Why do people disappear north of Pagosa Springs?

by Nick Gonzales

Traveling north from Pagosa Springs on U.S. Highway 160, one passes out of Archuleta County and into Mineral county before ascending a few switchbacks to journey over Wolf Creek Pass. This area immediately south of the Pass doesn’t seem terribly remarkable. It’s a beautiful area with Treasure Falls on one side, a trail to Rainbow Hot Springs on the other, and an overlook perched above the very scenic valley.

But it’s also slowly developing a reputation for the unexplained. Over the last five years, three missing person cases have originated in that particular area. The most recent happened over the summer, with details that make no sense and even a potential connection to the occult.

A car in the woodsOn Aug. 13, a passerby on West Fork Road (Forest Service Road 648), noticed something odd. It wasn’t so much the debris pile of logs and wood — the U.S. Forest Service slash pile had been there for years. It was the silver 2014 Toyota Camry barely visible underneath it. The person who found the car reported the unusual sight to law enforcement.

[image:2]Investigators quickly determined that the vehicle belonged to Gabriel Max Baldonado of Albuquerque, a man in his early 40s. But as of yet, Baldonado remains missing, and the placement of the car only deepened the mystery.

A host at the nearby West Fork Campground said the car couldn’t have been there for more than 10 days. The neighbors did not report anything unusual or out of the ordinary during the period leading up to its discovery. The only thing inside the car that indicated it was left there recently was a COVID-19 mask. The car itself was perfectly functional — it wasn’t left there because it broke down.

Mineral County Sheriff Fred Hosselkus said that the working theory behind why wood was piled on top of the car was to start a bonfire, but if that’s true, it’s unclear why the person who buried the car never started the fire.

“It kind of looked that way because the logs were stacked up really neatly around it and then it was kind of filled in over the top of the car, he told DGO. “It looked like it could have been for (a bonfire), but for us to say that 100%, we couldn’t really say that.”

Authorities also don’t know how the wood ended up in the car. It’s quite a lot for one person to pile up by hand, but Hosselkus confirms that tracks for heavy machinery were not found on the relatively rocky ground.

[image:3]One oddity that investigators found — a pentagram made of sticks – does nothing but add to the mystery. The 3- to 4-square-foot five-pointed symbol was found about 300 feet from the car, Hosselkus said. Authorities don’t know how long the pentagram was at the site or whether it is related to the buried car.

While pop culture tends to associated pentagrams with Satanism, the symbols pop in cultures and groups around the world and carry a diverse array of meanings. Modern Wiccans, for instance, use it as a symbol of faith, the same way Christians use the cross. In Freemasonry, it’s used as the symbol of the Order of the Eastern Star. Of course, the one found near the car may not be associated with any organization — it could have been left by a bored camper who is a big fan of Slayer.

Hosselkus said this is the first time he has seen a potentially occult symbol show up in Mineral County. His office does, however, find strange things every once in a while.

“A lot of times, we’ll find where people hung bones in trees and stuff like that. Whether that’s just something they do or if it has any other meaning, I don’t know,” he said.

A search crew with dogs that detect human remains were brought in but failed to find anything. If a handful of witnesses are to be believed, though, this is because Baldonado is not only still alive, but well and heading home.

“They did a pretty good search,” Hosselkus told the Herald in September. “They are pretty good dogs, they’ll find something if it’s there.”

If authorities are having trouble finding evidence of Baldonado near the abandoned car, it may be because he’s alive, well, and headed home.

Baldonado’s journey?Sheriff Hosselkus said he has received tips from people who believe they picked up Gabriel Baldonado based on his description and photos in the Durango Herald.

“We’ve gotten a couple reports of people saying they picked him up — that he was hitching to New Mexico, but I don’t know if those are true or not,” he said.

[image:4]George Thompson, a resident of La Plata County, lives south of Sunnyside Elementary School on U.S. Highway 550. He said that on his way home from town on Sept. 20, he saw a slim, dark-haired man trying to hitchhike south at the intersection of that highway and County Road 302. Thompson initially didn’t pick up the man because he wouldn’t have been able to take him very far.

“But then I got to thinking, well, I got some work I need to have done, and I’m pretty much disabled. So I wondered if he might have any interest in doing some work and making a few bucks,” said Thompson, who is on oxygen therapy. “So I turned around and went back and asked him he said, ‘Sure.’”

On the way to Thompson’s house, the hitchhiker mentioned that he had been camping in the West Fork of the San Juan and visiting the hot springs in that area. Thompson said the man also told him he was on his way home to Albuquerque.

At Thompson’s residence, he moved some stuff that Thompson was unable to handle on his own, including some pieces of a boat Thompson is restoring so that Thompson could repaint them. They then got back into Thompson’s truck, and he paid the man and drove him down to a store on the state line.

[image:5]“When we got to the store, I gave him another couple of bucks and asked him to get me a cup of coffee. He said, ‘You bet,’ and he ran into the store and got a cup of coffee and brought it back to me. So I thought he was just a pretty good genuine kind of guy,” Thompson said.

The next day, he saw the Sept. 21 article on Gabriel Baldonado in the Durango Herald and reported the interaction.

Thompson said the man he interacted with seemed self-sufficient, happy to chat, and grateful for the money he earned. He was carrying a backpack and another bag.

Since finding Baldonado’s abandoned vehicle, the Mineral County Sheriff’s Office has worked with investigators in New Mexico to help track down any credit card or bank activity, which hasn’t turned up a trace. Baldonado is also not known to have a cellphone, Hosselkus told the Herald.

If Baldonado is headed back to his home, it’s unclear why he might be trying to stay off the grid. Hosselkus told DGO that Baldonado is not currently charged with any crimes.

[image:6]In an interview with the Herald, Baldonado’s sister, Angela Atwood, said he became estranged from his family and three children after his wife of 15 years, Carol, died in 2017. He took his children to stay with his sister in Seattle before returning to New Mexico alone. The family hasn’t heard from him since, she said.

A problem areaThe West Fork area, especially the overlook above it, is developing a reputation as a place where people go missing. Within the last 5 years, there have been two other unsolved disappearances in the same area, both around the same time of the year.

On Sept. 4, 2017, Matthew Johnston of Rico made a 911 call and explained that he became lost while hiking and was thirsty. The call was traced and the Mineral County Sheriff’s Department found Johnston’s vehicle parked at the overlook. Johnston himself was nowhere to be found.

[image:7,mugshot]Search and Rescue teams from Archuleta and Mineral counties combed the area but found no sign of him. K-9 Search and Rescue, of Dolores, participated in the search using a dog on Sept. 26 of that year, response director Chuck Melvin told the Journal, but it found no clues.

“We searched with people and dogs and helicopters and night vision. I mean, we were all over that mountain, but we haven’t gotten anything at all indicating that he’s somewhere else,” Hosselkus told DGO.

In speaking with Johnston’s mother and brother at the time of the disappearance, Hosselkus found no reason why Johnston, much like Baldonado, would voluntarily up and disappear.

Another disappearance occurred on Sept. 22, 2015. At about 4:30 a.m., a semi tractor-trailer carrying chicken feed plunged off the overlook, resulting in the death of the driver, Raul Marquez of West Palm Beach, Florida. The vehicle was presumed to have been traveling between 50 and 60 mph when it left the road, the Mineral County Miner reported.

After contacting Marquez’s family and the company that owned the semi, and examining the vehicle itself, investigators believe there was a second occupant the morning of the crash.

“We had all the indications of another person being in the truck, but we could never find that other person,” Hosselkus said. “We found clothes and IDs and everything. We even had another truck driver say that he saw another person in the truck on top of the pass. But we never did find a second person in that truck.”

A search dog was lowered 300 feet to the site of the crash, where 6 feet of debris from that and past crashes had collected. The dog, however, was unable to find any signs of the missing passenger. The case was then turned over to the FBI. Raul Marquez, as well as his passenger whose name was not made public at the time, were determined to be Cubans living legally in the United States.

Outside of the disappearances, the overlook and that bend on the highway have been the site of numerous deaths over the years. Between 2015 and 2019, there were 47 semitrailer crashes on the west side of Wolf Creek Pass, according to Colorado Department of Transportation data. Three of those crashes resulted in fatalities. The dangers of that end of the pass have led to the several safety campaigns, including CDOT’s current “Beware the Wolf Campaign.”

[image:8,half]In addition to the countless vehicles that have gone over the cliff, people occasionally fall to their death at the pullout. In 1999, two people died in separate incidents after falling from the overlook.

The first, a New Mexico man named Christian Thompson, fell 250 feet from the precipice on May 26 of that year, the Pagosa Sun reported. No one saw him fall.

Then, on Aug. 5, Sharon H. Radcliff of Pagosa Springs was spotted standing on the ledge of the overlook at about 9:30 p.m. during a heavy rainstorm. Colorado State Patrol Trooper Chris Rivera and Colorado Division of Wildlife Officer Mike Reid both responded to a call from an unidentified motorist. When they arrived, Rivera attempted to get Radcliff to safety.

“I tried to approach, but she said stay away,” Rivera told the Sun. “The weather was miserable, it was windy and foggy and raining very hard. She was on a ledge beyond the safety fence. As I turned away from her to turn off the spotlight, I heard a scream. When I turned around, she was gone.”

Mineral County Deputy Coroner Kelly Mortensen examined the body after it was retrieved and listed Radcliff’s death as a suicide.

In a Herald interview in September about Baldonado’s disappearance and the other missing people, Hosselkus said, “Maybe if we find one, we’ll find them all.”

This seems like wishful thinking, after all, beyond the location at which they intersect, the cases don’t seem to be related. But finding Baldonado would certainly help chip away at the aura of mystery taking hold on the West Fork of the San Juan.


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