It will be 27 years next week since Linda Lee Daniels was buried in a grassy cemetery in suburban Denver, her grave marked by a bronze plaque etched with two roses and this poignant acknowledgment:
We Loved Her So.
But to James Curry of Albuquerque and others like him, her final resting place lies elsewhere, under a small bridge in the Jemez Mountains, forever spoiled and stained with her blood and the evil that took her there.
Curry never knew Daniels. Most of us didn’t. Yet we still recall her name, still see the face of the smiling young University of New Mexico junior with long, blond hair who vanished Jan. 12, 1986, and was later found with a bullet to her brain under that bridge.
“I am not a part of the Daniels story,” Curry explained in a letter he felt compelled to write to me after coming across some old notes he had kept from that time long ago. “But it is part of me.”
Linda Lee Daniels was 22, an anthropology major, and on the last night of her life she had gone to an Albertsons at Menaul and Juan Tabo NE – not far, coincidentally, from where Curry lived at the time – to shop for Sunday night dinner fixings for her fiance.
She likely hadn’t known she was being watched by two men and a teenage boy trolling the area in an old station wagon.
She likely hadn’t known they had followed her for nearly two miles back to her fiance’s home near Tramway and Indian School NE.
Daniels’ fiance found her Mustang parked outside his home that evening, the driver’s-side door ajar, a trail of groceries in the driveway.
News of Daniels’ disappearance terrorized the city. Women feared they would be the next victim plucked randomly from their homes for reasons not yet known. Self-defense classes swelled. Guns flew off the shelves.
Things like this never happened in Albuquerque, we said collectively.
We learned later that the men – Sidney Thomas Sliger, 20, and Wallace Randolph Pierce, 24 – and a 17-year-old high school dropout named James Scartaccini had been on a mission to find a woman to star in their pornographic video.
Masterminding the far-fetched endeavor was Johnny Zinn, a 45-year-old ex-con who had promised them as much as $1,500 for procuring a woman.
The men had snatched up Daniels and taken her to the Canyon Motel on East Central, where for hours they took turns raping her at knifepoint.
The next day, Zinn ordered them to drive Daniels to Farmington, supposedly to meet the film crew.
Near San Ysidro, plans changed. Her disappearance had caused too much publicity. She had to be eliminated.
The men veered north, went past Fenton Lake on N.M. 126 through the narrow Calaveras Canyon toward the Seven Springs State Fish Hatchery before stopping at one of three small bridges.
Daniels pleaded for her life as she lay facedown on the frozen earth, before gunfire echoed through the canyon.
Scartaccini led authorities to her body Jan. 20, 1986.
Curry, the letter writer, knows the area well. As a boy growing up on a ranch nearby, he thought of Calaveras Canyon as a magical place, the stuff found in literature.
He imagined a slide of shale smoothed by the creek as the secret water route to a separate world as depicted in “Lorna Doone.” A jagged crown of rock projecting out into the canyon above the bridges hid a patch of wild raspberries.
But the site of his bucolic boyhood became something else 27 years ago.
“We were all horrified to find that our special place had become the final destination of Linda Lee Daniels,” he wrote. “In our family, that location is now the ‘Daniels Bridges.’ ”
He has never known which of the three bridges was the one where Daniels was killed. He has never wanted to know.
All of it – every bridge, every berry – is sacred ground now.
January has come and gone 26 times. Zinn, 72, is still serving more than 100 years in prison; Pierce, 51, believed to be the one who fired the fatal shot at the bridge, is serving 66 years.
Sliger pleaded guilty to rape and was sentenced to three years. Records indicate he has stayed out of trouble since then.
Scartaccini, given a controversial immunity deal in exchange for his cooperation, served no prison time. He hanged himself in 1990.
Bob Schwartz, whose flashy star in the legal community began to rise with his role as lead prosecutor in the case, died last year.
The Albertsons and the Canyon Motel are long gone.
Curry says he regularly speaks out at public meetings when state engineers rumble about plans to widen N.M. 126 through Calaveras Canyon, which would demolish the bridges and the hallowed ground where a young woman who was so loved breathed her last.
“The bridges are a part of history with a name from a real person,” he reminds them.
Albuquerque changed, we changed, after Daniels’ death, the crime shattering our small-town sense of safety like a bullet into bone.
Twenty-seven years later, we haven’t forgotten that.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 505-823-3603, email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal