Rafael Borrego.jpg

Rafael Borrego, shown before and after his arrival at San Quentin Prison, 1908. I am still hoping to find a photo of Constable Juan Orosco. (Courtesy the California State Archives)

Juan Orosco - A Forgotten Lawman

On the lists of “fallen officers,” Deputy Sheriff Robert Squires is usually listed as the first law enforcement officer to die in the line of duty in Orange County. But while he was the first Sheriff’s Department officer to be killed here, he was not the first lawman to die in Orange County.

In 1907, Juan Orosco, the Deputy Constable of Los Alamitos, was gunned down while trying to break up a disturbance at a dance. The fact that he has been largely forgotten is mostly because there is no successor agency to the old township constables. But he deserves a place on any list or monument honoring those lawmen who gave their lives to protect our communities.

Los Alamitos in 1907 was centered on the Los Alamitos sugar factory, where beets were processed into sugar. It had a reputation as a rough town. Orange County historian Jim Sleeper once noted: “[I]f a competition should ever develop to name the ‘toughest town’ in Orange County during its formative days, that honor should fall rather easily to Los Alamitos. Delhi, Placentia and Capistrano to the contrary, Los Al produced as fine a record for murder and mayhem as any community of its size in the county.”

Not surprisingly, that made it difficult to find anyone who wanted to be “the law” in Los Alamitos in the early 1900s. At that time, there were only a handful of deputy sheriffs in the county, so law enforcement in the unincorporated communities fell mostly to the constables. These were elected officers (along with the justices of the peace) serving the various townships throughout the county. In 1905, when the office became vacant, John D. Shutt was appointed Constable of the Los Alamitos Township, but he soon turned much of the responsibility over to his hired deputy, Juan Orosco.

Juan Orosco was a pretty tough bird. He was born in about 1873 in the San Gabriel Valley, and came to Los Alamitos around 1905. “Orosco was one of the best officers in the county,” the Santa Ana Blade reported after his death, “brave as a lion and particularly well fitted to handle the class of people found among the laborers at the sugar town, and many fierce scraps has he had … during the time he has been in office.”

For example, in September 1906, Rosario Quinones (whom the Blade considered “an all-round bad man”) got into a drunken fight at a Los Alamitos dance. When Orosco tried to arrest him, two of his buddies joined him and Quinones took a shot at Orosco. Orosco shot him in the chest with a shotgun. After recovering from his wounds, Quinones got 30 days for disturbing the peace. Then in the summer of 1907, Joe Acariz and Paco Robets jumped Orosco on the street and while one of them waved a razor in his face, the other threatened to blow off his head. Orosco looked the men in the eye and dared them to do either. Orosco then got away, came back with a revolver, and hauled them off to Santa Ana jail where they both got 90 days for disturbing the peace. But none of that justifies what happened next.

It was Saturday, August 24, 1907; the beet harvest was on, the sugar factory was running full blast, and Los Alamitos was jumping. Juan Orosco was hosting a dance that night. Among the crowd was a Mexican named Rafael Borrego.

Around midnight there was some trouble – Borrego said he overheard someone say something about his sister, and he got mad and tried to take her home. Orosco came over and told him he was under arrest, that he had to leave, and that Orosco would deal with him in the morning. Borrego went outside, pulled a pistol, and shot it. Juan Orosco went to see what was going on, and as soon as he opened the door – standing there silhouetted in the light – Borrego shot him through the heart, killing him instantly.

Ben Dominguez, one of Orosco’s friends who worked for him sometimes, got a hold of Borrego who tried to shot him, too. But Dominguez got his fingers in the way of the hammer, and the gun didn’t fire. The two wrestled around, Dominguez got the gun away from Borrego and used it to club him into submission.

When word of Orosco’s death was received, the newspapers couldn’t say enough good about Juan Orosco:

“[H]is 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,” the Long Beach Daily Telegram said, “…in the last two years he has often been called upon to use lead freely, and when the call came Orosco never knew fear.... Orosco loved the life of the border officer. He made holding down Los Alamitos his occupation, and he followed no other.”

Paco Robets and Joe Acriz were still in jail, and the Blade reported that when they heard the news, they “smiled and exchanged satisfied glances.” Rosario Quinones, they added, had sworn to kill Orosco after he got out of jail, “but the job has seemingly been taken out of his hands but the happening of last night.”

Orange County Sheriff Theo Lacy was convinced the whole thing was a set-up – a plot by the ‘criminal element’ in Los Alamitos to get rid of Juan Orosco. “It would not take much to start that town going,” Lacy told reporters. “Orosco was the protection of the better Mexicans, and now that he is gone they do not know what they will do. There is no man alive who can do the work he did. There are men who understand the Mexicans as well and who are just as brave, but I know of no man who can fill the place and use the judgment exercised by Juan Orosco.”

In fact, the killing may have been more personal, as the papers later reported a romantic tangle between Borrego’s sister and Dominguez’s brother.

Rafael Borrego was charged with murder, put trial, but only convicted of manslaughter. He claimed self-defense. He said he knew Juan Orosco’s reputation and feared for his life. He admitted he had been drinking with some friends at a “blind pig” just over the county line, and claimed it was one of them who had slipped the gun into his pocket, since his pockets were full of liquor bottles as they left.

Some of Borrego’s friends and supporters raised the money to hire him an attorney – A.R. Holston of Los Angeles – and there were several prominent Orange County men on the jury. He got ten years.

“Mr. Borrego,” the judge told him, “you have taken a life you cannot restore.”

When word of his conviction reached Los Alamitos, Borrego’s friends actually celebrated – because the murder charge didn’t stick, and he wouldn’t face the death penalty.

“The suspense was over,” the Blade reported, “and the wild shooting into the air last night from dark until daylight this morning and the whooping of drunken Mexicans made many a peaceable inclined resident of Los Alamitos wish that Juan Orosco were in life again.”

John Shutt resigned as Constable. “Life is short enough as it is,” he told the papers.

But in his final instructions to the jury, Judge Z.B. West (Orange County’s only Superior Court judge in those days) had reminded the jury that Borrego’s testimony was of course self-serving, and they should weigh it accordingly. Borrego’s attorney appealed his conviction, and the State Supreme Court found this a reversible error – it was up to the jury to weigh the value of all testimony.

So in the spring of 1908, Rafael Borrego got a new trial. Once again, he and his attorney “emphasized the reputation of Orosco as a gunfighter, and declared that Borrego shot in self-defense.” This time, he managed to get himself a hung jury – six and six.

So he got a third trial – only charged with manslaughter this time. He was convicted in July 1908 and sentenced to seven years at San Quentin. Judge West told him he was lucky he was not convicted of murder.

With time off for good behavior (and a former employer who promised to re-hire him and keep an eye on him) Rafael Borrego got out of prison in 1913. Orosco’s two daughters were awarded a pension from the County of Orange until they moved to Long Beach.

(Juan Orosco is now listed on the Office Down Memorial Page.)