History in Focus: Murder at the haystacks
On Jan. 6, 1931, all of Moffat County was shocked by the double homicide of longtime resident and prominent cattle rancher Joseph Jones and his employee, Earl Hopkins, at the hands of EJ Farmer, only two miles north of Axial Basin. By March 1932, a scant 15 months after the murders, Farmer would be one of the last men in Colorado to swing from the gallows at the hands of the state.
Farmer’s trial riveted and gripped the attention of Northwest Colorado. In the early 21st century his trial is captivating for the quick efficiency with which a modern, 20th-century judicial system willingly determined the guilt and life of an individual. Eighty-five years ago, justice moved quickly, even in cases involving capital punishment.
On a crisp cold day on Jan. 6, 1931, EJ Farmer and his son-in-law, Ortiz Renfro, confronted Jones and Hopkins at a contested haystack on the Mountain Meadow Ranch. According to the testimony of Renfro in the Jan. 14 Craig Empire Courier, he and Farmer set out from the ranch house on horses and cut across an open field, beating Jones to the stack. A terse conversation ensued about Jones’ right to the hay. Finally, Jones and Hopkins moved their sled past Farmer to start loading hay. Suddenly, Farmer raised his rifle and shot Jones in the back from roughly 20 feet. Running to the aid of his boss, Hopkins was cut down when two more shots creased the cold winter air.
As they fled the scene in the confusing aftermath of the murders, Farmer told Renfro: “You saw Jones on the stack. You saw him throw a (pitch) fork, and it’s self defense.” Realizing his mistake and fearing mob violence, Farmer surrendered later in the afternoon to Axial Basin teacher GC Ashbrook. In later courtroom testimony reported in the May 27 CEC, Farmer paced the floor in Ashbrook’s residence holding his head while moaning, “My poor wife. No hopes for me now … No use to try and get away. I want to give up to (Sheriff) Tom Blevins.”
Fifty-eight year-old Farmer was brought to Craig, arraigned a few days later and entered a plea of “not guilty.” On April 8, Farmer changed his plea to “not guilty by reason of insanity.” The District Court sent him to Denver for examination. By April 29, news articles announced psychologists at the Colorado Psychopathic Hospital had determined Farmer was sane and had been “feigning insanity for his own purposes.”
On May 20, the CEC detailed the upcoming sensational trial: 14 witnesses to be called, 50 men called to jury duty and Farmer faced the death penalty from 12 of his peers. Moffat County was keenly tuned in and primed for this high-profile “trial of the century.”
Yet, only a week later in the very next edition of the Craig Empire Courier, headlines reported Farmer had been found guilty. In only two days, a jury had been seated, testimony heard, evidence submitted and arguments made. After only a couple of hours of deliberation, the jury found Farmer guilty and handed him the death penalty.
Returning to his cell in the courthouse, the weight of the judgment and his predicament came crashing down on Farmer. Losing control, he shouted out, “They’ve been trying to get me, and thank God, it’s all over. Now, when can I get it? I’d like to have it tonight, if I can.”
When Blevins informed Farmer the minimum wait time for the death penalty was 90 days, Farmer cried out, “But my God, I’ll suffer 10,000 deaths in that time!”
In five short months EJ Farmer went from an unknown rural rancher to a convicted murderer on death row. He would make a few last-minute attempts to save his life, but without emotion, pity or sorrow, Death was moving in to claim EJ Farmer on the gallows in Cañon City.
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