Alfred Packer: The Maneater of Colorado
Two years later, Packer won the right to a new trial, to take place in Gunnison, about 30 miles away. The Colorado Supreme Court had set aside the murder conviction, based on a technical legislative oversight: Packer could not be tried in 1883 for a crime he had committed in 1874, because there had been no state murder statute in 1874 that allowed for it. In other words, he had been arrested when Colorado was a territory but tried when Colorado was a state. Some later said that he had committed the crime on an Indian reservation, so by all rights he should have been tried in a Federal court, not a State court. At any rate, he was retried in 1896 for all five deaths — not just Israel Swan — on a different charge: voluntary manslaughter.
The jury in that trial also convicted him (some reports say it was the same jury) but they only sentenced him to 40 years (eight for each of the five deaths) in the state penitentiary.
On August 7, 1897, he wrote a letter to D.C. Hatch of the Denver Rocky Mountain News, with the longest version yet of the events that had taken place on that snowy mountain pass. Much of it was reprinted in the newspaper — though dramatized a bit.
He claimed that even before the six men set out, the entire party of 21 had been suffering from extreme hunger due to lack of planning and supplies on the trip from Utah. They were living on horse feed. Chief Ouray gave them assistance and they camped near his settlement. He told them that the mountains were impassible.
He then said that a man named Lutzenheiser and four others decided to go on across the mountains to the Agency. Ouray supposedly told them that it was only 40 miles away, when in fact it was 80. They soon ran out of supplies and cast lots to see who would become food for the others. But they spotted a coyote, and so spared anyone from being killed. Not long after, they came across a cow and killed that as well. The cow's owner followed Lutzenheiser's tracks and took him back to a camp. He found the others and aided them as well. When they revived, they started out again. (Packer claims that this was all a matter of court record.) They were again picked up near exhaustion and starvation.
At this point, Packer returns to the experience of his own party of six. They left about a week after Lutzenheiser's party and took a different trail. Their provisions lasted about nine days. Three days after the food ran out, they cooked and ate their rawhide moccasins, wrapping their feet in blankets.
"Our suffering at this time was most intense," he wrote, "such in fact, that the inexperienced cannot imagine."
They kept going, since the snow quickly buried their trail from behind. He again points out that Wilson Bell suffered mental derangement from starvation, and everyone else was frightened of him. They finally descended to the lake fork of the Gunnison River and camped there. In the morning, Packer went to look for signs of civilization. When he returned, he saw Bell alone, just as he had related in a prior telling. But in this retelling, Bell came at him, he shot in self-defense, and then he realized that the other men were murdered.
"Can you imagine my situation? My companions dead and I left alone, surrounded by the midnight horrors of starvation as well as those of utter isolation?"
He could hardly believe he had ever returned in a rational frame of mind.
He sat down and saw the flesh that Bell had cut from Miller, cooking on the fire. But he did not partake. Instead, he laid it aside and covered his slain comrades. Finally in the morning, he ate some of the flesh and it made him feel ill. "My mind at this period failed me." He did not want to believe it but he thought he must have eaten some of the flesh. He could not recall.
He stayed there for some time, he did not know how long, but in his wandering, looking for food, he somehow stumbled into the Agency. Without realizing it, he had traveled 40 miles.
Although by all reports, he came in looking quite healthy, he claims in this letter that he had to be taken care of for three weeks. He learned the Lutzenheiser and his party also made it out, and the rest of the 21 men who had begun the trip had come over with the Ute. Packer says that he confessed at once that he had killed Bell but had attributed the deaths of the others to Bell (not consistent with his initial confession before General Adams). He claimed that he had been unable to show anyone where his comrades had lain because deep snow had driven them back.
He was then arrested and he said that it was the sheriff who actually let him go and told him to go away. The sheriff apparently had taken compassion on him for all that he had been through. (He does not explain why, if he was freed by the law, he then had to live under an assumed name.)
"Am I the villainous wretch which some have asserted me to be?" he asks. "No man can be more heartily sorry for the acts of twenty-four years ago than I."
He felt he had been unjustly dealt with, there having been no motive for why he would attack his fellow man. The ghosts of the dead men, he believed, knew that he was innocent.
Eventually, with some political assistance, he was freed from prison.