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William Keys

On May 11, 1943, rancher Worth Bagley was shot and killed on or near his property in what is now Joshua Tree National Park, close to the county line between San Bernadino and Riverside counties. Bagley, a former deputy sheriff in Los Angeles County, had been engaged in a long-running feud with his neighbor, cattle rancher and miner William (Bill) F. Keys, regarding a property-line disagreement and Keys’s use of a road that was on the disputed land. Hours after the shooting, 63-year-old Keys turned himself in to law enforcement in nearby Twentynine Palms, saying that he shot Bagley in self-defense.

On May 19, 1943, Keys was charged with Bagley’s murder. His jury trial began in July 1943 in the Riverside County Superior Court before Judge George R. Freeman. Los Angeles attorney Paul B. d’Orr represented Keys, and District Attorney John Neblett represented the state. The prosecution presented testimony of two expert witnesses supporting the theory of San Bernadino Deputy Sheriff William Russell that Bagley was lying down when shot and that the gun found in his hand was placed there after his death. Keys testified that prior to the shooting, Bagley had posted a sign warning Keys not to use the road in dispute. Keys testified that as he approached this sign in his car, Bagley ambushed him, shooting but missing him. Keys said he then grabbed a rifle from his car and fired three shots at Bagley, who fell over. Keys testified that he was afraid Bagley was tricking him by appearing injured, so he did not go over to see whether Bagley was hurt. Instead, he said, he went home and then, several hours later, surrendered to police.

The jury found Keys guilty of manslaughter on July 23, 1943. Judge Freeman sentenced him to 10 years in prison. On February 24, 1944, the appellate court upheld Keys’s conviction.

While Keys was in prison, his wife contacted Erle Stanley Gardner, a famous crime writer involved in reinvestigating the cases of those he believed had been wrongfully convicted. Gardner featured these cases in his Argosy magazine column, “The Court of Last Resort.” Gardner was also a friend of Keys and a past guest at his ranch. He began working with California State Assemblyman Vernon Kilpatrick to review transcripts and documents relating to Keys’s case.

On July 19, 1948, Bagley’s ex-wife, Isabelle Clark, gave a sworn statement before Kilpatrick that supported Keys’s claims of self-defense. Clark was married to Bagley until shortly before his death. She said that Bagley often laid in wait for hours along the road, intending to ambush Keys if he drove past. At the time of Keys’s trial, Clark had not been contacted to testify; she had resumed using her maiden name after separating from Bagley, and the defense could not locate her.

Paroled and released from San Quentin State Prison on October 25, 1948, Keys returned to his ranch to live with his wife, Frances, and their children. With the help of Gardner, Kilpatrick, and other supporters, Keys continued to pursue efforts to clear his name.

In July 1956, Governor Goodwin J. Knight granted Keys a full pardon.

Following Keys’s death in June 1969, Keys Ranch was preserved as a national historic site within Joshua Tree National Park, open to the public for guided tours.

- Meghan Barrett Cousino
Most Serious Crime:Manslaughter
Reported Crime Date:1943
Sentence:10 years
Age at the date of crime:63
Contributing Factors: