The Legend of Rosario “Zarco” Sainz, OC's Last Desperado

It wasn't enough for Rosario “Zarco” Sainz to break out of the Orange County Jail, beat up legendary Sheriff Theo Lacy, toss a female Bible-study teacher against a wall, lock them both in a cell, steal a rifle and revolver, then make a run for the border. He also wanted a hat.

Sainz was in for first-degree murder, for shooting a man just for the hell of it. He had done four months for the killing after nearly half a year on the lam, a seemingly ignoble end to a criminal career that included smuggling Chinese immigrants into the United States, assaults, brawls, at least five murders for which he never faced punishment, and more nights in the drunk tank than law enforcement in both OC and Baja California cared to remember. A trip to the gallows seemed certain–and Sainz didn't give a damn.


The local press couldn't get enough of Sainz's devil-may-care exploits, gunmetal-blue eyes and charming personality; the Los Angeles Times gushed he was of “unconquerable disposition.” And Zarco called upon those wiles on Oct. 9, 1910, as he sat for a Sunday noontime jailhouse church service.

After an hour of hearing a female missionary offer the Word, the 30-year-old got up and offered to escort her out of the felons' ward. Sainz tapped a steel-grated door to let Lacy know she was ready to leave–a signal done multiple times by other inmates over the years without incident. But Sainz had never done it before, and he'd never do it again.

Lacy unlocked the inward-swinging door and let the missionary out. As he began pulling the heavy door shut, another inmate grabbed onto a handle on the other side and began a tug-of-war with the sheriff. Sainz reached through the resulting gap to break off the key. He somehow managed to knock down Lacy, who lost his grip and let the door swing open.

Inmates rushed to stop Sainz, but it was too late. He grabbed the Sunday-school teacher and threw her inside the cell, then punched Lacy in the face and shoved him in as well. He quickly shut the door, then ran off with a partner. And in the middle of all this chaos, Sainz looked at an inmate imprisoned for trying to kill a brother-in-law and took his hat. Just like that. The hat was black.

Lacy recovered to lead the largest search in Orange County history up to that time, deputizing anyone and everyone who might find the fugitives. But he never found Sainz. It was Sainz who turned himself in, who got Lacy tossed out of office, who made a mockery out of OC law enforcement, and embarrassed the establishment again and again. His saga, long-forgotten, never featured any of the revolutionary undertones of infamous California Latino gunslingers of yore such as Joaquin Murrieta or Tiburcio Vasquez and lacked the nationwide notoriety of Willie Boy, the Chemehuevi Indian whose kidnapping of his lover and subsequent trek through the Mojave Desert in 1909 is considered the West's last manhunt.

Nope, Zarco Sainz was a bad hombre, plain and simple. And the Orange County public loved every moment of it.


Little is known about Sainz's early life. Newspaper accounts say he was born in 1880 in Mexico, that his father was from Ensenada and his mother a California Indian, and that the family moved to Anaheim when Sainz was 6. Listed as a laborer in city directories, Sainz eventually supplemented his income by sneaking Chinese into the U.S. from Mexico at a time when so-called Celestials were banned from legally immigrating to this country. After jumping bail in Anaheim following an arrest for public intoxication, Sainz moved to Ensenada in 1902 and became a police officer. He only stayed with that job for a year before tiring of it and returning to banditry in el Norte.

Along the way, he acquired the nickname “Zarco,” meaning “blue-eyed” in Spanish, though it's a term usually reserved for horses–a nod to his wild ways. At nearly 6 feet tall, with a bold mustache, scars on his nose and near his left eye, and prone to wearing Stetsons, Sainz cut a fearful figure through Orange County's Mexican camps–and then there was his rap sheet.

He earned his first newspaper clipping in 1907 by killing a friend. At 4 o'clock in the morning, after a Fourth of July party near Corona, Sainz shot Emitorio Grigalba dead. Police detained Sainz, who told them he was “handling” a revolver when it accidentally discharged. Witnesses corroborated the story, so he was set free. Two years later, in February 1909, Sainz was arrested again for shooting at someone. He claimed self-defense; again, no charges were filed.

That September, Sainz joined a sheep-shearing crew in Sunset Beach led by Santos Carrisosa. The Anaheim native wasn't exactly the best boss: Two of his workers had murdered co-workers in the past seven years, and Carrisosa's work camps were notorious for hosting blind pigs–impromptu speakeasies. After an evening of work and drink, Sainz entered one of the worker tents and challenged everyone inside to a fight. To show he was serious, Sainz flashed his treinta-treinta–a Winchester 94 rifle–and fired six shots at a can. They all hit.

“This is the way I am going to kill one or two tonight,” he warned everyone. He went to another tent to issue the same sanguinary boast, but he fell down along the way. Sainz demanded to know who had tripped him; when no one answered, he announced, “I'll go outside and kill two or three.”

He walked about 100 yards toward the sunset, turned, then fired three shots in the direction of the tents. One of them killed Jose Machado instantly. Carrisosa and others quickly alerted authorities, who tried to give chase. They tracked Sainz as far as Garden Grove–then he vanished.

Regional papers immediately jumped on the story, especially when word came three months later that Sainz was in an Ensenada jail, arrested for public intoxication and battery. But just as quickly as Sheriff Lacy arranged extradition, Sainz was released. He snuck back into Orange County twice to smuggle Chinese, as well as to let Carrisosa know he was coming for him; the frightened mayordomo alerted Lacy and pleaded for protection. Luckily, Ensenada officials arrested Sainz again in February 1910, this time for allegedly beating a woman while drunk. “The sheriff will go after the man,” the Register wrote.

Mexican officials, however, kept delaying Sainz's extradition. He finally showed up in Orange County Superior Court June 15 in handcuffs, nine months after murdering Machado. “Give him but the slightest advantage, and he will fight his way through wildcats,” the Register wrote, with a deputy sheriff adding, “If he had a chance to run, he would run.”

Sainz pleaded not guilty and was contemptuous of everything. He told Judge Zephaniah B. West during a preliminary hearing that he spent the evening of Machado's death passed out from drinking so much, getting up only because someone woke him to say he had killed a man. Sainz couldn't remember if he had or hadn't, he told West, but he put the blame for Machado's death on Carrisosa for selling illegal hooch. Witnesses, however, maintained that Sainz was sober before, during and after the shooting. While people testified against Sainz, he flashed grins at all of them–and his mother laughed out loud at one point during the proceedings.

It was around this time that Sainz's story caught the attention of Terry E. Stephenson, a pioneering Orange County historian who'd go on to be an editor and part owner of the Register. For the Los Angeles Times, he penned an article titled “Border Outlaw Gun Fighter Chafes in Jail in Santa Ana” that sealed Sainz's legend in Southern California.

“From Ensenada to Los Angeles, Zarco Sainz is known for cruel, merciless deeds,” Stephenson warned, in prose out of a Zane Grey novel. He pinned five murders, numerous brawls, much opium smuggling and scores of battered women on Sainz, yet offered grudging respect toward the criminal.

“He combines with his inborn inclination to misdeeds an unusual intelligence and a fair education,” Stephenson wrote. “His blood is cold, and his faith in his luck supreme. In the scores of tight places he has been in, he has always come out on top, and why should he worry?”

Stephenson was right.


MURDERER AND FORGER BREAK JAIL,” screamed the headline of the Register on Oct. 10, 1910. Accompanying Sainz was Alejo Macias, who was serving time for passing bad checks. Leaving the Orange County Jail, they stole bikes from a brother and sister and took off into the walnut groves in north Santa Ana, where they climbed trees and hid in them for hours. After a visit to Macias' sister in El Modena and Sainz's mother in Anaheim, the two walked and hiked their way to Mexico.

A humiliated Lacy told his deputies to shoot Sainz on sight; he even deputized Carrisosa and other Sainz enemies, hoping they had a bead on their mutual target. But no one found Sainz. He became a phantom–rumors of Sainz sightings filled OC's newspapers for months afterward. He was seen riding on horseback in Santa Ana. Someone saw him enjoy a chicken dinner in El Modena. Witnesses insisted Sainz once enjoyed a smoke in the Tustin foothills and that Sainz and Macias cooked a meal in an orange grove off Brookhurst Avenue in Anaheim.

On Nov. 8, news came that both Macias and Sainz were captured in Baja California: “Desperado Saiz [sic] Taken Beyond the Border,” read the headline in the Anaheim Gazette. Lacy's sole Latino deputy, Teofilo Cervantes, was the officer who originally brought Sainz back from Baja California and had spent the previous months on the trail of the two, finally tracking them to the Sierra de Juarez mountains near Ensenada. The newspaper reported that Mexican federales had captured Sainz while trying to smuggle over more Chinese. But it turned out they had actually captured Macias, while Sainz remained at large. Upon reaching the Orange County Jail, Macias told the press he was a patsy, that he kept having to talk Sainz down from killing people, and that he had to smuggle Chinese for Sainz under threat of death. Judge West wasn't sympathetic, sentencing Macias to San Quentin State Prison for 13 years.

Sainz's non-capture proved yet another embarrassment to Lacy, who had to fend off accusations that the initial announcement was an October surprise meant to guarantee his election the following day. He had previously lost the sheriff's post in 1894 due to mismanagement of the original Orange County Jail, one that saw so many jailbreaks that OC supervisors ordered the construction of a new one. Political ploy or not, Lacy lost the 1910 election and never held office again. His last public move was to withdraw a $100 reward for the capture of Sainz.

Months passed. Then, in March 1911, the San Diego Tribune published a seemingly impossible story: Not only had they located Sainz, but he was also working as a police officer again in Ensenada and had enjoyed protected status from Colonel Celso Vega, the political boss of Baja California under President Porfirio Diaz, after Sainz saved him during the Siege of Mexicali. As a gendarme, Sainz shook down shopowners by openly boasting he was wanted in los Estados Unidos for killing a man. Cervantes quickly dismissed such rumors, telling the Register, “I don't believe it for a minute. . . . If Sainz is taking any part in the revolution, he undoubtedly will be with the insurrectos, where his outlaw friends are.”

Just as with his former boss Lacy, Cervantes was proven wrong. In the streets of Ensenada, Sainz heard a sailor shout, “ยกViva Madero!”–referring to Francisco Madero, the presidential candidate who was the figurehead leader of rebels during the Mexican Revolution. According to witnesses, Sainz dared the sailor to repeat the praise; he did. Sainz shot him on sight, and Vega's government finally incarcerated him.

This time, extradition only took days. Back in Orange County Jail, Sainz held court with newspaper reporters. He said he joined the federales' cause and fought in multiple battles, but eventually soured on the Diaz regime and refused Vega's order to join a dangerous mission, telling him, “You dare not [order me]; I'm an American citizen.” He boasted of returning to OC multiple times during his half-year on the run, not just to smuggle Chinese, but also to collect debts. He felt his luck was better facing the death penalty in the States than remaining in Mexico.

“I'm glad I'm here,” Sainz told the Register. Down there, the rebels had sent word they would kill me on sight, and they sure would, too. And Vega was mad at me, and if I got away from Ensenada with both sides fighting, I would sure get killed. I would be just one against all of them.

“Down there,” he repeated, “I was sure to get killed. Up here, my life is safe anyhow.”

His trial lasted two weeks. Sainz's lawyers pursued their client's borracho defense and also noted it was a revolver shot that killed Machado, while Sainz had menaced everyone with a rifle. Witnesses nevertheless stuck to their stories, even as Sainz smiled and laughed at them through the trial.

A jury deliberated for just three hours. To pass the time, Sainz had written on a piece of cardboard, “hung jury,” “acquittal” and “murder in the first degree,” passing it to the bemused deputy in charge of watching over him as the courtroom awaited the verdict. When the foreman announced Sainz was guilty of first-degree murder and faced execution by hanging, Sainz smiled. “He was far less affected by the terrible gravity of the situation than was the judge,” the Times wrote.

Condemned to death, Sainz tried to rehabilitate his image. From San Quentin's death row, he sent a letter to the Register claiming that some of the crimes added to his name weren't true: “I never did beat a woman and never did steal, for I am not a thief.” He let fans know through his friends in the press that an autobiography was in the works and that he was confident his case would be overturned. He even wrote a letter to the Bible-study teacher assaulted during his escape–not to apologize, but to ask if she could “give my regards” to everyone who had put him in jail.

Sainz's story kept selling newspapers, his name now shorthand for unbelievable criminal exploits. A July 3, 1911, Register article about another bandit had the headline “Not Our Sainz, But His Adventure Sounds Like Sainz.” A couple of weeks later, the same newspaper ran his San Quentin mugshot: defiant, smirking, unapologetic. What they didn't show, though, was the next photo the San Quentin guards took of Sainz: in his prison uniform, head and mustache shorn, looking almost alien and bored. None of the romance spun by the press.

But Lady Luck would bless Sainz again. A state appeals court tossed out his case, ruling Judge West didn't give the jury the option of sending Sainz to prison for life. The court did it grudgingly, noting Sainz's “ugly passions were aroused by his voluntary intoxication” and that his crime was the “expression of a mind inflamed by intoxicants, brutal, malignant and on [a] murder bent.”

Back in Orange County, Sainz took a victory lap, shaking hands in his cell with visitors and acting “like a big boy back for a picnic,” according to the Register. “This thing of going out with a rope around my neck and somebody to let me drop,” he told reporters, “never suited me a bit.”

His fame only grew as he waited for a second trial. He served as a translator for Mexican inmates when they went to court and gave his thoughts to the press about other outlaws of the day. Judges asked convicts whether Sainz was giving them legal advice; the Times even tried to pin another death on him, claiming he gave bad guidance to an inmate that led to a death sentence.

Meanwhile, Sainz's attorneys tried to get a change of venue, arguing stories about their client were “extensively read by the people of the county,” that “it is a matter of common remark on the streets that any jury which does not hang the defendant should be promptly hung by the people.” West declined.

As a last resort, Sainz's defense brought in a new, star witness: George Guzman, who was in the same sheep-shearing camp during the murder and was Sainz's partner in smuggling Chinese. He told the same story Sainz had stuck to–that Zarco was too drunk to stand, let alone fire a rifle. Sainz's mom also now claimed that Carrisosa offered to drop the whole case for $50. The jury was only swayed to send Sainz to San Quentin for life.

If Sainz was affected at all, he never really showed it; while the verdict was read, he twirled his mustache and swung his foot underneath the table. At his sentencing, West told him, “I think that you enjoyed being considered a dangerous man, and you shot Machado to increase your reputation as a man not afraid of anything on Earth.”

“Yes, I am afraid of one thing, judge,” he said, grinning. “I am afraid of rattlesnakes.”

Defiant until the end.


Sainz died in San Quentin on Feb. 19, 1918. Before leaving Orange County, he announced to reporters he planned to learn music. Upon reaching the prison, he told the executioner, “Well, old man, I beat you out of $50”–the amount he would've gotten to kill Sainz.

That's all that's known about his final years. Prison records only say he passed away in the hospital. By request of his stepfather, Sainz was buried in the San Quentin graveyard, nowadays abandoned and overtaken by the elements. In the obituary for Sainz, the Register called him “one of the most desperate characters ever harbored by Orange County,” adding that “if there were ever a man who deserved death at the end of a rope, he was that man.”

And with the passing of Sainz, the Wild West era of Orange County ended. At the end of 1912, the so-called Tomato Springs Bandit gunned down Undersheriff Robert Squires, who had guarded Sainz throughout his trials. Any nostalgia for picaresque thugs went away with that shootout. The escalating violence of the Mexican Revolution made all Mexican criminals threats to genteel society. And once the severity of Sainz set in–this was a man, after all, who escaped prison, beat up the sheriff and shamed Orange County law enforcement–county chroniclers made sure to not include his story in the history books. A search through county tomes found just one mention of him, in former OC archivist Phil Brigandi's 2001 Old Orange County Courthouse: A Centennial History–and even then, Brigandi got Sainz's story wrong, turning the Sunday Bible-study escape into a dinner and claiming it was an inmate who freed Lacy when no such thing happened.

Only the Santa Ana Register kept Sainz's memory alive. It would retell his tale in roundups of OC history every couple of years through the 1940s. “Rosario was a good-natured, gleeful kind of bandit,” the paper once reminded readers, “until he began to indulge a desire to try out his jackrabbit marksmanship on sheep herders.”

Sainz left behind no personal journal, no known relatives, no markers–just his crimes and his words documented by a press corps that made him a short-lived sensation.

“You bet I had a good time,” he told the Register, shortly after being captured in Baja California, describing his time down there as well as his life. “Did I work? Not a day, no, sir . . . no work, saloons and living wild, hiding in the bushes most of the time, and a lot of fighting.”

One Reply to “The Legend of Rosario “Zarco” Sainz, OC's Last Desperado”

  1. Great story, even though, I haven’t heard about him, what I know about the Sainz’s, it’s close to their legend..a great group, they are…Oscar Sainz

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