Crimes In the Sand

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Most of the 300 or so clustered gravesites in the Terlingua Ghost Town cemetery are mounds of white rock rising from auburn dirt. Crosses nailed together from withered wooden boards stand askew, marking the plots. Remembrances of the deceased include Diá de los Muertos mementos and faded Lone Star beer cans—a Western variant on pouring one out for the homies.

The cemetery’s residents were mostly low-wage miners who dug massive sandy pits in search of quicksilver (mercury) during the early 1900s. In the long years since the mines closed, folks seeking an isolated existence among the craggy mountains of the Big Bend’s Chihuahuan Desert have come to rest in peace here as well.

On Dec. 6, 2009, an 18-year-old student from Terlingua’s Big Bend High School may have come close to joining them.

The trouble started at the Boathouse Bar, just up the dusty road from the cemetery. In statements to the Big Bend Gazette, Brewster County Sheriff Ronny Dodson relayed allegations that two men the victim met inside the bar hit him over the back of the head in the parking lot, abducting and driving him, in his own car, deep into the cactus-laden desert. Indictments subsequently handed down by a Brewster County Grand Jury upon the capture of the accused perpetrators, Daniel Martinez, 46, and Kristopher Buchanan, 27, claim the teenager was held at knife point, made to “fear that death or serious bodily injury would be imminently inflicted,” and raped. The perpetrators then doused the victim’s car in gasoline, set it on fire, and forced him to call the Sheriff’s office in Alpine, 89 miles north of Terlingua, to report the vehicle as stolen.

According to Dodson’s comments to the Big Bend Gazette, the attackers took the victim back to one of their homes on Terlingua Ranch, a 240,000-acre swath of private properties north of the Ghost Town, where the victim claims he was assaulted again.

Sometime after midnight, the victim escaped. Wearing nothing but flip-flops, he ran three miles through pitch-black desert before coming to Highway 118, the paved road connecting Terlingua and Alpine, where he flagged down a Brewster County Sheriff’s Deputy.

While the victim survived with only minor abrasions and bruises, adult friends helping him recover say the mental harm was significant.

 

The victim hasn’t spoken publicly about the incident, and—as is the right of anyone involved in a potential rape case—has requested that authorities withhold his identity. But the lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender advocacy group Equality Texas told local media that if the victim’s story holds true, the event rings of a hate crime.

Under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, signed into law by President Barack Obama in October 2009, attacks based on perception of a person’s sexual orientation warrant federal punishment. Buchanan and Martinez were charged by the state with first-degree felonies for assault, kidnapping, robbery and arson. Two weeks later, an agent from the FBI’s Midland office swooped in to investigate. The victim’s sexual orientation has not been publicly confirmed, but if his attackers thought the victim was gay, and that motivated the assault, the U.S. Department of Justice can file federal charges under the Act.

Adding intrigue to what is apparently one of America’s first federally investigated anti-gay hate crimes is the Terlingua scene of the crime. Located between two of Texas’ most expansive open spaces, Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park, the area is one of the nation’s most remote locales. As far back as the early 1900s, land prospectors touted the Big Bend region as the “Last Frontier,” and the ethos endures as the official slogan of Brewster County, which encompasses an area larger than Connecticut and Rhode Island combined.

Of the thousands of tourists who visit, many fall permanently in love with the desert’s beauty and its residents’ apparently unencumbered lifestyle. Over the last few decades, the population has gradually expanded, bringing signs of change. The attack remains an isolated incident, but the sense of threat it brings to a growing community is potent.”

Terlingua residents who once relied on vigilante justice to deal with troublemakers—“I’ve shown up to find people already bound and tied,” Sheriff Dodson says—now rely on a local deputy. A sparkling new fire station was erected last winter next to an organic grocery store, and a municipal water system now supplies many homes and businesses (the worst thing to happen to Terlingua since the roads were paved back in the ’40s, some old-timers say). As recently as the mid-’90s, local high-school students traveled 178 miles round trip to attend class in Alpine. In 2009, Big Bend High School (with the roadrunner as apt mascot) boasted 60 kids.

Still, a large number of folks in and around Terlingua continue to live off the grid. There’s no zoning in the area. Nor is there a public sewage system or ready access to electricity. Mud and stone are common construction materials. For many, roof run-off is a primary source of water.

“A lot of people move here to escape life and be somewhere no one will bother them,” says Tanya Phillips, president of the board of directors of the Property Owners Association of Terlingua Ranch, Inc., (aka POATRI, pronounced “poetry”).

Crime is a minor concern. Residents don’t lock their doors. Many don’t even have doors to lock. Locals rarely meet a resident they don’t already know by name. That neither defendant was well known befuddled folks in the community.

For the alleged attackers, Terlingua may have served as an escape from lives of crime. Sheriff Dodson described Martinez to a local reporter as drifting between his residence on Terlingua Ranch and various state penitentiaries; authorities discovered multiple arrest warrants from multiple counties during Buchanan’s arraignment.

“Years ago, you could move down there to hide,” Dodson says, stretching for a silver lining. “With all the good people coming into the area, that’s no longer an option.”

 

Not everyone around Terlingua thinks Martinez and Buchanan are guilty. Foremost among them is Martinez’s attorney, Mike Barclay. Formerly one of Dallas’s most prominent and unpredictable criminal lawyers, Barclay retired to Alpine in the early ’80s. After realizing how beset the Brewster County courts were with drug-trafficking and illegal-immigration cases born of the abutting border, he went back to work—often pro bono.

As Martinez’s court-appointed lawyer, Barclay argues that the victim wasn’t entirely honest with Sheriff’s deputies regarding the extent of his injuries. He claims the victim changed his story multiple times, and harbors a reputation within the community for lying. Of the victim’s undisclosed sexual orientation, Barclay says, “A woman down at the bar told me he was a little light in the loafers.”

The prosecutor, District Attorney Jesse Gonzales, expects the victim to take the stand in court, and says that—not the press—will provide the appropriate venue for Barclay to challenge his credibility.

But Barclay isn’t the only local doubting the victim’s story. The area surrounding Terlingua is divided between two disparate populations: the few hundred people centered around the Ghost Town and nearby enclave of Study Butte, and 1,000 or so more out on Terlingua Ranch, where Martinez and Buchanan lived. The groups have responded to the alleged assault differently.

The Ghost Town subsists almost entirely on tourism. Bars and coffee shops punctuate the adobe ruins. You can raft the Rio Grande or go mountain biking in the afternoon, then catch an evening concert at the refurbished Starlight Theater. At night, friendly locals gather alongside tourists on the porch of the Terlingua Trading Post to imbibe refreshments and watch the setting sun paint the Chisos Mountains in deep crimson.

An entrenched openness permeates Ghost Town society. “Howdy,” translates to “want a beer?” On the porch, regulars include folks like Jim Ezell, the longtime director of the international chili cooking championship, annually held the first Saturday in November, and Dr. Doug, a self-proclaimed therapist who hosts impromptu group sessions and prescribes ice-cold medicine from the Trading Post’s beer cooler. Gay teenager is no more marginal an identity than many here. After the incident, locals gathered in the Ghost Town for a candlelight vigil in support of the victim, and set up a fund at a local bank toward his recovery. Few in the Ghost Town will talk about the incident with a reporter for fear of betraying their friend’s trust.

Conversely, on Terlingua Ranch, well outside of the Ghost Town, where homes sit miles apart, many residents were less familiar with the case’s particularities, and more hesitant to take the victim’s side.

According to POATRI President Tanya Phillips, whose primary residence is in Austin, retirees and vacation homes dominate Terlingua Ranch. A few hardened holdouts still raise cattle or work mines. Of the 4,000 properties situated along nearly 1,100 miles of dirt roads in Terlingua Ranch, only about 10 percent are permanently occupied. Still, Phillips says, “There’s very much a sense of community.” Residents congregate at the Ranch lodge every month for a potluck dinner. But to cut loose socially, Ranch residents go into town.

That’s where these two distinct communities meet, and where much of the conjecture that threatens to pull them apart persists. “Most of what I’ve heard is just what people were saying around the bar, that this thing wasn’t exactly a one-way street,” says POATRI board member Charlie Oaks, a 72-year-old retiree who’s owned a home on Terlingua Ranch for 30 years.

“People weren’t surprised there were folks here capable of doing something like that, nor were they surprised someone might initiate it,” Oaks says. “Still, no matter your sexual preference, no one should be treated that roughly.”

Mike Long, owner of local outfitter Desert Sports and a Ghost Town community leader, downplays the idea of a rift over the incident. But Oaks, asked if folks in the Ghost Town were quick to side with the victim, while those on the Ranch have been more inclined to question the authenticity of the victim’s story, says, “You kind of nailed it right there.”

 

The FBI declined to comment on the results of its investigation, which have been submitted to the Department of Justice for review. Sheriff Dodson was quoted in a local paper saying the case didn’t fit the FBI’s criteria, and that the agency has made a recommendation not to prosecute it as a hate crime. The agent who investigated the case, Matt Espenshade, said a final decision is expected from the DOJ in late spring.

Martinez and Buchanan are scheduled to go before a jury of their peers in the state’s 394th District Court sometime this summer. Until then, and possibly well after, conjecture and gossip will likely continue.

The mountains and desert and mind-clearing solitude will continue to enchant visitors, some of whom will buy property and move there. But somewhere off a desolate dirt road, the specter of a car set ablaze serves as a reminder of the search for human understanding and peaceful living, even on the Last Frontier.

 

Ian Dille is a freelance journalist based in Austin.