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The 1908 robbery (part II)

New suspects

In July judge Jesús María (or José Maria) Aguilar of the Juzgado 1o de lo Penal had come from Mexico City to take over the case El Correo de Chihuahua, 10 July 1908. To Aguilar Barzola and Zeferina repudiated their confessionsEl Correo de Chihuahua, 17 July 1908. On 31 July Aguilar set at liberty a number of the prisonersLeonardo Mirazo, Félix Corona, Tomás Almanza, Jesús M. de Villalpando, Josefa L. de Reyes, Guadalupe Mejia, Victoria N. de Barzola and Librada Mendoza (El Correo de Chihuahua, 1 August 1908). Señora Vda. de Villalpando had already been released on 6 May (El Correo de Chihuahua, 6 May 1908). However, Reyes, the two Villalpandos, Macías, Cuilty, Zeferina and Barzola and probably one or two others remained in prisonChihuahua Enterprise, 8 August 1908 though some were released on bail in the beginning of SeptemberOn 1 September Cuilty was freed on a bail of $500, paid by friends as he himself had been rendered destitute by his imprisonment (El Correo de Chihuahua, 16 November 1908). Wulfrano Villalpando was released on a bail of $300 on 3 September (El Correo de Chihuahua, 4 September 1908). Anselmo Ruiz and José Cadena, Barzola’s stepson, were released on 14 September (El Correo de Chihuahua, 15 September 1908). Judge Aguilar went back to Mexico City after a time and judge Rafael Ramos took over on 5 October El Correo de Chihuhua, 7 October 1908.

However, the letter sent to Silvestre Terrazas lead to new suspects, after an investigation by Lic. José María Gandara, the new attorney for the bank, who had taken over the investigations from Joaquín Cortazar, hijo. Gandara started with the paper on which the letter was written, namely “Water Leaf” mimeographing paper. It was found that only the Imprenta El Norte sold it in Chihuahua and that outside of the Banco Minero only two or three other institutions in Chihuahua used it. Gandara therefore assumed the paper had been obtained in the bank and by a long investigation of typewriters the machine on which it was written was identified as one in the Banco Minero. By comparison of the letter with the work of Moisés Navarro, a stenographer and typist in the bank, Navarro was identified as the writer of the letterChihuahua Enterprise, 31 October 1908.

On 16 October Navarro was re-arrested and confessedEl Correo de Chihuahua, 23 October 1908: Chihuahua Enterprise, 31 October 1908. Another employee, Martín Mateus Castro, was also arrested, as well as a third youth, Miguel Molinar A., aged 18 Also arrested was a mason, José Delgado, who was accused of delivering the famous confession (El Correo de Chihuahua, 4 November 1908). Apparently the three boys had been freely spending a considerable amount of money and this had aroused suspicion but though they were watched they could not be caught red-handed spending moneyChihuahua Enterprise, 31 October 1908.

Various relations of Navarro also worked at the bank, namely Elías Navarro, the chief account (Jefe de la Contabilidad), Benjamín G. Navarro and Benigno Navarro, hijo and on 20 October they publicly resigned after privately petitioning Enrique Creel on Moisés’ behalfEl Correo de Chihuahua, 23 October 1908.

On 24 October the police uncovered $58,000 buried in a house near Navarro’s homeEl Correo de Chihuahua, 25 October 1908 and on 26 October $111,530 was found buried in the same houseEl Correo de Chihuahua, 27 October 1908. Another $10,000 had deteriorated through damp, leaving, according to the authorities, just $15,470 to be recovered. It was presumed that this had already been spent by the boys.

Finally, on 27 October, after almost eight months in prison Leopoldo Villalpando, Inocente Reyes, Dámaso Barzola and Zeferina Ornelas were releasedEl Correo de Chihuahua, 28 October 1908. But matters still dragged on, and on 13 November Federico Cuilty, hijo, Inocente Reyes, José Mirazo, Dámaso Barzola, Félix Corona, Ignacio Macías, José Cadena and Wulfrano Villalpando petitioned Carlos Muñoz, Presidente of the Supremo Tribunal de Justicia, for confirmation of the dismissal given by the Juez 1o de lo PenalEl Correo de Chihuahua, 14 November 1908.

Conviction, imprisonment and resistence

In February 1909 the three youths were sentenced to long prison terms Navarro and Molinar were sentenced to ten years, ten months and ten days’ imprisonment whilst Mateus received seven years, two months and seventy days (El Correo de Chihuahua, 24 November 1911). But on 9 February 1909 the three wrote to Silvestre Terrazas from the Penitentiary to protest first against the actions of judge Rafael Ramos, who they said should have recused himself, and the sentence, and secondly against the unscrupulous allegations of El NorteEl Correo de Chihuahua, 10 February 1909. During the next few months they kept up their complaints, and continued writing to governor Creel, who started a prosecution against them for libel, threats and disobediance to authority (coacción, resistencia). El Correo also kept the matter running, with long printouts of legal documents and correspondence, and criticism of El Norte, and by September 1909 the newspaper was implying dark secrets and that others were responsible for the crime.

The three accused manager Juan A. Creel of robbing his own bank. They had been in correspondence with Creel while in prison, reminding him of his promise of favours. In mid-December they wrote to President Díaz with the ‘true story’. According to this, one month before the robbery, Juan Creel had called them into the bank, locked the door and then disclosed the precarious condition of his business affairs and his difficulty in meeting certain financial obligations. Swearing them to secrecy, he said he wanted them to steal the sum of money he needed from the bank. He promised to supply alibis for them and made other promises of protection and reward. Three days after the robbery Molinar and Navarro were arrested but soon released when Juan Creel intervened for them. Then Governor Creel began to suspect the youths and had them rearrested when the case against the other suspects broke down. According to the ‘true story’, Juan Creel advised them to confess to being the sole authors of the crime, go to jail for one or two years and at the end of that time he would give them 20,000 pesos. When Judge Ramos refused them the right to make the ‘true story’ their confession, they decided to initiate the correspondence with Governor Creel and finally to write directly to Díaz.

Later, in 1911, an account by Barzola seems to have confirmed that the Banco Minero was in financial difficulties. In his July declaration to the judge Barzola said that on 29 February 1908 between 8.00 and 9.00 p.m. he was in the Banco Minero and heard Eduardo Cuilty on the telephone to the Banco Comercial Refaccionario. Then the interventor Ramón Cuéllar arrived to carry out the monthly audit and was met by Juan Creel and Cuilty. They spent ten minutes in the vault examining the money, went to Luis Peréz’s desk and checked the ledger and then Cuellar left. A few minutes later Cuilty phoned the Banco Comercial Refaccionario and told them to come and collect their money. Straightaway two employees of the latter bank, one of whom was called Vicente Caballero, came and Cuilty handed over two wooden boxes and three sacks of gold coins and two packets of banknotes, which Caballero counted. Barzola then accompanied the two back to the Banco Comercial Refaccionario, because Cuilty did not want then to make the journey with so much money on their ownEl Correo de Chihuahua, 15 August 1911.

The case reopened

When Díaz fell, in a very popular decision, Governor Abraham González reopened the case, either to indict or to embarrass members of the Terrazas-Creel family.

By July 1911 various ex-police officials had been arrested and made confessions concerning the robberyEl Paso Herald, 31 July 1911, namely that they had forced the supposed bank robbers to confess under extreme torture. Enrique Creel was implicated because one of the officials testified that the suspects were taken to his home and forced by him to answer questions which implicated himThe New York Times, 1 August 1911.

As a result judge Jesús María Dozal sought the disbarment of Enrique and Juan Creel and Joaquín Cortazar, hijo from the local Chamber of Deputies so that he could start proceedings against them, and Creel had to appeal to President Madero for protection and a stop to the investigation. On 28 July El Correo reported that Coronel Mauro Cándano has arrived in the city to try to get Abraham González to put a stop to the matterEl Correo de Chihuahua, 28 July 1911.

On 25 July Barzola had made a declaration to the Juez 2º de lo penal concerning the true facts of his movements around the time of the robbery and his interrogations and treatment while in prison, including being strung up by his fingers, by which he was induced to confess, though in this statement he claimed that he had held out longer than he actually did, because he had confessed by 21 MarchPossibly not so serious a charge, since he may well have been confused about the length of his detention. Barzola’s statement continued that after he returned from the Banco Comercial Refaccionario Eduardo Cuilty and the others left, leaving Barzola to lock up. Before he had shut the main door Moisés Navarro showed up and asked if Elias Navarro had arrived. When Barzola said no, Moisés told him to leave the key to the main door, as he was going to write a letter. Barzola handed over the key and left, telling the watchmen Anselmo Ruiz that everything was locked up except the main door, since Moisés was still inside. Barzola then went home.
On the Sunday he arrived at 6.15 and opened the side door with his own key. He swept the street, took the mail to the post office and collected the mail there, and then cleaned the bank’s interior. He had just finished when the employees Perfecto Miramontes, Miguel Rodríguez and Juan Ramírez arrived. About 10.00 a.m. Lauro Alvarez and Juan Creel arrived, the first handing over the key that Barzola had given to Moisés Navarro the night before. At 11.00 Barzola went home after handing over the key to the main door to Miguel Rodríguez.
On Sunday evening he went to the bullfight, encountering Sergeant Hilario Serrano, Asencio López and many others. He left when it was just getting dark and met Perfecto Miramontes, a bank employee, and another gentleman in the street.
On his way home he happened to see Eduardo Cuilty and his wife in front of their house, and Luis Terrazas and Enrique Creel in their buggy. When he arrived home he talked with his wife and family for a while and then about 8.00 p.m., went and bought a plate of tongue for dinner. He dined with his family, then let his son, Andrés, go out to the serenade. When Andres didn’t return, he went to look for him, and, not finding him, returned and the family went to bed at 9.30. Andrés returned about 10.00, in the company of a youth, Francisco Durán, and they both went to bed.
On the Monday he arrived at the bank at 6.15, opened the side door and did his cleaning, and then went upstairs to Enrique Creel’s apartment and collected the key to the main door from Paz Moreno. He opened the front door but left it semi-closed, and was inside when Benjamín Navarro turned up early, so he went for breakfast, returning at about 9.00. On his return he met Gabriel Sáenz who said that Juan Creel wanted him, so they went into the bank, where Perfecto Miramontes told them to close the door and not let anyone in.
Juan A. Creel, Cuéllar and Eduardo Cuilty were standing by the vault, talking, and then Juan Creel called Barzola over and asked him how he found the door when he came to open it. Barzola said “Closed”, and Creel said “See. Those who got in had a key!”
About 10.00 judge Norman arrived, and summoned corporal (cabo) Curia. Curia was ordered to take Barazola to the Comandancia, where he was put in a cell totally incommunicado. At 7.30 two secret policemen, one of whom was Octaviano López (aka “el chino”) took him and Inocente Reyes to the Cárcel Pública. Reyes asked why they were being taken and the police replied for robbing the Banco Minero.
In prison he was locked in a cell, in solitary confinement, for a fortnight. Then he was taken back to the Comandancia and interrogated in the presence of Villavicencio, Piedras, Joaquín Cortazar, hijo, Martín E. Norman and Juan A. Creel. When Barzola said he could prove that he was at home on the Sunday night, they brought in the youth Francisco Durán, who almost crying from fear said that Barzola’s bed had been empty. Then they sent for his son Andrés who, frightened, gave the same answer. Barzola was then left for eight days in a cell in the Comandancia.
On the ninth day Antonio Piedras and Villavicencio took Barzola to Enrique C. Creel’s house, where Creel interrogated him on his own. Creel also offered to give scholarships to Barzola’s sons. Then he was taken back to the Comandancia for another twelve or thirteen days: then, late at night, Piedras, Villavicencio and Juan Creel came. Creel tried to entice him to confess, but then the other two took him back to the Cárcel.
Because of the repeated deprivations, threats and torture (being strung up by his fingers), orchestrated by Piedras, Villavicencio and Cortazar, Barzola finally confessed that the robbers had been Leopoldo Villalpando, Inocente Reyes, Wulfrano Villalpando, Ignacio Macías, Federico Cuilty hijo and himself. His untrue confession was that Federico Cuilty hijo, sitting with Inocente Reyes, the two Villalpando, Macías and himself, has told him that they were going to rob the bank. Barzola said he would bring the key, so at 10.00 the next night they met at the side door and Barzola gave Leopoldo the key and they all entered. Reyes had brought a bag with a screwdriver, a pick and a chisel, and Villalpando opened the vault door with the screwdriver, and Reyes knocked through the wall. Barzola seems to be have been led in his answers by questions from Juan Creel and Cortazar, and was accused of lying when caught out.
Five days later he was taken to Creel’s house where Creel confronted all the accused (except Federico). Barzola maintained his story, through fear, though the others denied it. Creel told him to stick to his story, and later he was questioned by Gandara in the Palacio de Gobierno who, when Barzola gave the same answers, called him a liar and sent him back to jail.
During the next ten days Judge Aguilar took over from Norman. Though in a later interview Barzola told Creel that he had told a pack of lies, he was told to stick with his story. Cortazar and Juan Creel in particular wanted to implicate Federico Cuilty.
When Barzola had a chance encounter with Federico in his cell, the later asked why he had implicated them all, and reminded him of his children and God’s vengeance. At that point Barzola knelt and asked Cuilty’s pardon and Cuilty lifted him up, saying “God help you” (El Correo de Chihuahua, 15 August 1911: 16 August 1911)
. The night watchmen, Anselmo RuizAnselmo Ruiz’ statement was that on 2 March, between 8.00 and 9.00 a.m., he was asleep at home when Comandante de la Secreta Octaviano López arrived with a 'summons' from Enrique Creel, so he went to Creel’s house and then to the Jefatura. At the Jefatura he was told he was being taken under close guard to the Cárcel Pública, where he was held incommunicado. The first time he was taken out to be interrogated, as soon as he arrived at the Juzgado he collapsed and Judge Norman sent him to the prison infirmary because he was so ill, but he was still held incommunicado and with two guards on the door.
Ruiz told the judge than on 1 March he arrived at his post at the ironmongers (next to the bank) at 7.00 p.m. Juan Creel arrived at Enrique Creel’s apartment and sent Ruiz to get some cigarettes. Ruiz went to get them and did not see Juan again. Between 7.00 and 8.00 Moisés Navarro came out of the bank, handed over the key to the bank, and took a coach in the direction of the Hotel Palacio. Three or five minutes later Navarro returned and asked for the key to get something he had forgotten. A little later he handed the key back and left in the coach, in the company of another youth. From then on no-one else entered the bank.
This was the sum total of Ruiz’s declaration and this fact so annoyed judge Norman that he offered Ruiz $5,000 to incriminate Reyes and Cuilty. Ruiz replied that he would not sell his conscience for money and that if the judge knew Reyes and Cuilty were guilty, why was he offering to pay Ruiz to incriminate them, because Ruiz never saw them near the bank.
Ruiz was in prison from 2 March until 14 September, and held weak and incommunicado for some time, until Judge Aguilar arrived who moved him to the yard and then set him free (El Correo de Chihuahua, 2 September 1911)
and two of the women, Librada MendozaLibrada Mendoza's statement was that on 23 March, at 11.00 at night, corporal (cabo) Isaías called at her boyfriend Félix Corona’s house and said that she was wanted for questioning. At the Comandancia she was held incommunicado until the evening of 25 March, when Comandante Piedras took her to judge Norman, who asked her where Federico Cuilty had been on 1 March. She replied that he had been at Felix Corona’s house at around 2.00 p.m., with Macías, Macías’ wife and two sons. Federico had left at 12.30 at night, together with Félix. Norman told her that she was telling pure lies.
On another day she was questioned by Villavicencio and Joaquín Cortazar about when Federico has arrived, who was present and how much money Federico had given her.
On 28 March she was taken by Comandante Piedras into the presence of Villavicencio, Norman, Cortazar and a clerk. When she denied that Cuilty and Macías had returned to Corona’s house at 2.00 on the Monday morning, she was confronted with Macías who told her to agree that he and Cuilty had returned at 2.00 and that she had got up and let them in.
Cortazar made Macías confess that Cuilty had been carrying a package wrapped in a blanket. In reply to Villavicencio Macías said that the Villalpandos, Reyes and Barzola had stayed at a shop called “La Equidad”. On hearing this nonsense Librada verbally abused Macías and judge Norman, and was led away. An hour later Norman came to her cell and told her that he had had enough information to believe that Cuilty could not have done such a thing, and that she could rest assured that he would strive for justice.
However, later, at another session with Villavicencio and Cortazar she was told that Federico, Felix and Florentina had all told the truth and that Federico had confessed to the crime. When she refused to accept this, Cortazar offered to give her $5,000 and send her daughter, Ernestina, to college in the States if she was willing to testify against Federico. Enraged by this lawyer ‘with his effeminate voice’, Libranza spat in his face.
Thereafter she was kept imprisoned in dreadful conditions and with little food (El Correo de Chihuahua, 19 August 1911: 20 August 1911)
and Felícitas C. de Rentería Felícitas C. de Rentería said that at midday on 14 March a secret policeman arrived at her house, at calle Mina 7, and said that Comandante Piedras had ordered her to make a statement. From the Comandancia she was sent to the Cárcel, where, as there was no cell empty, she was kept in a makeshift box, with only one meal a day. On 16 March Norman came to interrogate her and asked where she had put the bags the money was in. “You washed them.” She denied this, and was kept in her box until 19 March, when she was put out onto the street (El Correo de Chihuahua, 9 September 1911) also made statements, confirming an abuse of power, dreadful ill treatment and a desire to implicate the main suspects, particularly Federico Cuity, hijo.

By August the Creels and Cortazar were seeking a counter injunctionEl Correo de Chihuahua, 15 August 1911 and by October 1911 there were five injunctions (amparos) in existence: one seeking the arrest of Villavicencio and his colleagues in Mexico City; another against judge Dozal for refusing to put a stop to the case; a third, seeking to disbar Enrique and Juan Creel and Joaquín Cortazar; a fourth against José Asúnsolo for responsibility for the prisoners’ hunger; and a fifth, against Jesús J. Falomir, assistant manager of the bank, for failing to hand over evidence (comprobantes) requested by judge Dozal. This evidence was the records of payments that the Banco Minero supposedly made to judge Aguilar, Villavicencio, Piedras and others. These would show that, instead of being a disinterested party, Enrique Creel paid Aguilar six thousand pesosEl Correo de Chihuahua, .

On 15 August Madero wrote to governor Abraham González to say that he had had extensive talks with Enrique Creel who had said that the judge was trying to disbar him because he had overstepped his authority in questioning some of the prisoners. If this was the case, Madero said, then it seemed childish and showed a marked impartiality on the part of the judge. Madero felt that it was impossible to believe that Creel had robbed his own bank and requested that Dozal be replaced by a judge from Mexico City who would be strictly impartial. Madero's letter was made public so that González would not receive public anger for not pursuing the case. When Madero interceded, Villa wrote to him, ‘now that you have assumed supreme power in the republic, in view of the fact that one of the main causes for which we fought was the lack of guarantees and the oppression that the Chihuahuan people suffered because of the behaviour and the brutality of the Creel dynasty, of which we were all victims, you will do everything you can in accordance with your responsibilities to see that justice is carried out in the scandal of the robbery of the Banco Minero’AGN, Ramo Revolución, carpeta 2, folder 10, Villa to Madero, 6 November 1911.

Because of the obstructionist tactics of the new judge the investigation died a lingering death.

In November 1911 governor Aureliano González pardoned Navarro, Mateus and MolinarEl Paso Herald, 24 November 1911.

So who did rob the bank?

At the distance of a hundred years it is impossible to determine the true culprits.

It is obvious that most of the Barzola group, though their various occupations might initially have been suggestive, had nothing to do with the robbery. Many had alibis, none of the money was found and even the story of five $1,000 notes alleged to have been given to Zeferina was disproved when the quartered notes were returnedEl Correo de Chihuahua was quick to point this out (El Correo de Chihuahua, 2 May 1908). It is, therefore, surprising that the authorities expended so much time and effort to prove that they did. Federico Cuilty appears to have been drawn in to the net merely because of supposed acquaintance. On the evidence ( the use of Navarro’s typewriter (if it was in fact the one used), the boy’s supposed spending spree and the recovery of some of the money) Navarro and the others appear to have been involved, but it is surprising that, given the fact that the authorities were able to ‘beat’ confessions out of innocent people, they were originally unable to do the same with the real culprits.

Again, though Navarro was apparently literate enough to compose the letter sent to Silvestre Terrazas, some of its details (the initial realisation that the bank was vulnerable, the trial attempt) are puzzling and the fact that the robbers still ran into difficulties (e.g. the formaldehyde) suggests a less than complete knowledge of the bank’s workings.

From the very beginning there was a suspicion that some bank officials, or at least Juan Creel, were involved. For instance, Governor Abraham González told an American friend, "It seems that after Enrique left for Washington, Juan got to playing the stock market and lost 200,000 pesos belonging to the bank. To cover the theft, he had a man come down from El Paso and burn (sic) the hole into the vault. Then he arrested the two bank clerks. Incidentally the man who used the torch on the bank vault was accidentally killed the next day."I. J. Bush, Gringo Doctor, Caldwell, Idaho, 1939 Moreover, the 'true story' of Juan Creel's involvement, told to President Díaz, might explain the initial failure to solve the crime and Enrique Creel's extra-judicial behaviour (though it could equally be explained as a simple abuse of absolute power). However, there is no evidence that Enrique ever fell out with his brother, either in friendship or in business, which seems strange if he ever felt that Juan was responsible (though Enrique easily forgave Juan for his unwise and potentially damaging involvement with Orozco).