Chasing Zorro29 September 2016 Written by By Todd James Myers
Published in October 2016 Articles
In a few months, I plan to begin filming the true story behind the notorious Mexican bandito, Joaquin Murrieta.
We’re going to reveal some important truths about this person, correct some lies, and add light to some legends including the whereabouts of his legendary hoard of treasure.
I was a child when the Indiana Jones movies instilled in me a love for treasure hunt adventure themes, which sparked my interest in the fabulous treasure that Joaquin Murrieta supposedly left behind.
I’ve spent a lot of time and expended a lot of resources in researching Murrieta’s real story. My search led me through dusty historical documents, court records, and archives. I’ve spoken with subject matter experts, and even interviewed one of his descendants. My goal was to uncover the real facts of Joaquin Murrieta’s life that lay buried for so long beneath layers of baseless rumors, legends, and misinformation that was invented and disseminated by his enemies. My girlfriend, Lindsey, was by my side throughout all my research and a tireless helper at every point. A couple couldn’t have more fun together than Lindsey and I had during those three years of chasing after Joaquin’s story.
Joaquin Murrieta turned out to be a heroic figure who became the hapless victim of rampant racism, arrogant nationalism, and the unbounded greed of a lawless hoard of 49er Goldrush prospectors.
Many of them were conscripts who had been released from prison to fight against the Mexican army in the recently concluded Spanish American War. They were unrepentant murderers, rapists, and thugs who joined the uncounted thousands of people flocking west with the intention of building their fortunes by displacing the peaceful people who had inhabited the land long before the cries of “There’s gold in them there hills” changed everything.
The courthouse in San Andreas has a gallery of pictures showing Mexicans and Caucasians from the era that provides an unintended social commentary. The Mexicans appear to be lovely people — beautiful, courtly, and well mannered. The pictures of the Caucasians, on the other hand, display grizzled countenances, scowling gazes, and missing teeth. Many of them have the appearance of thugs and criminals.
My research uncovered a number of fascinating links between Joaquin’s story and our East County location. When he was forced into the life of a bandit, Joaquin spent time with his band at the Vasco Caves. Much of his story revolves around his wife’s property in Niles Canyon.
The same week we located the wife’s property, I met Norbert L. Murrieta, who was Joaquin’s 80-year-old great nephew. I found him on Facebook, messaged him, brought him to Brentwood, and showed him my research. He invited me to join some Joaquin private groups. He said that he was a close friend with the mayor of Sonora, Mexico. We are planning to create a documentary of Norbert’s life. We learned from Norbert a number of things about the famous bandito that had never been made public.
Joaquin was born in 1829 to a large family. When he was 18 he began to round up wild mustangs in the Sacramento Valley and herd them to Sonora, Mexico selling them along the way to anyone who needed horses and would give them away to people who had genuine need. His route regularly took him through the areas of Sonora, Jamestown, and Columbia that would eventually become noted for their locations in the fabled Gold Country. His route also regularly led him through Livermore Valley, the Santa Clara Pass, and down present-day Route 4.
Joaquin Murrieta and his wife Rosita became renowned lovers and were regarded in their community as upstanding citizens. By then he had become a wealthy intellectual who led a healthy spiritual life.
Everything changed in 1848 when, following 16 years of conflict, the Mexican American War ended, California became a state, and gold was discovered in Calaveras County. At first Joaquin put his entrepreneurial skills to work by erecting a tent devoted to separating the miners from their gold through a Three Card Monte confidence game. Joaquin himself had a productive gold claim. Before long, however, the invading Caucasians began giving him and his fellow Mexicans trouble. Mexican families were being illegally displaced from lands they and their families had owned for generations.
The land had changed overnight from being part of Mexico to being part of the United States and the Mexican inhabitants were excluded from citizenship roles. They suddenly found themselves to be regarded as foreigners in their own homeland. The newly released soldiers, especially, began doing horrible things to the Mexican residents.
When the Mexicans began to strike back against their oppressors, the white-owned-and-controlled media of the day spun the stories to make it appear that the Mexicans were the aggressors. Ongoing acts of violent aggression in the absence of any semblance of law forced the Mexicans into becoming criminals.
Joaquin’s own path into infamy began when his brother bought a horse from a white trader. The seller then accused the brother of thievery. A savage band of white men summarily lynched him from a tree that still stands in a park near the courthouse in downtown San Andreas. During the same week, a group of white men rode up to Joaquin’s house, beat him, and reportedly took turns raping his gentle Rosita. Joaquin’s response was to form a number of cousins into a paramilitary unit that came to be called the Band of Joaquins.
The first semblance of law and order had been put into place the month before the tragic incidents took place when Ben Marshall was appointed sheriff. It just so happened, Sheriff Marshall was married to a Mexican-American Californio who was friends with Rosita. Ben Marshall and Joaquin had become friends. Ben stood up for Joaquin and tried to befriend him during the lynching, beating, and rape. However, given the racist animosities of the time, Sheriff Marshall had to be circumspect about his friendship with Joaquin. The Sheriff’s descendants subsequently kept the secret of the friendship in the family for 162 years and only released the truth in a series of Calaveras County newspaper articles shortly before I began my inquiry.
Joaquin became a figure both heroic and tragic. He and his Band of Joaquins fought against injustice by stopping wagons. They found a hilltop just north of current-day Livermore and east of Vasco Road, called Brushy Peak, from the summit of which they could see the wagons as they approached. They sometimes imitated the legend of Robin Hood and his Band of Merry Men by giving to the poor some of the money and goods they were taking from the wealthy Caucasians.
They continued their raiding activities from 1848 to 1853 and increased their thieving ways until no bank or wagon within 200 miles was safe from their attacks. The members of the band all wore identical hats and masks, and each of them claimed to be Joaquin. As a result, he became legendary. The newspapers of the day sometimes reported that he committed simultaneous robberies in wildly separated locations. They began to refer to Joaquin as The Fox.
The government placed a $5,000 bounty on Joaquin with an “Execute On Sight” provision. Ten Texas Rangers were sent to hunt for him. Captain Harry Love was an alcoholic whiskey-drinking lawman looking for Joaquin and for a notorious train robber named Jack Dunlop, also known as Three Fingered Jack who sometimes accompanied the Band of Joaquins on their raids.
Joaquin and Three Fingered Jack were eventually reported as captured and executed. Captain Love showed up in court with Joaquin’s head and Jack Dunlop’s three-fingered hand in a pickle jar. The sheriff described what an amazing person Joaquin was and declared that the head in the pickle jar was not Joaquin’s. He said he wouldn’t pay Love the bounty unless he returned with 20 signatures verifying authenticity. The captain returned a few hours later with the 20 signatures, each of them by some local white person. Most of the signatories were probably Love’s drinking buddies at the nearest bar. It really wasn’t his head because documents from the archives at Carmel Mission reported that he and his wife were in sanctuary there, 45 miles away, at the same time.
At the beginning, I was attracted by the possibility of finding Joaquin Murrieta’s fabled horde of buried treasure. The legend lost some of its glitter over the years because not a single coin or gold piece ever showed up that could be attributed to him. My research has led me to the conclusion that there is no hidden treasure. I think that Joaquin ended up sending whatever loot remained from the Band of Joaquins to Mexico and then he went there himself, where he lived in anonymity and eventually passed away, probably in 1918, at an advanced age and in well-deserved peace. He is buried in a tomb at Sonora, Mexico. I have pictures of his tombstone.
Whatever the actual truth of the matter, that’s the conclusion of the story as told in my screenplay together with some other details that are so compelling that they should be true even if they are not.
A special significance is attached to Joaquin’s nickname The Fox. The Mexican word for Fox is Zorro. The familiar Legend of Zorro was based upon Joaquin Murrieta’s battle against injustice by moving to the opposite side of the law. The book was written in 1919, the date following Joaquin’s death. Anthony Hopkins played Don Diego de la Vega in the 1998 film The Mask of Zorro. I met Jay T. Rockwell, who was a stuntman for Anthony Hopkins. He told Hopkins about me and my movie. Jay T. said that Hopkins wants to work with me.
That would be good.
My life has followed an interesting arc since the days when I owned a window-cleaning business. The change came through chance meetings with a number of movie and television personalities beginning with an actor named Norman Reedus. My girls, who were addicted to the Walking Dead television show, forced me to watch an episode with them, and I ended up binge watching the entire first season in a single night. My daughters were in love with Reedus, who plays a main character Daryl Dixon.
Two years ago 20 of us from my extended family checked into the Hotel del Coronado, San Diego to attend Comic Con. The manager informed me that the entire Walking Dead crew were in town for the event and were staying at the hotel. The first day we were there, the girls ran into the cast and were so overcome by emotion that they began bawling. I struck up a conversation with Norman Reedus. He enjoyed talking with us and we got to know each other a little.
A few months later I met Norman again at Sacramento Comic Con at the Walking Dead meet-and-greet booth. We were in line and when we got to Norman, he immediately recognized us, greeted us warmly, and introduced us to his friend Sean Patrick Flanery in the adjoining booth that featured the cast from Boondock Saints. Sean played the Boondock role of Connor MacManus. I had seen the movie and enjoyed it.
At Comic Con I also met Ann Marie, who was personal assistant to Sandra Bullock. She assumed from my appearance and manner that I was a celebrity. When she learned that I was, in fact, a window washer she said, “You have got to get into acting and modeling.” I enrolled at Fort Mason’s First Take Acting School and signed up for classes.
First Take classes felt, in the words of the famous U2 lyric, like I was “coming home to a place I’d never been before.” I never felt so alive as when I was in front of an audience acting a part. I had gone through an abusive childhood and was a recovering alcoholic and former drug dealer who had lived on the streets, done time in jail, and for years was occasionally suicidal. All the dark scenes of my childhood and youth that I carry around were available to fuel whatever passions were being called for by the particular scene I was playing at the time. The other students and teachers were impressed by the manner in which I could demonstrate a wide variety of authentic emotions.
I’ve always put my whole self 110 percent into anything that attracted my attention. Most of my fellow students were taking one First Take class at a time, but I poured myself heart-and-soul into mastering thespian skills, so I enrolled in as many classes and workshops as I could — sometimes attending five learning events a week.
I did my first photo-shoot and forwarded the photos to JE Talent, San Francisco’s leading talent agency who represents performers for film, television, commercial, print, corporate, live, and voice-over work. They loved the photos, signed a contract with me, and sent me to numerous auditions each week.
A breakthrough occurred when I was picked as background extra for the San Andreas blockbuster. The director promoted ten of us to be featured extras and gave me a role in the movie as the father in the scene at the AT&T Park sign where the movie’s hero saved my life and the life of my child. The scene put me into close and extended contact with both stars of the film — Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Carla Gugino. Dwayne Johnson, of course, is famous for playing tough spit-in-your-eye roles but in person he turned out to be a gentle human being — sweet, kind, but with a physique that is as imposing in real life as it appears in the movies. The tough stuff is all acting, but the muscles are real.
The stars are protected from the rest of the cast by a strict protocol that if you approach any of them you will be summarily dismissed from the cast. However, the role called for Dwayne and me to work together in close contact on the set. The shooting especially brought me into contact with the other star of the movie, Carla Gugino, who played Dwayne’s wife. My big scene opened at McCovey Cove and moved to San Francisco’s Third Street Bridge. The scene called for me to carry a child (while I was desperately ignoring the pain from a recent double-hip replacement) while The Rock was shouting, “Save your kids! Save your family.”
I broke the don’t-speak-to-the-cast rule after the first take while Carla and I walked together back to McCovey Cove for the retake.
“My God, you are amazing,” I told her.
“Thank you so much!” Carla said. “You’re so sweet!” We did a dozen takes before we got the scene right. After each one, she would walk and talk with me. “She’s flirting with you,” someone said, which was unfortunately wrong but good for a laugh!
At one point, I said to Carla, “If I didn’t think it would get us into trouble, I would take a selfie with you.” Carla showed me how to do one surreptitiously by snapping the picture while holding the iPhone flat as though we were looking at something together. “Don’t post it until after production,” she said.
My girlfriend, Lindsey, and I attended the premier of the movie at Hollywood’s famous Chinese Theater. The two of us were coming back from the bathroom and walking through the empty lobby when we suddenly saw Carla standing there by herself. She was delighted to see me. “Oh my God. How are you?” she said, as she gave me a warm hug. From the beginning, almost eight years ago, Lindsey has been the head of my fan club and chief supporter in everything I did; the two of us had an amazing time together that weekend.
I began to land bit parts including leading roles in “Wives with Knives” and “I Almost Got Away with It” — two episodes in Discovery Channel’s Sex Sent Me to the Slammer series. The association with Sex Sent Me to the Slammer began as a crazy coincidence when I was hired for a couple gigs as a background extra. There were about 60 of us extras in a room and I met Brendon Hamilton, a location scout for Indigo Films. My mother lives in a beautiful estate home and I had been associated with Byron’s Patriots Jet Team as my brother was their lead pilot. The team was housed in a beautiful sprawling facility that was part airplane hangar and part museum. I told Brendon that he should check out both the hangar and my mother’s house as possible locations for future episodes.
Brendon actually brought the director, Evan Cecil, to check out the locations. Indigo Films subsequently began to film an episode for Sex Sent Me to the Slammer, coincidentally during the week when the Patriots were scheduled for a fly-over above the Annual Harvest Festival. The Patriot’s leader, Randy Howe, asked if I wanted to ride back seat on the fly-over, so I told him to give Evan Cecil a ride. The whole thing worked out great. Everyone loved mom’s house. I landed my first gig playing the role of a police officer who found the body. The next week they gave me a lead role in an episode called “Bad Lieutenant.”
Evan, Brendon, and I began meeting together with the first Associate Director, Elaine Gibson, to find a story for a feature length. I began to learn how things work on the other side of the camera. We settled on a Western that Evan had been carrying around in his head for a long time.
I came up with the title Lasso, which everyone loved. We got started on the three million dollar production. At one point the screenplay was being written, we had invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in Lasso, but still didn’t have a star to ensure that the project would actually make money. I was able to leverage my connection with Sean Patrick Flanery and got him signed on to the project. At that point things fell into place. We were able to add Lindsey Morgan, who played Raven in The 100, Andrew Jacobs from Paranormal Activity 4, and Karen Grassle who played the role of Mom in Little House on the Prairie. We’ll be releasing the film at the first of the year and will show at Sundance, Tribeca, and Toronto film festivals.
I met Marala Scott, the Ambassador of Hope for Oprah, who told me I should write a book. She would consult with me. I called it The Fall and spent the next year-and-a-half writing it. From the beginning, I wanted the book to be a movie, so I focused on screenplay aspects of the narrative, casting myself, of course, as the lead. The book became an Amazon bestseller.
I’m approaching the mid-point of my life. It’s been an amazing ride up to this point but I’m just getting started. I really can’t wait to see what happens next.
I’m chasing Zorro. Like Joaquin, I’m determined to make a difference whatever it takes.