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Mineshaft murderer paid high price for jealousy

August 31, 2019

Madera County Historical Society

Luke’s Store in Raymond, where it is likely murder victim James Kipp and his bootlegging partner Albert Fuller once may have bought supplies. From left are Nelson Luke, Tottie Smale, Walter Dick, Andy Davidson and Bill Probasco.

On July 14, 1933, Albert Fuller, Madera County’s “Mine Shaft Murderer,” climbed the steps of the gallows and paid for killing his bootlegging business partner, James Kipp. The murder and Fuller’s two-year attempt to escape the hangman’s noose grabbed the attention of the people and turned it into one of the most notorious crimes in Madera County’s history. 

 

Three elements account for the notoriety of this case. First, the victim, who had been missing for a week, was finally found floating in a deep mine shaft not far from Raymond. Second, the victim was a one-legged man, and third, the motive for the murder was jealousy. Kipp had been fooling around with Fuller’s wife. 

 

Kipp had been reported missing on Oct. 8, 1931, and a week later, Sheriff Welton Rhodes received an anonymous tip that he should look in some of the mineshafts on the Wagner ranch about 10 miles from Raymond for Kipp’s body.

 

Sheriff Rhodes took some deputies and headed for the hills. While searching the mines in the area, he came to the Walker mine where he found something that looked suspicious. Near the top of the shaft, he found tire tracks. On a rock about a foot from the edge of the shaft and on blades of grass nearby, he found spots of blood. Rhodes called for more help. Soon Victor Lind, a miner in the area, appeared with a windlass and timber. He descended the mine, and 146 feet down he found Kipp’s body floating in water. Lind brought the body to the surface and then went back for the one-legged victim’s crutch. 

 

Later investigation showed that Kipp had been shot in the head and shoved down the shaft. Rhodes speculated that Kipp had been plied with liquor or forced by someone to walk to the mineshaft and shot. He did not die instantly, for Dr. Dow Ransom determined from the autopsy that Kipp had water in his lungs and died from drowning. 

 

It just so happened that Fuller was well known in Raymond because he owned some mining property and was familiar in the area. On the day of the murder, Fuller and Kipp had stopped in 

Raymond for fuel and something to eat, and the waitress recognized them and told the sheriff. This led Rhodes to Fuller’s house where he talked with his wife who gave the lawman some curious information. She acknowledged a relationship with Kipp and said that her husband had once told her that the mineshafts of Madera County would be a perfect place to hide a body. This of course put Fuller in the center of the radar screen. 

 

Fuller, of course, denied any knowledge of his partner’s demise, but then some detective work on Rhodes’ part tied Fuller to the crime. 

 

Sheriff Rhodes knew from the gas station attendant that Kipp and Fuller had driven to Raymond in Kipp’s car. When the auto turned up in a Merced garage under the name of Albert Fuller, Rhodes knew he had his man. 

 

Upon being confronted with the evidence, Fuller admitted that he and Kipp had gone to the mine. The killer claimed they went there to retrieve some liquor Kipp had hidden there. Fuller said they began to quarrel over Mrs. Fuller and Kipp pulled out a gun. In the struggle that followed, the one-legged man lost his footing, shot himself in the head, and fell down the mineshaft. Fuller said he stood at the mouth of the mineshaft for about five minutes and called several times but got no answer. He claimed that he at first he was going to notify the law but decided to tell his wife first. Fuller said his wife convinced him not to say anything to anybody.

 

No one bought Fuller’s story, and he was tried for Kipp’s murder. The jury found him guilty and Judge Stanley Murray sentenced him to death by hanging. On Dec. 28, 1931, Sheriff Rhodes and Deputy G.W. Van Curen boarded the train in Madera with Fuller to take him to his final destination. 

 

Fuller fought his death sentence with a fury, but Madera County District Attorney Mason Bailey fought harder. The condemned man appealed seven times, but in each case, Bailey won. 

 

So Albert Fuller was hanged for the murder of the one-legged cobbler and fellow bootlegger. He never expected that James Kipp’s broken body would ever be found at the bottom of that mine shaft, but he was wrong; perhaps he forgot who was sheriff.

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