By Mark Gutglueck
Robert S. Carlisle, a Southerner by birth and sentiment, was blessed with striking good looks, intelligence, energy and good business sense. He was well respected, wealthy, popular and politically successful. He also possessed a flash temper and he may well have been a murderer.
Carlisle was born in Kentucky around 1830. Little is known of his early life or ancestry. There is no dispute that he was well educated. He had come to California from Kentucky, settling at first not in San Bernardino County or Southern California, but in San Jose. He remained there until he was 26 or 27, at which time he came to Southern California.
His timing was good. In 1856, Colonel Isaac Williams, who had fought on the American side during the 1846-1848 Mexican American War and distingished himself at the Battle of Chino, died. After California was annexed to the United States, Williams had been rewarded with the sum of $80,000 for his contribution to the war effort, a vast amount of money in those days. Williams was the owner of the Rancho Santa Ana Del Chino, a 22,193-acre Mexican land grant on what had been part of the San Gabriel Mission and what today is part of Chino and Chino HIlls. The bulk of his estate was left to his two daughters, Maria Merced and Francesca. Their mother was a daughter of Don Antonio Maria Lugo and sister of Jose Maria Lugo, Jose Del Carmen Lugo and Vicente Lugo, who, among them, owned the large San Bernardino Grant. Maria Merced married Sheep farmer John Rains. On May 13, 1857, Robert Carlisle wed Francesca Williams. He was twenty-seven and she was sixteen.
Following a year or so of residence in Los Angeles, Robert and Francesca returned Santa Ana Rancho Del Chino. Robert managed that holding with considerable efficiency, as he oversaw the work of about one hundred Indians who had comfortable adobe quarters near the main ranch adobe.
By virtue of his popularity and business acumen, Robert Carlisle in 1862 was elected supervisor for the First Supervisorial District in San Bernardino County. He assumed office on November 17, 1862, succeeding Richard Varley, and four days later, on November 17, 1862 he was selected by his colleagues to serve as chairman of the board. He held the position of board chairman for the remainder of the time he was on the board. he served until November 1864.
It was on the very day that he took office, November 17, 1862, that his sister-in-law’s husband, John Rains, disappeared.
John Rains had used the dowery he had received from the estate of Isaac Williams to purchase Rancho Cucamonga, a spread of ground that covers a substantial amount of present day Rancho Cucamonga. Rains built a fired brick home that is still extant on Vineyard Avenue just north of Foothill Boulevard. Rains built the Rancho into a successful business, entailing vineyards and a winery, as well as a stage station. Rains’ abode became “the social center of the community,” and he enjoyed political prominence of his own, as in 1860 when he traveled to Charleston, South Carolina to serve as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention.
His succeess with the Rancho allowed him to make investments elsewhere, including securing part ownership of the Bella Union Hotel in Los Angeles.
By 1862, just as Robert Carlisle’s already bright prospects were brightening, those of John Rains were taking a turn for the worse. Rains had overextended himself with some of his business ventures and to hold everything together, he borrowed against his rancho. On that fateful day, November 17, 1862, John Rains departed for Los Angeles – a city which then boasted a population of some 4,500 – and overnight at the Bella Union Hotel that evening before finalizing some further financing arrangements, including the signing of some loan and collateral documents the next day. He departed for the metropolis in a wagon pulled by a team of his best horses. Rains never arrived at his destination.
On November 19, 1862 the team of horses found its way back to the rancho. They were no longer hitched up to the wagon. Curiously, this did not trigger any immediate action. On November 21, the same day that Robert Carlisle attended his first board of supervisors meeting in San Bernardino as a member of that august panel and was named chairman of the board, a group of travelers arrived at the rancho, intending to see Rains. When they were told that he was missing and of the return of his unhitched wagon team, a search was initiated.
The two day delay in starting the search was a remarkable one and has been problematic for historians. Rains commonly sojourned to Los Angeles, where he had a substantial investment and business to attend to.
On November 28, 1864 his body was found near Azusa, amid cacti some 400 feet off the road. There were obvious signs that violence had attended his last minutes of earthly existence. According to the Los Angeles Star, it appeared as if he had been lassoed and yanked from his wagon perch. His right arm was mangled from the elbow down and its upper portion had been pulled out of its shoulder socket. He was shot twice in the back, once in the side and on the left side of his chest.
It was a violent era in a violence-prone place. At that point, there had been 50 murders in and around Los Angeles over a period of about a year. Rains was known to have been assertive and to have something of a temper but did not seem to have any lasting enemies. He seemed to have been a victim of a random act of violence or larceny, perhaps by a highwayman on a remote span of the road to Los Angeles.
As Maria Merced’s brother-in-law as well as a leading local official, Robert Carlisle led the effort to find Rains’ killer and bring him to justice. Early on, he settled upon one of Rains’ ranch hands, Ramon Carrillo. But Carrillo had an ironclad alibi, having been in Los Angeles and seen by multiple witnesses at the time Rains was thought to have met his grim end. Carlisle twice brought Carrillo before a court, but both times those charges were dismissed. Carlisle made accusations against a few others, using what even for that time were heavy-handed tactics to obtain two confessions, both of which fell apart under further examination by others. Ultimately, every case Carlisle sought to put together against those he said he suspected of having committed the murder failed to pan out. The only conviction growing out of Rains’ death and its investigation was that obtained against Manuel Cerradel, one of Carrillo’s compadres. When deputies who came to arrest him as a suspect in Rains’ death at Carlisle’s urging, Cerradel flew into a rage and attacked the deputies. He was exonerated of anything related to Rains’ death, but drew a ten year sentence in San Quentin for his violence against the deputies. Before he could pay his debt to society, Cerradel was set upon by a band of vigilantes who aspparently were convinced he did have something to do with Rains’ demise. After Cerradel had been escorted to a ship in San Pedro Harbor that was to take him to San Quentin, a vigilante group boarded the steamer, overpowered the small party of attendant guards and hung Cerradel from the ship’s mast. Cerredel was then bound up, weighted down with bricks that were tied to his legs and unceremoniously thrown into the harbor.
Cerredel’s death may have sated some of the bloodlust that had been enkindled in the citizenry of Southern California by Rains’ murder, but less primitive minds knew that his murderer remained on the loose.
Indeed, not a few locals held abiding suspicions that Rains’ murderer was none other than Robert Carlisle. In utilizing the classic criteria detectives utilize in ferreting out the perpetrators of crime – motive, means and opportunity – Carlisle comes across as a prime suspect.
On November 17, 1862, the day Rains disappeared, Carlisle was scheduled to be on hand in San Bernardino for his swearing in as one of San Bernardino County’s newly elected supervisors. He departed from Rancho Santa Ana Del Chino, ostensibly to keep his appointment at that honorific but never showed up. He was never able to adequately explain his whereabouts on that day.
During the weeklong search for the missing Rains toward the end of November 1862, Carlisle, who was in charge of the effort, instead of staying in the wild along the road to Los Angeles to maintain a thorough scouring of the places Rains might have been, Carlisle returned to his home where one evening he held a festive party.
Then there was the matter of his comportment toward his sister-in-law after her husband’s death. Carlisle hectored, bamboozled and bullied Maria Merced into granting him power of attorney over the Rains estate.
Added to the obvious misdirection toward ultimately false suspects during the murder investigation that followed the discovery of Rains’ body, Carlisle’s behavior is at best extremely curious.
In time, the theory that Rains had been killed because of his secessionist sympathies and affiliations took hold. Carlisle, in looking after his sister-in-laws affairs, became deeply involved in the settlement of John Rains’ estate. This led to a bitter dispute with the King Brothers of El Monte and Los Angeles, with whom Rains had business dealings, including shared ownership of the Bella Union Hotel.
On November 21, 1864, Carlisle was replaced on the board of supervisors by Henry Suverkrup. By that point, Carlisle’s land holdings had grown from the 22,193 acres of Rancho Santa Ana Del Chino to some 46,000 acres, which included much of the land he had managed to swindle from Maria Merced Rains.
More than seven months after he had left the board of supervisors, on July 5, 1865, Carlisle had come to Los Angeles to attend the wedding of merchant Solomon Lazard and his bride, Caroline Newmark, the daughter of Joseph Newmark, who established the Los Angeles Hebrew Benevolent Society and the city’s first Jewish cemetery. The wedding party was held at the Bella Union Hotel. In attendance at the party was Los Angeles County Undersheriff Andrew King, one of the King Brothers. Though Andrew King was at that time a Los Angeles County official, he previously had been San Bernardino County’s constable. In addition to the bad blood between Carlisle and the King Brothers over Rains’ business holdings with them and their interference in his management of his sister-in-law’s estate, Carlisle had accused Andrew King of indolence in the investigation of Rains’ murder. That night in the crowded saloon on the ground floor of the hotel, there was a heated exchange between the two men, and Carlisle, who perhaps was drunk, slashed the lawman across his right hand and opened up a gash on his chest with a Bowie knife. Friends separated the two men, but Carlisle threatened, according to later testimony, to kill “any and all” of the King Brothers.
Carlisle did not have the good sense to leave Los Angeles after this contretemps and instead spent the night at the Bella Union. The next day, two of the King Brothers, Houston and Frank, came into the hotel to confront Carlisle. A gunfight ensued. Carlisle was fatally wounded, but not before he had himself shot and killed Frank King. Carlisle’s funeral was held in the Bella Union. Houston King was charged with the murder of Carlisle. At Houston King’s murder trial in 1866, he was acquitted.
By Mark Gutglueck