Robert Squires was long known as the first Orange County law man to be killed in the line of duty. A former member of the Royal Canadian Mounted police, he served as an undersheriff in Orange County when he was gunned down in 1912, and the shootout where he lost his life has made it into county lore and history books.
It’s known as the Tomato Springs shootout, though historians aren’t sure it actually happened in Tomato Springs now. Most people today aren’t even sure where Tomato Springs would have been.
I was writing an article commemorating the 100-year anniversary of the shootout when I called a local historian. He gave me quick warning from the start – be careful calling him the first law enforcement officer killed in Orange County.
We talked about a lawman who may have been killed before Squires, and I made a note of our conversation. He was still gathering facts.
We touched base again in April to talk about his find – a man by the name of Juan Orosco, a deputy constable charged with keeping the law in what was the township of Los Alamitos was killed five years before Squires.
Phil Brigandi, who started his career as a historian looking into the history of his hometown Orange, searched through microfiche and old news articles to gather remnants of the story. I searched for court documents on the 106-year-old murder case to verify what we could.
Originally from Whittier, Orosco was made deputy constable for Los Alamitos, and he had a reputation of being tough. He was known not to back away from a fight and unafraid to shoot his gun, or swing the butt of it with full force into the back of his target’s head to make his case.
It was a fun story to work on – not just because of the discovery of such an interesting find, but for the chance of working on a topic of such historical note.
Still, little is known of the deputy constable. Brigandi believes Orosco moved to Los Alamitos after being charged as deputy constable.
Census information lists him as an American citizen, but he wasn’t naturalized. According to records, he would have been born about 25 years after the U.S. annexed much of the Southwest – including California – in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Brigandi believes he may be first, or even second generation American of Mexican origin.
It’s known he was highly regarded by his colleagues in law enforcement, including O.C. Sheriff Theo Lacy who was convinced, and told the papers at the time, that Orosco could not have been killed unless he had been ambushed by those who opposed his authority.
I believe he was bilingual, based solely on the fact that one of the men who testified in the trial needed a Spanish interpreter in court, and he had been asked by Orosco on the day of the shooting – and in other times – to help him keep order in the town. That would have been pretty tough unless Orosco could communicate with him in Spanish.
The man responsible for his death, Rafael Borrego, was convicted of the killing but escaped a murder charge. After three trials, one hung jury and an appeal, he was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to seven years. His attorney argued the killing was in self-defense, and it seems the argument carried some weight considering he was convicted of the lesser charge.
Historian scours records to rekindle chapter that area had long forgotten and consider whether Juan Orosco will go on the new peace officer’s memorial.
Published May 28, 2013
By SALVADOR HERNANDEZ
The Orange County Register
Rafael Borrego shot and killed tough-as-nails lawman Juan Orosco outside the dance hall.
Then for more than a century, Orosco was forgotten.
“This was a case that had slipped through the cracks,” said Phil Brigandi, an Orange County historian.
Brigandi has scoured old news accounts, voter records, census questionnaires and other documents over the past two years to find out more about the deputy constable who was killed after a Sunday night dance. The fateful shooting of a stern, clench-fisted man with a reputation of upholding the law “by sheer force of nerve and proven accuracy with a gun,” was a forgotten chapter in county history.
Brigandi has since reached out to officials asking them to include Juan Orosco’s name in state and county memorials for fallen peace officers. His name is not included in the Orange County Peace Officer’s Memorial being unveiled at the Sheriff’s Training Center in Tustin Wednesday, but, according to Brigandi, he could be the first law-enforcement officer in Orange County to be killed in the line of duty.
Court records reviewed by the Orange County Register also confirm some of the details discovered by Brigandi, but officials said they must scrutinize the story behind Orosco’s death to be included on the memorial. Was Orosco killed while performing his law-enforcement duties or was a local worker defending himself from a deputy constable known for the use of force?
For most in Orange County today, it’s an old story they’ve never heard before.
A sugar beet town
There was no city of Los Alamitos back in 1907, only a township of hurriedly built homes for mostly Mexican workers in the sugar beet factory. “Los Alamitos was a pretty rough town, especially during the sugar beet time,” Brigandi said.
“His death ended the career of a man who held a town of Mexicans down by sheer force of nerve and proven accuracy with a gun,” read The Daily Telegram on Aug. 27, 1907.
Townships like Los Alamitos sprung up because factories and farms needed labor, Brigandi said. It was the beginning of barrios and colonias in Orange County, neighborhoods of Mexican workers that were separated from the rest of the county and until the 1940s had segregated schools.
The Long Beach paper chronicled Orosco’s death the day after he was killed: “The two men killed at the old mission near Whittier, one Mexican desperado brought to earth in a fight in which the officer faced the guns of two men sworn to kill him, two armed and fighting Mexicans subdued by the butt of his pistol, and a Mexican population terrorized by his nerve are parts of the record of the dead Orosco. He made holding down Los Alamitos his occupation and he followed no other.”
Census data show Orosco was originally a laborer from Whittier and had a wife and two children. The 1906 voter-registration roles describe him as being 5 feet, 9 inches tall.
“There’s no doubt that Orosco was tough,” Brigandi said. “He seemed to be rather proud of it.”
On Sunday nights, music would fill the town when the 34-year-old deputy constable watched over dances at a hall near Main Street and the railroad tracks.
Court records show Orosco was at a dance on Aug. 25, 1907, and one of the guests was 25-year-old Rafael Borrego.
Broke up fight
Borrego argued with another man, and Orosco broke it up.
Ben Dominguez, a 28-year-old who had been helping Orosco keep order that night, testified in court Borrego was about nine feet away from Orosco when he fired.
“Borrego stood there and waited until Orosco came out, and just as he stepped from the last step, he shot at him,” Dominguez said. “Just as I took his gun away, I hit him over the head.”
Borrego claimed self-defense. Borrego was convicted of manslaughter, escaping a murder charge. He appealed the conviction and won a new trial. The jury split in a second trial, and a third found him guilty of manslaughter. He got seven years.
News accounts show that not everyone in the town was saddened by Orosco’s death.
“Los Alamitos was a really tough town, and Orosco, in trying to uphold the law there, had made himself unpopular with some people,” Brigandi said.
Some residents took up a collection to defend Borrego. One Los Angeles Times article reported many in the town “were glad Borrego’s neck was saved.”
The Sheriff’s Advisory Council, as well as the Orange County Chiefs’ of Police and Sheriff’s Association organized the construction of a new memorial to fallen law enforcement officers that is to be unveiled May 29 and have been trying to research Orosco’s history.
To be included in the memorial, the name must be approved by the California Peace Officer’s Memorial Foundation, said Marilyn MacDougall, executive director of the Sheriff’s Advisory Council. But questions remain, MacDougall said, such as whether Orosco was performing official duties or whether the shooting was personal.
“It’s the farthest I’ve had to research,” MacDougall said. “We want to be fair.”
Brigandi is hoping Orosco’s name will be included someday: “Even if you take the worst of this stuff against him, you still don’t get to shoot him dead in the doorway. That’s not how it works in 1907 any more than today.”
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