The same day a jury found Carl Magee guilty of criminal libel on June 22, 1923, Judge David Leahy spared no words as he sentenced the editor to a year in jail.
“No, Carl Magee,” said Judge Leahy, “you, and others of your kind — and thank God they are mighty few — are a greater menace to civilized society, to the lives and liberties of the people generally, than is the cow thief or horse thief.”
But Magee would not go to jail. Anticipating the guilty verdict and Leahy’s jail sentence, Democratic Gov. James Hinkle immediately issued a pardon for Magee, calling the trial a “conspiracy” and “persecution.” The pardon arrived in Las Vegas by airplane in time to prevent Magee’s incarceration, and Gov. Hinkle said the entire affair was “a blot on New Mexico.”
Following Gov. Hinkle’s lead, Democrats rallied everywhere. At a mass meeting held in Albuquerque the day after the trial, Magee’s attorneys described the dire situation they faced in Las Vegas in Judge Leahy’s courtroom — in Sec Romero’s Republican “kingdom.” Magee himself railed in his Tribune on June 26 that “a plainer case of conspiracy was never witnessed in New Mexico, and a more brazen prostitution of the courts for political purposes was never seen in America.”
Magee’s trial had been followed closely by newspapers throughout New Mexico, and was covered intently by both the Denver Post and the El Paso Herald. The sensational case had become a cause célèbre for the First Amendment, as well as a political showdown between New Mexico’s Republican and Democratic parties. The negative publicity against Secundino Romero and Judge Leahy was unrelenting, and even in Las Vegas, public sentiment swelled against Sec — for the first time in more than a half century, the Romero dynasty was in peril.
Soon, the oldest knavery known to politics reared its head. Sheriff Lorenzo Delgado and District Attorney Luis Armijo — both Sec’s acolytes — turned on their mighty boss. Realizing how vulnerable the Magee affair had made Secundino, the brothers-in-law wasted no time staging a coup against their mentor and benefactor. (As noted previously, during the Magee affair, both Delgado and Armijo distanced themselves from the fiasco, Armijo receding into the background during the trial, and Sheriff Delgado even protecting Magee and allowing him to send jailhouse editorials to the Tribune.)
Nine months after Magee’s trial, Delgado and Armijo made their move. At the Republican county convention in March 1924, Sec’s erstwhile protégés attempted to wrest control of Sec’s Republican Party, but Secundino repelled them. By a vote of 87 to 54, Sec retained control, and Delgado and Armijo immediately bolted and formed an alliance with Democrats.
At the Democratic county convention in October 1924, “Delgadistas” (Republicans who supported Delgado and Armijo against Secundino) joined Democrats and together nominated a “fusion” ticket to oppose Secundino’s slate at the general election the following month. (Delgado himself was the Democrats’ nominee for re-election as Sheriff, and Armijo was nominated to run against Judge Leahy, who was seeking his third term as Secundino’s district judge.)
The political warfare that erupted was unprecedented, as the Romero family had never before been challenged, except for a brief revolt in the early 1890s. As all New Mexico focused its attention on Las Vegas, the hostility and invective which followed would set the tone and tradition for San Miguel County politics for decades to come. (Before the election, Judge Leahy even removed Delgado from office as sheriff, though the Supreme Court quickly reversed Leahy and reinstated Delgado.)
The Optic also weighed-in on the showdown, with editor and publisher Hub Kane unabashedly siding with Secundino. The Optic blasted Lorenzo Delgado at every turn, accused him of widespread corruption, and declared that Delgado had been “rescued from ignominy by Secundino Romero.” (Because Delgado was also mayor of Old Town, the Optic even commented salaciously that “houses of prostitution have openly flourished within less than two blocks of the town offices.”)
So volatile was the political climate, that Gov. Hinkle ordered the National Guard to Las Vegas the day before the general election, and guardsmen were posted to maintain order throughout the county. (Gov. Hinkle was especially concerned about rumors that Sheriff Delgado had deputized all his supporters, en masse.)
Nov. 4, 1924, would mark the end of an era, as the Carl Magee affair proved to be Secundino Romero’s destruction and downfall. That election day, Lorenzo Delgado and Luis Armijo dethroned the mighty boss. After more than a half century of absolute control, the invincible Romero dynasty came to an end — never again would New Mexico know a patrón the likes of Sec Romero.
But the personal hatred between Carl Magee and David Leahy would not end.
Two years later, Magee would again stand trial in Las Vegas, for murder — after killing an innocent bystander while defending himself against a pummeling by Leahy in the lobby of the Meadows (El Fidel) Hotel.
Jesus L. Lopez is a native of Las Vegas and a local historian. He may be reached at 425-3730.