Lawmen Battle Over Sontag/Evans Reward
Taken from the 1997 October issue of Wild West magazine

After the Stone Corral shoot-out on June 11, 1893, a new battle was to commence - between the lawmen over the reward.

If the peace officer was instrumental in the capture of a villain, he often was given the reward. When Sontag and Evans were captured at Stone Corral, the lawmen of Tulare County, Fresno County and the U.S. marshal's posse all wanted in on the reward and would not easily give it up.

John Sontag was severely wounded at Stone Corral and was loaded into a wagon and taken to the Visalia jail, where he received medical attention. Chris Evans was also wounded and was seen by Elijah Perkins at his water trough. While his family cared for Evans, Elijah drove to Visalia to report Evans' location to the authorities. Perkins gave this information to Tulare County Undersheriff William Hall, but not before telling several others in town.

Fresno County Sheriff Jay Scott was in Visalia at the time and heard Perkins' story. Scott and Deputy Sheriffs Hiram Rapelje and R.F. Peck started for the Perkins place. Scott planned to arrest Evans before anyone else got there. Undersheriff Hall heard of Scott's plan and quickly left Visalia. Traveling with Hall was Deputy Witty and newspaperman Carroll. Tulare County Deputies Ed Fudge and John Broder followed closely behind.

Perkins told Hall on a shortcut which allowed the undersheriff to arrive 20 minutes before the Fresno officers. By the time Sheriff Scott drove into the Perkins yard to nab Evans, the outlaw had already been arrested by Hall. Scott could see the reward for Evans' arrest slipping through their fingers. Rapelje demanded that Hall turn the prisoner over to him. Hall informed the Fresno officers that Evans had been arrested in Tulare County by Tulare County officers for crimes committed in Tulare County. Hall and his posse then drove their prisoner to jail in Visalia while the angry Fresno contingent closely followed.

Later that morning, Hall and Witty were enjoying a relaxing drink in Visalia's Fox and Barr Saloon when Rapelje and John Thacker entered the room. An argument broke out over who should be paid the reward for the arrest of Evans.

Tensions between the two groups of officers remained high. On June 23, 1893, newspaperman Carroll was in Fresno to report on the removal of Evans and Sontag to the Fresno jail for the prosecution for the murder of Vic Wilson. Carroll was in a saloon having a drink with two friends and discussing the arrests of Evans and the Sontag brothers when Fresno County Deputy Sheriffs Rapelje, Peck and Lindsay Timmons entered. Carroll mentioned that George Witty had arrested Sontag. Carroll didn't say which Sontag, and perhaps meant George Sontag rather than John Sontag. Rapelje overheard the remark and, thinking Carroll meant John Sontag, shook his fist in the newspaperman's face and shouted: "You are a liar! If you say that again, I'll smash you!" Carroll responded that he had "already said it." Rapelje then struck the newspaperman, but causing him little harm. Carroll elected not to fight or draw the pistol he was wearing.

Sontag soon died of his wounds. Evans, who had lost his arm, made a slow recovery. He was convicted of murder and sentenced to a life term in Folsom Prison. Wells Fargo and Southern Pacific paid the $5,000 reward to US Marshal Gard for John Sontag's arrest and Gard divided it among his possemen.

The issue of who should be paid the reward for Evans' arrest became even more heated. The San Francisco Morning Call reported that an unnamed deputy had told the paper: "There may be another funeral or two before all the story was over." The newspaper reported that the "Scott-Rapelje party is mad clear through" and predicted there would be confrontations between opposing officers. Wells Fargo said it would pay the reward to those who earned it; Southern Pacific said nothing. The tense situation continued to simmer.

Because so many claimants filed for the reward, Well Fargo and Southern Pacific didn't know who to pay. On September 4, 1893 the two companies filed a bill of equity in the federal court in Los Angeles to determine the ownership of the Evans reward money. Claiming the money were George Gard, Hiram Rapelje, Frederick Jackson, Thomas Burns, George Witty, W.F. Hall, Elijah Perkins, William English and fictitious name of John Doe, Richard Roe, Henry Black, John Prime, Henry Second, Charles Fourth and Francis Fifth.

Gard, Rapelje, Jackson and Burns asserted that the capture was solely due to their efforts because they had wounded the dangerous fugitive so that he couldn't escape and that they were entitled to the full reward. In opposition, Hall Witty and Perkins stated that they alone had captured Evans and therefore they deserved the full reward.

The case was continued to January 1894 and then again to April 1894. By then, the parties came to an agreement and the suit was dismissed. The companies paid Marshal Gard $3,000, and in the end, Gard and Deputy each received $1,000, and Rapelje and Burns each got $500. Hall, Witty and Perkins received $2,000 to divide. The remaining names were determined to be fictitious and were rewarded nothing.

One might think that this was the end of the dispute. Think again.
On September 19, 1894, Witty filed a civil suit in the Tulare County Superior Court against Wells Fargo and Southern Pacific. He alleged that on June 12, 1893, he alone arrested John Sontag after the gunfight at Stone Corral and that he was entitled to the full amount of the reward, $5,000. The companies claimed the case should be heard in the federal court in Los Angeles because the reward issue had been heard there before. On October 8,1894 the Tulare court transferred the case to L.A.

On October 6 and 7, 1895 the case was heard in the Los Angeles court. Witty's witnesses were William Hall, William English and Robert Broder, who had been the jailer at the Visalia jail at the time of John Sontag's arrest. Witnesses for the defense were John Thacker, George Card, Hiram Rapelje and Thomas Burns.

After court, while waiting for the train to leave Los Angeles, some of the witnesses, including Witty and Burns partook freely of alcoholic beverages in a local saloon. Witty overheard Burns say that Witty had perjured himself while on the witness stand. Witty took exception to the remark and hot words were exchanged. Later, while boarding the train, the argument broke out again.

As the train pulled out of Los Angeles, Witty made a few derogatory remarks about Burns and the other witnesses. Burns and Witty began arguing once again. Burns followed Witty to the platform of the end car. This time there was more than talk. Burns drew his revolver and fired a shot at Witty, but the bullet missed the mark. Witty then went after Burns, desperately wrestling him for the pistol. Burns managed to get off another shot. The bullet struck Witty in the hand, but he continued to struggle with Burns for possession of the gun. Both men tumbled from the moving train.

When the train arrived at the San Fernando depot, the other men who had testified discovered that Burns and Witty were not aboard. They caught the Santa Barbara-Los Angeles train back to Los Angeles in search for them. As the train passed Glendale, they saw Witty lying on the ground beside the tracks. They got the train to stop. Witty was bruised, battered, wounded and semiconscious and was taken to Los Angeles where he was hospitalized.

Burns, dazed from his fall from the moving train, had recovered enough to stagger into Glendale, where he received medical care. He thought he had killed Witty in the fight, and he was transported by railroad handcar to Los Angeles to give himself up to law enforcement officers. No charges were filed and he was released.

On December 11, 1896, the federal judge submitted his findings in Witty's suit. He found that John Sontag was arrested by US Marshall Gard and his posse in accordance the reward terms and that Witty had no claim to the reward. In addition, the court found the defendant companies were entitled to $82 from Witty for their cost in defending against Witty's suit.