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Harry Lawton, 77; wrote of American Indians

LOS ANGELES -- Harry W. Lawton, an author and historian who wrote a nonfiction novel about a manhunt for an American Indian fugitive wanted for murder that served as the basis for the 1969 movie ''Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here," has died. He was 77.

Mr. Lawton, a former journalist, retired lecturer, and management services officer at the University of California in Riverside, died Nov. 20 in an assisted-care facility after a long illness, his family said.

Mr. Lawton was a reporter for the Riverside Press-Enterprise in the 1950s when he first heard accounts of what has been called the ''last great manhunt" of the Old West from Indians on the Morongo Indian Reservation.

In 1909, Willie Boy, a 28-year-old Paiute-Chemehuevi Indian, fell in love with Carlota Boniface, his 16-year-old distant cousin. Her father, William, a shaman known as Old Mike, forbade the marriage. Willie Boy shot Old Mike to death on a ranch in Banning, then fled with the girl. The couple stayed ahead of a posse for a dozen days as they circled and backtracked over nearly 600 miles of desert in 100-degree heat.

In the end, although the circumstances are disputed, the girl was shot and killed, and Willie Boy killed himself.

''Willie Boy: A Desert Manhunt," Mr. Lawton's 1960 nonfiction novel, was based on three years of research that included interviews with surviving posse members. The book received the James D. Phelan Award in Literature for best nonfiction, and the Southwest Literature award for a historical work.

Mr. Lawton later served as technical and historical consultant for the movie, which starred Robert Redford as the deputy sheriff in charge of the posse, Robert Blake as Willie Boy, and Katharine Ross as the girl.

One of Mr. Lawton's sons, George, told the Los Angeles Times last week that his father's book ''was praised at the time as a breakthrough -- a sympathetic portrayal of Indians and their culture in the white world."

But James A. Sandos and Larry E. Burgess, the authors of the 1994 book ''The Hunt for Willie Boy," accused Lawton of being careless with the facts, including changing the name of the girl from Carlota to Lolita to capitalize on the popularity of Vladimir Nabokov's novel about a sexually precocious young girl.

In their book, Mr. Sandos and Mr. Burgess wrote that by ''accepting the views of an Indian-hater in [his interpretation] of Willie Boy," Mr. Lawton became an ''unconscious" one himself.

Mr. Lawton filed a libel suit, seeking $25,000 in damages. The suit, according to a Los Angeles Times account, was settled without money changing hands. Mr. Sandos and Mr. Burgess were ordered to write a correction in any undistributed copies and future editions retracting the Indian-hater charge and other points of contention.

The elder Mr. Lawton had long ties with the local Indian community. He was instrumental in founding the Malki Museum on the Morongo Indian Reservation, the first American Indian museum established at a California reservation. He also helped start the nonprofit Malki Museum Press, which publishes books and pamphlets about California Indians.

Born in Long Beach in December 1927, Mr. Lawton attended Riverside City College and the University of California, Berkeley, working on the college newspapers at each and writing for literary and humor magazines. Leaving UC Berkeley before completing his degree, Mr. Lawton opened the Haunted Bookstore in Berkeley, which specialized in rare Western Americana.

After selling his partnership in the bookstore in 1953, he spent the next 17 years in journalism at the San Clemente Sun and the Riverside Press-Enterprise.

At Riverside, from 1965 until his retirement in 1991, he worked as a writer, editor, and management services officer.

Lawton leaves his wife, Georgeann; his sons, George, Daniel, Jonathan, and Richard; his daughter, Deborah Golino; his sister, Jean Belle Hamner; and six grandchildren.

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