Daily Archives: January 7, 2012

The Strangeness – Background Context of Unsolved Homicides

By the time this was published in 1999, I was no longer going up that particular mountain.  I was busy on my Y2K land and dwelling preparations about 50 miles northeast of Quemado.

But this will give you an idea of the general local psychological environment in the area, both while I was working the mountain and [it turned out] later, while I was doing Y2K.


Unsolved Slayings Have Small N.M. Town Living in Fear

Crime: With seven people killed since 1996, residents are openly packing heat. Authorities see no connections among the deaths.


— There’s not much to the town. You come upon it in the vast, yellow-brown emptiness of southern New Mexico’s high desert grassland. It’s mainly just a strip of old storefronts on Highway 60, with some dusty side streets.

In a 40-mile radius of Quemado you might find 500 people, about half of them ranchers living like pioneers on the plains and in the foothills, miles from any neighbor. The rest live in town, in trailer homes and faded stucco bungalows amid the tumbleweeds and pinon trees.

The sheriff, Cliff Snyder, said it used to be a peaceful place in its lonesome way, before all the killings. Now there’s fear in the air, like a foul wind.

Who murdered Gary and Judy Wilson? It’s a mystery. They disappeared in November 1995 and turned up eight months later, so many bones in the woods. Who shoved Gilbert Stark into a 20-foot well and closed the cover in ’96? Who shot the elderly Clark couple and their daughter in ’97? Who put a bullet in the heart of James Carroll, 59, as he stood in his corral just north of town one autumn day last year? The sheriff doesn’t know.

He and the state police said they are convinced the cases aren’t related. They were random eruptions of murder where murder used to be rare, Snyder said. He has no clear explanation for it. All of the victims lived in the countryside around Quemado, about 125 miles southwest of Albuquerque. Before the Wilsons were slain, no one had died by another’s hand in this part of sprawling Catron County in nearly a decade.

And no one wants to be next. In a swath of America where gun control means hitting what you’re aiming at, a lot of folks are packing iron. They’re propping shotguns and rifles beside their beds; they’re driving with pistols on the front seats of their pickups. The sheriff said he doesn’t mind. This is the rural West, he pointed out, and guns are a heritage.

“We’re raised with them,” said Snyder, 42. He shrugged. “If I pull over a vehicle, I figure they’re armed, if they live in this county.”

At El Sarape Cafe on Quemado’s main street, Irene Jaramillo, 43, keeps a .22-caliber semiautomatic on a shelf near the griddle. One morning last week, Paul Strand, 67, who owns a horse ranch south of town, was sipping coffee in the cafe with his wife and holding forth on the subject of their firearms.

“I sleep with a Colt .45 under my pillow,” he said. “I have a loaded assault rifle beside the bed, a Russian-type, ready to roll. And a sawed-off shotgun next to that, loaded, legal, but just barely, in terms of the barrel length.”

Across the street, Carl Geng, who is in his 60s, runs the Allison Motel with his wife. They also own a ranch outside of town. Geng said he thinks he knows the culprit in one of the homicide cases. “I’ve got a .38,” he said, gesturing to his truck in the parking lot. “He sets one foot on my ranch, I’ll blow his head off.”

The sheriff said he and the state police think most or all of the victims were murdered by acquaintances with whom they had personal disputes. As for suspects, investigators have only “theories,” he said.

It’s a crime in New Mexico to carry a concealed loaded weapon in a public place but legal for anyone 21 or older to carry one openly, no permit necessary. James Clark, a Vietnam veteran, started packing two handguns after his parents, William Clark, 84, and Pearl Clark, 74, were slain in 1997 along with his sister, Sharron Hutson, 44. Folks in Quemado are used to seeing him in town with a .45-caliber Colt Peacemaker on his right hip and a .40-caliber semiautomatic in a shoulder holster.

“Which is fine,” said Irene Jaramillo’s husband, Jimmy, who is one of Snyder’s deputies. “I told him, ‘As long as I can see them.’ “

James Clark and his wife, Elaine, 42, now live in the remote trailer home where the elderly couple was murdered. Elaine Clark, who prefers a lighter-weight .35-caliber, sat in the kitchen one day last week with her husband’s heavy semiautomatic on the table in front of her. There was a loaded hunting rifle propped against the freezer by her left hand.

“We always used to brag that it was like the Old West, in the way that your house was never locked,” she said. “Someone passing by, if you were gone, they could come in and get something to eat. But now it’s more like the Old West the way you’re always on guard. You don’t walk up to my house unless I know you’re coming . . . or you could darn well get shot.”

Catron County, with just 3,000 residents, covers almost 7,000 square miles. It’s bigger than Connecticut. Snyder, who was a deputy when the seven homicides occurred, was elected sheriff last year. He has an undersheriff and four deputies, including Jaramillo, who patrols the northern half of the county around Quemado. Half a dozen state troopers also work in the county. But with such a vast area to cover, it sometimes takes an hour or more to reach the scene of an emergency.

Cold Mystery, Fevered Romance and Lost Gold

A burned out cabin ruin with an aspen tree growing out of the inside, bear claw marks 12 feet up, 3 hand forged nails, a longtom sluicebox axed out of a 3 foot diameter log, a spring 75 feet above the sluice, an arrastra below. 

A mysterious map chiseled on the face of a 300 pound rock surface depicting the exact layout of the canyon, the cabin, the waterfall, all so accurately depicted the person had to have scrutinized the layout from the mountaintop, then scratched it on this stone 600 vertical feet below and half a mile away.  The rock was carefully placed on the canyon wall above eye-level so it was easily seen, but only by someone looking up.

I’m guessing the date must have been spring, 1995.  I’d moved my search to the mountain I described above and was performing a systematic search of  the canyon from the discharge to the mountain crest.  I’d filed two mining claims at the location of the cabin and sluicebox pictured in the earlier post, and downstream.  I hadn’t yet found the map rock, and I was spending every moment I could squeeze between job duties, romantic obligations and financial constraints camped on that mountain.

I headed down there planning on spending a week, but on the road the Mitzubishi Montero sprung a water hose a few miles outside of Grants.  It was raining while I mucked under the hood, taping the hose and getting enough coolant in it to drive it to a parts house in Grants, where I installed it in the rain.  I was chilled and soaked as I drove south from Grants, but in too much of a hurry now to change clothes.

By the time I arrived at my usual camp site I was running a high fever and feeling my breathing becoming hard labor.  I hastily dragged a tarp out of the truck,  put my sleeping bag under it and got inside, hoping I’d shake off what I was afraid was coming.  I’d had pneumonia enough times this lifetime to recognize the onset.

The next morning found me weak, fever skylining, knowing I’d better try to get out of there while I still could.  I threw some brush over my gear because I was too weak to reload it onto the truck, and started down the mountain.  My vision was blurred and I was hallucinating, barely able to stay on the two-track.  When I reached the US Forest Service road a line of fenceposts ahead briefly became a line of riflemen aiming at me.

I remember nothing of the trip after that until I found myself at the home of my lady friend in Albuquerque, wrapped in a blanket on the floor of her downstairs because I wasn’t strong enough to climb them, burning with fever, shaking with chills.  She, nursing me with herbs and leftover antibiotics from her medicine cabinet.

“There are some people missing out there where your claims are.”  She was sipping coffee at the table, looking over the paper at me.  “A man and his wife.  The State has people out searching for them.”  She shook her head.  “They must have been right near where you were.”

The couple lived across a basin at the base of the mountain.  I could probably see their dwelling through binoculars from the mountaintop.  They were woodcutters, but I’d never encountered them, to my knowledge. 

As I recovered in Albuquerque the search died away.  The local sheriff announced the couple had probably just abandoned their house and gone somewhere else.  They were nobody, outsiders.  He refused to treat their vanishing act as a possible crime, didn’t allow the State Police to investigate their home.  But the time on the floor in Albuquerque weak as a kitten, tended hand and foot is one of those tender, grateful memories of my years with the lady.

Over the next several months I continued, sometimes in company with Keith, sometimes with other friends, sometimes alone, exploring, sampling, puzzling over what I was finding there.  Then, the first day of elk season that fall I encountered two elk hunters with their truck stuck in a stream bed.  When I finished towing them out, we introduced ourselves.

“Did you hear about those bodies they found in the canyon over there?”  He gestured to the mountain indicating a canyone one over from mine, plus one.   Renfro Canyon on the rock map sketch.  Less than a mile from my claims.  “A bear dug them up.  They were buried in an Indian ruin and a hunter found them this morning.”

The bodies turned out to be the people who’d turned up missing while I was giving myself pneumonia.  I felt reasonably confident the police would be contacting me with questions about whether I’d seen anything, because I was probably the only person on the mountain besides the victims and the murderers at the time it happened.

The Bureau I worked for, Emergency Management Planning and Coordination [EMPAC] was part of the New Mexico Department of Public Safety, though a step-child and somewhat separate.  I went to my Bureau Chief and explained what had happened, asked whether he thought I should go over to the State copshop and volunteer to talk to them about it.

“Man, I wouldn’t touch that.  Let them come to you.  You might be the best suspect they’ve got.”  A lawyer friend gave me the same advice, informally.

So I kept quiet and waited, and they never came.  I kept working that mountain, homicides and multiple-homicides continued to happen over the next couple of years remaining unsolved and generally thought to be uninvestigated, and the entire county became a quagmire of paranoia.  Everyone carrying firearms, nobody trusting anyone.

Meanwhile, the mountain echoed the weirdness and pressure the county was experiencing.  Somewhere during that time began the strangest chain of events and experiences of my entire life.

Which I might describe in a later blog or series of blog posts.

Old Jules