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Tahoe Nugget #93:

Murder at Convict Lake
October 28, 2006

Tahoe Nuggets are back! My new Donner Party weather book is currently in production and will be released in early November. More details will be forthcoming.

Convict Lake is a picturesque spot located near Yosemite National Park and the Mammoth Lakes region in eastern California, only a few miles off Highway 395, one of my favorite drives. Highway 395 runs along the spectacular eastern Sierra Front, where glacially-carved mountain cirques and peaks dominate the landscape. First called Monte Diablo Lake, Convict Lake earned its current moniker after a dramatic prison escape by 29 convicts being held at the Nevada State Penitentiary at Carson City.

On September 17, 1871, twenty-nine hardened criminals over-powered their guards and escaped into the rugged country of western Nevada and eastern California. It was a quiet Sunday and the only guard inside the prison cell area was Volney Rollins. After the inmates had finished their dinner, Rollins entered the room to accompany the convicts to their evening lock up when the prisoners attacked him with improvised weapons. Rollins was locked in a cell and the inmates escaped by cutting a large hole in the ceiling. They stole guns and ammunition from the prison storeroom, and then over-whelmed the other personnel on duty at the time, including the two wardens and other guards who joined in the fray.

After an intense gunfight, where nearly a dozen convicts were wounded and several prison staff shot, the prisoners fled into the desert taking their injured. To avoid capture, the escapees split up into separate groups and took off in different directions. Six of the men eventually headed into Mono and Inyo counties, more than 200 miles to the south in eastern California. Led by Charlie Jones, a convicted murderer who was familiar with the rugged topography there, they figured it was the perfect location to hide from the lawmen that would be sure to follow them. As they headed south, the prisoners ambushed an 18-year-old Pony Express rider named Billy Poor, and Jones shot and killed him. That cold-blooded murder incensed the citizens of Mono County and a posse was sent in hot pursuit. When the posse caught up with the escaped prisoners at Convict Lake, a firefight ensued and two men in the posse died. A new posse was formed and eventually all but one, Charlie Jones, of the escapees on the loose in Mono and Inyo counties were captured.

On October 1, several of the criminals that were back in custody were loaded into a wagon in Bishop, California, for the trip to Carson City and a trial. The prisoners were accompanied by several guards on horseback, but they did nothing when a large group of armed vigilantes surrounded the wagon. The three convicts were taken to a vacant cabin and after a two-hour interrogation, the vigilantes voted to hang two of them. A scaffold was quickly built and the pair lynched.

By the middle of November, 18 of the 29 escaped convicts had been captured; two had been hung and nine were still at large. Despite rumors that he had been shot by other inmates for killing Billy Poor, a senseless crime that galvanized the local community against them, Charlie Jones was never caught and never seen in the region again.

Convict Lake is known for its fine fishing and scenic beauty and skiers enjoy the backcountry there in winter . There is a resort with cabins for rent and the acclaimed Restaurant at Convict Lake, which serves exceptional French Country cuisine, is considered one of the finest eating establishments in the Eastern Sierra.

*In February 1990, Forest Service employee, Clayton Cutter, drowned in Convict lake while helping to rescue seven skaters who had broken through the ice. I'll try and share that heroic story in a future Nugget.

Photo #1: Sierra Nevada crest east of Bridgeport, California, on Highway 395

Photo #2: Convict Lake in October 2005

Photo #3: Convict Lake in January 2005

Photo #4: October — Perfect time of year for a Nevada road trip

Nugget 93 A Bridgeport Sierra peaks Nugget #93 A000-01 copy

Nugget 93 B Convict Lake View002-01

Nugget 93 C Convict Lake winter003-01

Nugget 93 D Nevada Highway Blacktop004-01

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