It all started when Thomas Hart, a drifter with a penchant for alcohol, stole a case of whiskey from Paul Moretti’s saloon. Moretti reported the theft to Yuma County Sheriff Gus Livingston. Not long after, Moretti spotted Hart on Main Street and pointed him out to a young deputy, Matt DeVanem, who confronted Hart and tried to arrest him. Hart shot the deputy at point blank range with a gun hidden in his pocket. The deputy died an hour later. Hart was taken into custody shortly after.
Feelings ran high in the community. Hart asked that his trial be moved, claiming that even the members of the Elks Lodge had tried to get up a lynching party. His request was denied, and he was tried, found guilty of murder and sentenced to hang in April 1901. He was put in the Yuma jail to await execution.
The jail was part of the Yuma Courthouse at Madison and Third Street, and, as the photo shows, the Southern Pacific main line ran directly in front of it. That set Hart to thinking.
His cellmate, Louis Leyvas, who was serving time for stealing a gold piece from a friend, had worked at the Southern Pacific roundhouse and knew how to run a locomotive.
Hart began to plan a break and encouraged Leyvas to join him. Leyvas made himself a knife out of a piece of packing-crate wood. On a Sunday afternoon, a friend brought Leyvas a watermelon. When Billy Neahr, one of the jailors, opened the cell door to roll in the melon, Leyvas pressed the homemade knife to his ribs. He and Hart took the keys and some weapons, locked Neahr in the cell, and, with Hart dragging along his “Oregon boot” (a 50-pound manacle designed to impede getaways).
They headed for the rail yard.
There they commandeered a locomotive. Leyvas stopped Hart from killing Donald McIntyre, the shop foreman. He also freed Hart from the boot using tools in the cab of the locomotive. With Leyvas at the controls, they headed into the desert, bound for the Mexican border and followed by the inevitable posse whose most enthusiastic member was Neahr, furious at being tricked. Not far from the border, the engine quit, and Hart and Leyvas abandoned it. The posse rode up. Hart was unfamiliar with the .41 caliber pistol he had stolen and could not release the safety. He stood up and Neahr shot him through the chest, killing him.
Leyvas wisely surrendered and was returned to jail. His compassion for the shop foreman evidently worked in his favor; he was sentenced to three years for the jailbreak and won a release after two years and a month. Thereafter he went straight, and more than 40 years later, on Dec. 11, 1944, he was pardoned by Gov. Sidney Osborn.
— Jane Eppinga. Photo courtesy Arizona Historical Society, Tucson