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California schoolchildren say they've exposed military cover-up of 1902 shooting

Listen to Alyce Avila, student prosecutor, argue that military personnel covered up the killing (Audio 165 K/15 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)  

Mock trial finds soldiers guilty of obstructing justice

July 12, 2000
Web posted at: 10:30 p.m. EDT (0230 GMT)

In this story:

Students research the history

Omissions in Army records


MADERA COUNTY, California (CNN) -- Some California elementary students, convinced that they've uncovered a conspiracy surrounding a 1902 murder, went to a "court of historical review" to try to set the record straight about the killing, which allegedly involved troops from the U.S. Army Third Cavalry.

A jury of both students and adults decided Tuesday that a captain in Troop E of the Cavalry regiment was guilty of covering up the killing.

VideoCNN's Don Knapp explains why the children believe the death involved a cover-up
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The efforts of the sixth-graders from Sierra Vista School began with a visit to a cemetery in the Sierra Nevada foothills, where they saw the tombstone of California saloonkeeper Ben Ducker.

"I said, 'Hmm, B. Ducker died October 16, 1902. Kids, we could tell how this man died,'" recalled history teacher Bill Coate.

Students research the history

But one of Coate's students answered that the class already knew what killed the 60-year-old Ducker. The students had read old newspaper stories describing the almost century-old shooting.

It happened at the old California Hotel, according to the reports, when soldiers from Troop E, who were returning from duty at Yosemite National Park, stopped by to have a few drinks.

Students visit the cemetery where Ben Ducker's tombstone is located  

Things in the saloon got out of control, a lantern was thrown through the mirror behind the bar, and Ducker headed upstairs to get his shotgun.

Ducker reportedly fired his shotgun from an upstairs window into the night. Shots were fired back into the hotel.

"One of which struck the deceased in the left arm, passed through his liver, and struck the ninth rib," Maricruz Duque, a student witness, testified in the old Madera County Courthouse, now a museum.

"Ducker said, 'I'm gone,' and he died in three minutes," said Duque.

With old newspaper stories and U.S. Army records culled from the National Archives, the students made their case that there was a military cover-up of those responsible for the shooting.

"The headlines, 'Shot by drunken soldiers,' tell exactly what happened," argued Juliana Castro.

Omissions in Army records

The newspaper accounts also quoted eyewitnesses who saw soldiers drinking at the bar. But official military muster rolls indicate no stop at the bar while the troops traveled from Yosemite to the Presidio of San Francisco.

And the Army records do not mention attempts by local law officers to apprehend the suspect.

"Maj. (Oliver) Hein and Capt. (Daniel L.) Tate were derelict in their duty, by No. 1, refusing to turn the killer over to the civilian authorities, and No. 2., preparing the military records so that the crime would be forever hidden," argued student Alyce Avila.

But those officers were defended by military attorney Lt. Col. Edwin Oeser, judge advocate of the Air National Guard.

"There will be plenty of evidence from which you can conclude, that the deceased's own impulsive temper was, in part, the cause of this incident, that his shooting was not unprovoked," Oeser said.

Ducker's great-great-grandson, attorney Richard Edwards, helped the student prosecutor.

Another great-great-grandson, Walter Ducker, listened as the jury announced its verdict, finding Tate guilty of "covering up the killing of Ben Ducker."

In reality, no one may ever know who actually shot Ducker. But the students may have uncovered the mystery of why no one ever was charged in the killing.

The Third Cavalry Museum
Madera County, California: Death Register 1892-1905

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