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August 16, 2010




"Anthony Azoff and the Murder of Detective Len Harris"

by Phil Reader



Being an account of the attempted robbery of the Wells-Fargo Express Office in Boulder Creek, and the subsequent killing of Southern Pacific Detective Len Harris.

The Shooting

    The story of the killing of Len Harris actually began on Monday, May 14, 1894, when Harris and fellow Southern Pacific Detective William Kelly arrived at the office of Santa Cruz County Sheriff Jesse Cope. The detective explained to Cope that they had uncovered a plot to rob the Wells Fargo Express office at the railroad depot in Boulder Creek. One of the plotters, George Sprague, had come forward and informed the company that Anthony Azoff and another man were planning to hold up the expressman on the night of the 15th.

    Since Azoff, a former Boulder Creek resident, knew Sheriff Cope, it was decided that the sheriff should not take part in the action because his presence in the area might tip off the schemers. Cope was to remain close to the telegraph in case he was needed later.

    The following afternoon Harris, Kelly and Constable Isaiah Hartman secreted themselves inside a box-car which had been placed in front of the depot. All three were heavily armed and Wells Fargo express agent William Gass had been forewarned of the possible robbery.

    At about 8 o'clock that evening three masked men approached the depot from the north. They were Azoff, the informant Sprague, and another man unknown to anybody but the gang leader. The latter two remained on the depot platform while Azoff continued on into the office.

    As he stepped through the door he pulled a fearsome looking 44-caliber pistol out from under his cloth coat. The robber ordered Agent Gass to open the safe and at the same time handed him a sack in which to place the money.

    Before the agent could comply, the three peace officers jumped put of the box-car with their weapons at the ready. Kelly and Hartman turned their attention to the two bandits on the platform, while Harris went in after Azoff.
    "You'd better surrender." He shouted, "I've got the drop on you."
    But Azoff remained calm and collected. Hardly changing his position he turned his pistol back under his arm and instantaneously fired two shots before making any move which may have excited or alarmed Harris. Both bullets tore into the detective's mid-section and he fell forward groaning that he had been hit.

    Out on the depot platform, Kelly and Hartman had opened fire on the two remaining outlaws. For some unknown reason they had not been told that Sprague was an informant. So while bullets were flying all around him he threw up his hands pleading with them to hold their fire, screaming that he was on the officers side. Meanwhile the third desperado made his getaway into the darkness.

    After shooting Harris, Azoff bolted out the depot door, ran through the railroad yard heading in the direction of Bear Creek Road. Constable Hartman followed him for about a quarter mile blazing away with his shotgun. The fleeing robber returned the fire over his shoulder, squeezing off five shots before disappearing into the woods.

    Hartman went back to the depot, made Harris as comfortable as possible, and then telegraphed Sheriff Cope in Santa Cruz. Cope and Deputy Wright set out for Boulder Creek where they were met up with Hartman, and the three men started out on the trail of the gunman.

Len Harris

    Detective Harris was taken to the Morgan Hotel where he was tended to by Dr. Allen. The two bullets had passed through his abdomen tearing up some vital organs, so his wounds were pronounced as fatal.

    The following morning railroad Superintendent J. A. Fillmore sent a special engine and car down to Boulder Creek to carry Detective Harris to his home in Oakland. Accompanying him on the journey were his son Jack Harris and Doctors Allen and Morgan. He arrived at his home in the late afternoon and at 11:30 that night he lapsed into a coma and died.

    Leonard Harris was born in upstate New York in 1828. He moved to California during the gold rush and by 1856 he was working as a lawman in Sacramento, serving both as constable and sheriff. During the construction phase of the Southern Pacific Railroad he was hired as a special detective and for many years he was chief of the detective division.

    Harris was always known as a brave and clever lawman. One of his best pieces of work happened while he was stationed in the Arizona Territory. The overland train was held up at Pantano, Pima County, and the treasure box and mail bags were stolen. Harris and a band of Indian trackers followed the robbers into a lava bed where the trail was lost. He found a place where the thieves had last camped. Among the ashes of their fire he found pieces of a charred newspaper which had been published in Oregon. With this slender lead he discovered that two men, a saloon keeper in Silver City and a store keeper in Benson, were subscribers to the paper. The rest of the evidence was easily obtained, and a tough named Gambler Bob was included in the gang that eventually got long terms in the Yuma Territorial Prison. In 1888 he pursued a gang that had committed a robbery on the Sonora Road in Arizona. He and Marshal Bob Paul were in charge of the posse, and Harris was always in the lead. The criminals had gone into the Sierra Madre Mountains in the middle of a blinding snow storm. Besides the bad weather, there was always the chance of meeting Apache Indians. They finally came upon the bandits beyond Chicuahua and a pitch battle ended in the death of the four highwaymen.

    One day in Tucson, Detective Harris won the admiration of a trainload of tourists when he disarmed a drunken cowboy who was intimidating the passengers. He simply pulled the rifle out of the cowboy's hands and cursed him for being a fool, after which he turned him over to the local sheriff.

    At Alila, in the San Joaquin Valley, on September 4, 1891, he was on a train which was held up by the Sontag and Evans Gang. He had started to repulse the robbers when he received a wound in the back of the neck. He was never able to fully recover as the doctors were unable to locate the bullet. As a result Harris' right arm was to remain partially paralyzed.

    Just prior to being called to Santa Cruz, Harris was investigating a robbery in Los Angeles.

    So this was the type of brave and courageous man who was buried on May 20th, 1894. Len Harris was a veteran of the Mexican War and one of the greatest lawmen in the history of the old west. He left a widow and two children.

Note: this and more about Santa Cruz County History - Crime & Public Safety can be found here:

Disrespectfully Submitted,