Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
On a map, the unincorporated land in Sandoval County to the west of Rio Rancho looks like a sprawling neighborhood. Numbered streets crisscross the terrain to form a precise grid stretching out to the arid Rio Puerco.
But a trip out there reveals a very different sight.
Street signs have been torn down, or never existed, and so GPS is the only way to identify the dirt roads that weave over pitted terrain. Prickly pear and cholla cactus crawl across low hills interspersed with squat juniper trees.
In the 1960s and ’70s, the AMREP Corp. parceled out one-half and one-acre plots of land to be sold to far-flung buyers. But today, few hints of development exist. Instead, the 43,629-acre Rio Rancho Estates Area from Southern to Northern boulevards SW and beyond, west of the city line, is largely vacant.
Mobile homes and trailers, mainly powered by generators and with wells or storage tanks for water, get fewer and farther between as you head west, and 657 miles of well-maintained dirt roads have helped the area become a popular spot for illegal dumping, said Lt. Keith Elder of the Sandoval County Sheriff’s Office.
Elder said that almost 40 percent of all stolen cars that were recovered throughout the county last year were found within 21 square miles. Most of those, he said, were stolen from Albuquerque.
And, since August, the bodies of two slain Albuquerque residents have been left there – one burned, the other buried in the sandy, rocky terrain.
Otherwise, the land is used for recreation both legal and illegal – ATV riders zoom around curves and hills, and gun enthusiasts empty their rifles at makeshift targets.
Rio Rancho was founded on a scam, County Commissioner Dave Heil said matter-of-factly when asked about the land in his district (District 4) that extends outside the city of Rio Rancho to the Rio Puerco.
Contemporaneous clips and history lessons tell the tale of how AMREP sales agents used brightly colored ads and aggressive pitches to ensnare thousands of buyers from around the world into the dream of owning a piece of the West. Some of those plots of land were incorporated into what became the city of Rio Rancho.
But other new landowners soon learned they had bought “semi-arid desert grazing land” that lacked water, utilities and other services, according to a federal indictment of four top AMREP officials as reported by the New York Times. Those officials were convicted in federal court of fraud, according to an article published in 1977.
Heil was one of those land owners. He said he was in his 20s and living in Cleveland, Ohio, working at his family’s business, when he saw an ad for Rio Rancho Estates.
He still has the ad – well-coiffed, sun-soaked men and women lounge poolside or in the spacious lawn of a model home. The area is the “sunshine paradise” of the great Southwest, a “hunter’s paradise” and a “carpet of green.”
He bought five plots of land in a unit nearly adjacent to the Rio Puerco.
But Heil never developed that land and instead traded in the plots over the years to finance a home closer to town.
“It’s very barren out there,” he said. “I never even saw my lots. Like many people who had come out here, most people never find their actual lots, just know they’re out there.”
These days, a spokeswoman for Sandoval County estimates that about 1,200 people live in the area, based on a 2010 estimate of more than 500 homes in the area. She said the county doesn’t have a specific plan for the area.
In 2014, the county passed the Rio Rancho Estates Area Plan to lay out how the space should be divided into different uses in the future.
According to the plan, the state owns 1,100 acres of two truncated parcels of land, and the rest is divided into thousands of plots. Approximately one-third of those plots are still owned by AMREP, the rest are owned by individuals throughout the world.
The Rio Rancho Estates Area Plan addresses neighborhood preservation, land acquisition, water and environmental conservation, private sector development, limited commercial redevelopment and the potential for government intervention in larger-scale redevelopment.
Although the barren expanse is largely ignored by the public on a day-to-day basis, it has cropped up in the news and court documents related to two separate gruesome murders out of Albuquerque in the past eight months.
One evening last August, around sundown, detectives say two men and a woman drove a Chevy Silverado king-cab to an off-roading area near 21st Street near Northern to bury the mutilated body of a man they are accused of killing over a drug debt. After they buried the body, police say their older red pickup truck got stuck in the sand, and a good Samaritan of sorts ended up digging them out.
Albuquerque homicide detectives later took a couple trips to the area themselves, driving up and down dirt roads, eating trail mix and searching – based in part on what the good Samaritan told them – for the spot where they believed 41-year-old John Soyka was buried.
In mid-September, they found his body buried in a shallow grave off a wide sandy road leading to the Rio Puerco. Six months later, APD crime scene tape remained ensnared in cactus spines at the scene.
Chase Smotherman and Mariah Ferry are charged in Soyka’s death. Mitchell Overhand, notorious for killing his parents as a teenager in the 1980s, was charged with tampering with evidence, because police believe he helped them bury the body. Their trials are pending.
Then, in January, another homicide investigation began about five miles southeast.
Sandoval County sheriff’s deputies found the charred body of 65-year-old Marilyn Gandert of Albuquerque on a mattress by the side of 33rd Street, south of Ninth Street.
Although the roads are easy to find using GPS, the shoulder of 33rd Street is a barren dirt plot, populated only by shrubs and stones. A small memorial of candles and a cross marks the spot where Gandert’s body was found.
No one has been charged in her death.
Some days, gunfire is a near constant echo as recreational shooters risk fines or even jail time if they’re caught by law enforcement. Piles of shotgun shells and bullet casings cluster on overlooks and in shallow gulleys.
On a chilly Friday afternoon, a Journal reporter and photographer accompanied Lt. Elder as he drove up and down the dirt roads in an unmarked Sandoval County Sheriff’s Office SUV.
When Elder spotted a pickup truck parked in a wide rut, he made a U-turn and approached, police lights flashing.
Four young men from Albuquerque, ages 18 to 20, sheepishly handed over the AK-47 they had loaded for target practice. Elder ran the weapon in a national database to see if it had been stolen (it hadn’t) and counseled one of the men who is enlisted in the military against getting in trouble.
He let them off with a warning.
“They looked like they’re pretty decent kids,” Elder said as he drove off. “Let them go merrily on their way.”
Elder said illegal shooting is one of the biggest problems in the area and one of the most frequent calls from nearby residents. But, he said, marksmen are just as likely not to get caught.
“Unless someone drives up on you, or sees you shooting, or one of these residents hears it, you could basically go undiscovered,” he said.
But dumping is also a problem.
Burned out carcasses of stolen, or at least unwanted, vehicles dot the landscape. So do rusted ovens. Old, rotten boats. Splintered televisions.
Over the past five years or so, the sheriff’s office reported that between 25 percent and 50 percent of all recovered stolen vehicles in the county have been found in 21 square miles of the Rio Rancho Estates Area. In 2017, 11 stolen vehicles were recovered there, compared with 18 in the rest of the county, an area 177 times its size.
Many of those vehicles, Elder said, are damaged beyond recognition, making it impossible to know if they were reported stolen. He said it’s often more trouble than they’re worth to remove them.
Life off the grid
Those who do live in Rio Rancho Estates, in modest and isolated homes, tout the peace and quiet – despite the occasional target shooting – and the distance from the big city crime and commotion.
A man and his dog collect brush off the side of a dirt road. A pack of dogs prowls around a small property as their owners fix a broken down truck in the front yard.
A teenage boy peddles his bike as hard as he can up a hill and into a brilliant sunset as he races to borrow tools from his neighbors before night falls.
Alfredo Sandoval, who works for a landscaper in Albuquerque, told the Journal he bought his land 16 years ago for $18,000 and has built it up slowly as he and his wife raised three children. The oldest is about to graduate from Rio Rancho High School, eight miles away.
His property is located on Northern, closer to the edge of the city than the undeveloped mesa. But he still has to haul water from a well every other week even though a utility-size water tank looms within easy eyeshot. It’s six miles to the closest gas station.
Today, Sandoval’s land includes a gazebo, complete with a picnic table, patio chairs and lights, and a fountain that bubbles in the front yard. His double-wide trailer sits next to a tool shed, and a 1-year-old Bernese mountain dog lazes about next to the property’s adobe wall.
“All you hear at night are coyotes,” Sandoval said, speaking in Spanish.