used the place as a base for their smuggling and rustling operations. The family patriarch, Newman Haynes “Old Man” Clanton, died when a group of Mexicans out to recover stolen cattle ambushed him and his party in August 1881. His sons, Ike, Phineas “Phin,” and Billy Clanton, carried on.

Clanton clan patriarch Newman Haynes "Old Man" Clanton
Clanton clan patriarch Newman Haynes “Old Man” Clanton

In the climate of the times, the Cowboys resented the growing influence of city residents on politics and law enforcement. Cochise County Sheriff Johnny Behan sympathized with the ranchers and supported them. The sheriff disliked the Earps and tended to ignore their complaints about the Clantons and their illegal activities.

Joseph Isaac "Ike" Clanton photographed in 1881 by Tombstone photographer C.S. Fly
Joseph Isaac “Ike” Clanton photographed in 1881 by Tombstone photographer C.S. Fly

The Earp faction opposed the Cowboys. Behan may have been country sheriff, but Virgil Earp represented the law in Tombstone as a Deputy U.S. Marshal and City Marshal. The Earps, of course, had strong family ties of their own.

The Earps Confront the Cowboys

The infamous gunfight stemmed from Virgil’s decision to enforce a city ordinance against carrying guns in town. He received reports that the Clantons and their allies, the McLaury brothers, left the livery stable and entered town while armed. The Cowboys’ recent (and repeated) threats against the Earps may have influenced his decision. He appointed Wyatt, Morgan, and Doc Holliday as special policemen to assist him.

The rebuilt OK Corral in 2004. The original corral was destroyed along with much of Tombstone by a catastrophic 1882 fire (Brian W. Schaller)
The rebuilt OK Corral in 2004. The original corral was destroyed along with much of Tombstone by a catastrophic 1882 fire (Brian W. Schaller)

The OK Corral gunfight didn’t occur in the Corral. It happened near the corner of Fremont and Third Streets. The Earps and Holiday walked west down Fremont Street to where the Cowboys stood near Camillus Fly’s boarding house and photographic studio. Afterward, it proved impossible to ascertain with accuracy where the participants stood. What is known is that the three Earps and Doc Holliday faced six Cowboys: Ike and Billy Clanton, Frank and Tom McLaury, Billy Claiborne, and Wes Fuller.

John Henry "Doc" Holliday gave up dentistry for whiskey, gambling, and gunslinging. He and Wyatt Earp became friends in Dodge City.
John Henry “Doc” Holliday gave up dentistry for whiskey, gambling, and gunslinging. He and Wyatt Earp became friends in Dodge City.

Gunfight at the OK Corral

Virgil didn’t expect a fight as the two sides faced off. He called to the Cowboys, “Throw up your hands! I want your guns!” When Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton drew and cocked their single-action revolvers, he shouted, “Hold! I don’t want that!”

Virgil Earp was the official representative of the law at the OK Corral
Virgil Earp was the official representative of the law at the OK Corral

Who fired first is uncertain. Partisan witnesses gave versions favorable to their side, and impartial witnesses didn’t know the participants by sight. The dense smoke from black powder weapons added to the confusion. When the smoke cleared, the McLaurys and Billy Clanton lay dead or dying. Virgil and Morgan suffered slight wounds, and a bullet bruised Doc Holliday’s hip when it struck his holster. Ike Clanton, who did so much to stir up the fight, ran from the battle, as did Billy Claiborne. Wyatt Earp suffered no injuries.

Wyatt Earp and the Aftermath

Sheriff Johnny Behan attempted to arrest Wyatt as he walked to his home, but Wyatt rebuffed him. Ike Clanton later filed murder charges against the Earps and Holliday. Justice of the Peace Wells Spicer held a hearing on the matter and eventually ruled that Virgil Earp acted within his office as the lawman in charge. He criticized Virgil’s decision to deputize Wyatt and Holliday but decided they were within the law.

Ritter and Reams undertakers displayed the bodies of the McLaurys and Billy Clanton in their window. A sign accompanying the display read, “Murdered in the Streets of Tombstone.”

Tom McLaury, Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton (left to right) in the window of the undertakers. This is the only known photo of 19-year-old Billy.
Tom McLaury, Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton (left to right) in the window of the undertakers. This is the only known photo of 19-year-old Billy.

On December 28, a shotgun blast struck Virgil Earp in the left arm and shoulder, costing him the use of the arm. Ike Clanton’s hat was found near where the shot came from. An assassin ambushed Morgan Earp on Marcy 18, 1882, as he played billiards. Morgan died within minutes. Convinced he wouldn’t get justice, Wyatt hunted down Morgan’s attackers and killed them, using arrest warrants as a fig leaf of legality..

Epilogue

Ike Clanton was indicted for cattle rustling in the summer of 1887 and was killed in a gunfight with lawmen while resisting arrest.

Wyatt Earp continued to live a colorful life. In his later years, he often advised Hollywood cowboy actors and Western film directors. He died in Los Angeles on January 13, 1929, at age 80.

Wyatt and Josephine Earp, in their mining camp near Vidal, California in 1906
Wyatt and Josephine Earp, in their mining camp near Vidal, California in 1906

Countless books, films, and television shows tell the story of Wyatt Earp and the OK Corral gunfight, but only some are accurate. One biography I found to be trustworthy is Casey Tefertiller’s 1999 biography, Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend. A short book purporting to be a blow-by-blow account of the gunfight itself is Countdown to the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, written by K.M. Lassiter and published in 2017. The movies and television shows from the 1950s might be enjoyable entertainment, but their picture of Wyatt Earp is quite distorted.

An older Wyatt Earp ca. 1920s
An older Wyatt Earp ca. 1920s

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Gary Triano: Big Explosion Makes Ex-Wife a Killer

My previous blog presented the case of Eric Hainstock. Eric, a high school freshman, shot and killed the principal of Weston High School in Wisconsin. This week’s crime takes us to suburban Tucson, Arizona, where in 1996, Pam Phillips orchestrated the murder of her ex-husband, Gary Triano.

Gary Triano

Gary Triano lived most of his life as a resident of Tucson, Arizona. He attended high school and the University of Arizona in Tucson. After obtaining a law degree, He changed course and forged a career in real estate development. Gary became successful enough to be worth several million dollars.

Gary Triano (David Bean Photography/CBS News)
Gary Triano (David Bean Photography/CBS News)

In 1986, Gary Triano was divorced and an extremely eligible bachelor. He met and married Pamela Anne Phillips, a socialite, and former model. Pam also sold real estate. The new couple welcomed two children in addition to the two from Gary’s first marriage.

Pamela Phillips and Gary Triano (David Bean Photography/CBS News)
Pamela Phillips and Gary Triano (David Bean Photography/CBS News)

The happy times didn’t last. Gary and Pamela divorced—by all accounts acrimoniously—in 1993. Furthermore, Gary filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. He claimed to owe $40 million from failed business ventures related to Indian casinos.

The Death of Gary Triano

On November 1, 1996, Gary Triano planned to play golf at La Paloma Country Club in Catalina Foothills, a suburb of Tucson. In the parking lot, a tremendous explosion ripped his Lincoln Continental apart. Someone placed a pipe bomb underneath the car’s passenger seat. The blast flung pieces of the vehicle over 100 yards away, some landing in the La Paloma swimming pool.

The Lincoln Continental after the pipe bomb exploded (Pima County Sheriff's Department)
The Lincoln Continental after the pipe bomb exploded (Pima County Sheriff’s Department)

Investigators took a long, hard look at Gary’s ex-wife, Pamela Phillips. They discovered she took out a $2 million life insurance policy on Gary not long before his death The policy named the couple’s two minor children beneficiaries (the insurance company paid the claim in 1997). What’s more, it was no secret their divorce three years earlier had been bitter. But Pamela moved to Aspen, Colorado, after the divorce and lived in Aspen at the time of Gary’s death. For that reason, and because they suspected the killing might be a mob hit, the investigation stalled.

A Solution to the Gary Triano Murder

Investigators caught a break more than a decade after Gary Triano died. When police in Aspen arrested a small-time criminal, Ronald Young, on an unrelated charge, evidence emerged linking him to Pamela Phillips. Police uncovered evidence Pamela agreed to pay Young $400,000 to kill Gary. And detectives also learned of recorded conversations between Pamela and Young where the two discussed the conspiracy.

Ronald Young (Pima County Sheriff's Department)
Ronald Young (Pima County Sheriff’s Department)

Ronald Young stood trial in 2010. The jury convicted him of murder and conspiracy to commit murder, and the judge sentenced him to two life terms without parole.

Extradited to Arizona, the court found Pamela Phillips incompetent to stand trial in December 2011. However, she finally faced a jury in October of the following year. After a seven-week trial, her jury also found her guilty of murder. The judge sentenced her to life without parole.

Epilogue

Today (2022), Pamela Phillips and Ronald Young reside in Arizona Department of Corrections facilities. Pamela is at the Perryville complex in Goodyear, while Young is at the facility in Tucson.

Pamela Phillips (L) and Ronald Young (R) prison photos (Arizona Department of Corrections)
Pamela Phillips (L) and Ronald Young (R) prison photos (Arizona Department of Corrections)

You can read more about the Gary Triano murder in Kerrie Droban’s 2012 book, A Socialite Scorned.

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Eric Hainstock: Bullied Boy is Sensational School Killer

In my last blog, I told you about the case of Brett Seacat. Seacat, a former sheriff’s deputy, murdered his wife and tried to cover his tracks by setting fire to his house. This week, the blog covers the case of Eric Hainstock. Hainstock, a high school freshman, took two guns to school in September 2006. He shot the school principal, John Klang, who later died.

Eric Hainstock

Born in Lacrosse, Wisconsin, in 1991, Eric Hainstock’s childhood left much to be desired. His parents divorced when Eric was two. At age nine, the courts terminated his mother’s parental rights when she failed to make required child support payments.

Eric Hainstock
Eric Hainstock

Eric’s formative years were turbulent. Shawn Hainstock, Eric’s father, suffered from depression and anger issues. According to school, social services, and mental health records, he forced Eric to work “like a slave” around the house. Eric himself began having behavior issues, and doctors prescribed Ritalin for ADHD. But Shawn stopped the Ritalin, saying he “didn’t want to spend the money.”

Eric’s father also meted out strict discipline, his “discipline” being close to abuse. Sometimes, he crossed the line. In September 2001, after reports of abuse, a court sent Eric to live with his paternal grandmother. His behavior and grades improved in a nurturing environment. And his grandmother put him back on Ritalin.

But Shawn Hainstock regained custody of Eric in April 2002.

Eric Hainstock’s Problems at School

It shouldn’t be a surprise to find Eric did poorly in school. He claimed his father restricted him to showering once a week and bought him only old, ill-fitting clothes. He went hungry often because his father refused to pay the 30-40 cents for reduced-price lunches. And Shawn took Eric off Ritalin, saying he “didn’t want to spend the money.”

Weston High School, where the shooting took place
Weston High School, where the shooting took place

In his father’s home again, Eric transferred to Weston Schools, a K-12 facility in Cazenovia, Wisconsin, for sixth grade. He received multiple detentions. School officials removed him from classrooms for behavior issues an average of twice a week. He ended up repeating the sixth grade.

By Eric’s account, life at Weston Schools was “hell.” He identified as bisexual, enduring persistent name-calling and physical bullying because of it. One student told a newspaper that students picked on Eric more than anyone else in the school. Others point out that Eric himself often exhibited bullying and other inappropriate behaviors.

Eric Hainstock Brings Guns to School

In the fall of 2006, at age 15, Eric started his first year at Weston High School. On September 14, he got into an argument with another student and threw a stapler at a teacher. Police charged him with second-degree recklessly endangering safety, disorderly conduct, and criminal damage. A few days later, he got into a fight with his stepmother.

Eric Hainstock booking photo
Eric Hainstock booking photo

On September 29, Eric brought two guns to school taken from his father’s locked gun cabinet. One was a 20-gauge shotgun, the other a .22 caliber revolver. At 8:00 a.m., he entered the school’s main hall and aimed the shotgun at a social studies teacher. A custodian, Dave Thompson, wrested the gun away from him.

Custodian Dave Thompson (center) took Eric's 20-gauge shotgun away from him
Custodian Dave Thompson (center) took Eric’s 20-gauge shotgun away from him

At this point, the principal, John Klang, arrived at the scene of the disturbance and confronted Hainstock. Hainstock snatched the pistol from his jacket and fired several shots, wounding Klang. Klang still wrestled Hainstock to the ground and swept the gun away.

Weston High School principal John A. Klang
Weston High School principal John A. Klang

Klang underwent surgery at Reedsburg Area Medical Center before being flown to the University of Wisconsin Hospital in Madison, about 50 miles away. He died minutes before 3:00 p.m.

Epilogue

Eric Hainstock went on trial in 2007. The defense claimed he only intended to force Klang to listen to his complaints about bullying. The jury didn’t buy it. On August 2, it found him guilty of first-degree murder. The judge sentenced him to life in prison. Today he resides at the Oshkosh Correctional Institution in Baraboo, Wisconsin. He will be eligible for parole in 2037 when he is 46.

Eric Hainstock prison photo (Wisconsin Department of Corrections)
Eric Hainstock prison photo (Wisconsin Department of Corrections)

Eric allowed the Madison newspaper Isthmus to share his story publicly.

The Carnegie Hero Fund posthumously awarded Klang the Carnegie Medal for heroism.

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