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.

12 responses to “The Strangeness – Background Context of Unsolved Homicides

  1. Wow that”s scary! So the murders stopped in 1999? And still they are unsolved. That’s really strange!

    The story about the 80 year old lady and the 3 youths using a screw driver is awfully gruesome!!

    • I missed that one? What 80 yo lady?

      • Miss Molly: That one was up at Candy Kitchen, just off the Navajo Rez at Pine Hill/Ramah Chapter. One of the kids, 17 year old, was the son of Curtis Cohoe, whom I mentioned in a blog or two here. Gracias, Jules

    • Carrie, they’re still unsolved, but somehow they’ve been dropped off the NM list of unsolved homicides, same as a number of other unsolved ones. In 2001 the NM governor established a Governors Task Force on Unsolved Homicides in Catron County to investigate further. The state cop contacted me for an interview, but never came for it, though we talked a couple of times on the phone. The whole thing just faded out of history, more-or-less. Jules

  2. Old Jules, very interesting…. I can’t wait to read more.

  3. I’m curious as to how the Wilsons were killed – the article didn’t say.

  4. Good God. How that many gunshots are unconnected i cannot say. But i for one am not going to be stopping off to say howdy!! Are the cops in collusion on one or two of these. Obviously someone is covering something up. Someone Always knows something. scary alright.. c

    • ceciliag: My personal thought was always that the Catron County Sheriff before the one in the article was up to his neck in it all. Welborn was his name and he was Sheriff more than a decade after he quit the NM Department of Public Safety under interesting circumstances involving a homicide of a couple in Lincoln County a dozen years before the Catron County thing. McKnight was the family name of the victims. Scarface Welborn they called him. Jules

  5. amazing that all of this remained unexplained…

    • LCTC: Thanks for coming by. Actually a person gets used to it after a while. But it’s definitely an acquired taste. I pity the guys who do that stuff, having to all-the-time be paying attention to the finer details of the lives of the people they’re doing it to. People with lives no more interesting than their own. Tough gig, thinks I. Gracias, Jules

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