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.
November 20, 1999|PAUL DUGGAN | THE WASHINGTON POST QUEMADO, N.M.
— 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.