Monday, September 28, 2015

The Aztec Crystal Skull

September 24, 2011 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

Probably one the most bizarre searches I have ever been involved with occurred in the summer of 1980. Like my friend Bob Corbin, I had sworn to stay out of the Superstition Mountains in the summer time. The extreme heat was dangerous, rattlesnakes were quite common—not to mention water was at a premium.

On July 2, 1980, a man named Joe Mays contacted me and wanted me to help him hunt for a crystal skull on an alter in a buried ancient city in the Superstition Mountains. I tried to laugh off his request, but I had a curious desire to hear his story out.

Joe Mays, the leader of the 1980 search for the Aztec Crystal Skull in La Barge Canyon.
At first he sounded somewhat reasonable, but when he said he wanted to pack into the Superstition Mountain on July 6th I certainly had second thoughts. The temperatures were hovering around 110 degrees that July and the monsoons were late. So there had been no relief from the heat.

I met with Joe Mays, Everett Johnston and three of Mays’ men at Cobb’s Restaurant in Apache Junction on July 5th. Joe explained to me that he had contracted Johnston, owner and operator of Peralta Stables on South Meridian Road, to pack him into the mountains for three weeks. Joe looked at me and said he wanted to hire me as a consultant in the mountains. He said I would only need to go into the mountain for a couple of days. Again I thought he was joking, but when he offered me six crisp new one hundred dollar bills to help him I soon changed my mind. Summers were always a lean period for me because I only worked nine months a year as a teacher in those days; This was one job I lived to regret.

At 4:30 a.m. on July 6th we loaded up the horses and gear at Peralta Stables on Meridian Road and drove out to First Water Trail Head. The rays of the sun were shining on us before we were saddled and packed up ready for our trip into a burning hell. As we rode along the trail down toward Garden Valley and Second Water it started getting warm. We rode up East Boulder Canyon and then picked up the trail over to La Barge Canyon. Johnston was sure we would find water in La Barge Canyon above the Lower Box. Riding down La Barge about 11 a.m. again I realized I had made a big mistake. It was too late to turn back at this point.

Arkie Johnston (foreground) was the outfitter on this expedition and I talked Howard Logsdon (background) into going. I am sure Logsdon had an interesting time on this trip.
We found good water for the stock and ourselves in La Barge Canyon. We packed in all of our drinking water. Johnston planned on somebody going to town every day and hauling ice and drinks back to camp. Once at the site, the wranglers set up a large fly for a shade to eat and rest under. We had plenty of good food and lots of cold drinks. Once camp was set up I didn’t think it was going to be so bad after all even with temperatures above 109 degrees.

That evening when it cooled down a little we hiked down La Barge Canyon toward the Upper Box looking for the site where the crystal skull was supposedly hidden. Joe wandered up and down several small side canyons until he came to a spot where there was a very deep vertical crack in the rock. He peered into the crack a hundred feet or so and declared this was the spot. He immediately put his crew of three guys to work trying to break the rock. What an effort in futility! These guys must have believed there was a ton of gold buried behind the crack the way they were trying to break the rock.

Within thirty minutes or so Joe Mays determined we would need an explosive expert. I informed Joe it was against the law to blast in the wilderness without a federal permit. This permit soon became a point of contention between Joe Mays and me. After a couple of really hot days of digging and scraping Joe Mays abandoned the site and said he had been wrong. We started looking for another site.

It wasn’t long before Joe came up with another site. This was the day before my birthday, July 9th. I absolutely refused to leave camp on my birthday and ride or walk in the blazing hot sun. I planned to sit under the shade all day and drink Pepsi to celebrate my birthday. On the evening of my birthday it was decided early the next morning I would go out with the packhorse and send Auggie, a wrangler, back in with ice and supplies. My time in the mountain was over I thought.

I learned a lot on this trip. First of all, I couldn’t believe the money Joe was spending on this adventure in the Superstition Mountains. It wasn’t long before I found out Joe was spending investor’s money on this whole operation. Furthermore I couldn’t believe anyone would invest money in such a wild scheme as a crystal skull in a buried ancient city hidden in the Superstition Mountains by the Aztecs five hundred years ago. I later found out Joe was using an ancient book as collateral for his adventure. When Joe’s stories began not to prove out, his investors told him stories about guys who were thrown in the Atlantic Ocean with concrete shoes on. It was at this point he convinced his investors they should make a video documentary of this entire adventure. Believe it or not the investors thought this was a great idea. Joe almost begged me to accompany them and help with technical information for the documentary. He told me if I didn’t he might end up in the Atlantic Ocean. I guess I took pity on his soul and continued with them until they completed the project at the end of July. Like so many things about the Superstition Mountains there was no Crystal Skull. I really think it was a figment of Joe’s imagination that he had transposed from another story or legend.

Johnston and his crew ended up packing Joe and his group over most of the Superstition Wilderness Area while filming a documentary that was never produced. They spent a week at the Reavis Ranch were it was much cooler. I rented a high quality video camera from Troxell Communications for this project. Some twelve hours of tape was shot on the Superstition Wilderness Area. Before this operation was over Joe had spent more than $35,000 of his investor’s money. To this day, I don’t know what happen to the tape, but I did make a VHS copy of it and it is still in my files.

I swore at the end of July I would never work in these mountains during the summer months again. Basically I have adhered to that rule for obvious reasons.  Over the years many people have succumbed to the heat of the desert. This still remains as one of the most interesting and bizarre expedition I have ever joined.

Monday, September 21, 2015

The Bear Tanks Incident

September 14, 2015 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

The following incident is somewhat strange by modern standards. The Arizona Citizen, on December 7, 1877, reported a case of accidental poisoning at Bear Tanks north of Picket Post Mountain. The story goes something like this.

Elisha Marcus Reavis c. 1870. 
Two men, one named Reavis and the other Lewis were camped at the Tanks and had just completed cooking their dinner. The men then made some tea from water they had carried in small oak kegs from Florence. Soon after drinking their tea both men became very ill. Lewis became violently ill and went into convulsions.

Reavis saddled up and rode to Hewitt’s Station for assistance and a team. When he returned with help, Lewis was found across the fire with his stomach burned to a cinder.

Elisha M. Reavis later testified he purchased two one-gallon water kegs in Florence. The Florence store clerk testified the kegs had contained a little dirt, water and a dark red liquid resembling port wine. The contents of the kegs were rinsed out at the store.

Reavis further testified he and Lewis began a cattle-driving expedition, camping that evening at the residence of Mr. Stilles on the Gila River. The kegs were filled with water at Stilles for the long journey across the desert to Hewitt’s Station.

The two men had used the kegs crossing the twenty-two miles desert. They filled the kegs once again at Hewitt’s Station and decided to camp at Bear Tanks four miles away. Both men preferred Bear Tanks because it was easier to picket their horses. Once in camp at Bear Tanks Lewis took the kegs to refill with water while Reavis built a fire and prepared supper.

After supper both men drank tea made from water taken from the kegs. Shortly afterward both men became violently ill. Reavis recovered enough to saddle up and go for help. He returned with a party of citizens and found Lewis dead.

This is what people would have imagined Reavis looking like as he rode from the Sitles Ranch north across the desert some 24 miles to Bear Tank just north of Queen Creek in the early 1870’s.
Judge Blakely impaneled a corner’s jury and proceeded to the spot. The body was found in the fire. The water kegs were opened, showing a dense white precipitate, which was believed to be a lead compound. After examining the evidence at the site, the jury was taken to Picket Post and reconvened.

A coroner’s inquest into the strange death of James Lewis was held in Picket Post on December 9, 1877, with Judge Blakely acting as coroner. Judge Blakely asked Professor DeGroat to make an analysis of the sediment in the kegs. DeGroat announced the sediments were arsenic. Judge Blakely then requested Dr. Bluett to make a post mortem of the victim.  It was soon concluded the victim, James Lewis, had died of arsenic poisoning.

The corner’s jury was reconvened several days later when all results were back. It was decided the poisoning and death of James Lewis at Bear Tanks was a tragic accident. Elisha M. Reavis’ survival of the incident was extreme luck. He was also poisoned, but not as severely as Lewis. Reavis was cleared of any wrongdoing.

The records involving the Lewis death did not reveal if Reavis was living at his mountain retreat at this time. There was a lot of mining and milling activity in the area during the late 1870s. The Silver King Mine was in full production and the mill town of Pinal was in full operation.

This was another incident in the life of the “Hermit of Superstition Mountain,” Elisha M. Reavis (1829-1896).  Reavis lived in his mountain valley about eight miles north of the Silver King Mine for almost twenty years while becoming an Arizona frontier legend.

Tom Kollenborn is a noted author and historian and a leading expert on the Superstition Mountains and the legend of Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine. Tom shares his experience with the public each week in “Kollenborn Chronicles” in the Apache Junction/Gold Canyon News and on a website available online at “Kollenborn’s Chronicles”.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Bank Robbers and Cowboys

August 31, 2015 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

The late 1950s found me working on a cattle ranch known as the old “Quarter Circle U” in the Superstition Mountains.  I was following a dream to be a cowboy. My education about cowboys had been derived from the Western movies at the old Rex Theater in Hayden, Arizona, and my dream to be a cowboy had finally been fulfilled.

At the time I was certain all cowboys were honest and were men of their word. I had a lot to learn about real cowboys and my silver screen heroes.

The Superstition Mountain area has experienced several unusual cases associated with bank robbery, a federal crime. One bank robber decided to be a cowboy and another was a decent cabinet maker here in Apache Junction many, many years ago.

Apache Junction was a quiet, sleepy community with only one deputy most of the time in the mid 1950s. Phoenix was the nearest office of the FBI that handled bank robbery cases. Back in the 1950s there were few people interested in living in Apache Junction other than the visitors who came down for the winter.

I recall the first bank robbery arrest handled by the FBI was the arrest of my partner “Keith” at the ranch. He had been a cowboy for almost a year before the law caught up with him. He had robbed a bank in Oklahoma two years prior. Keith’s arrest was not made on the ranch. The FBI Agent Lynn Bedford, DPS and Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office arrested Keith on the highway between Apache Junction and Mesa.

After Keith’s arrest, I was alone at the ranch for almost six months before anyone else was hired. However, in the meantime I met a man called John Dark. He claimed to be a cabinet builder. He came out to the ranch a couple of times and said he could build some cabinets for us. He eventually talked Bill Barkley into building new cabinets in the ranch house.

Barkley put John to work on the cabinets. To make a long story short, I found out many years later (about ten) that John had served time for bank robbery and bank fraud, etc. Both of these incidents completely shocked me. I was a na├»ve individual in those days and I took a man at his word. I soon learned that a man’s word might not be his bond. My cowboy heroes from the silver screen were fading into the sunset.

Now, for one of the strangest cases I had ever heard. In 1999 a horseman was riding in the Superstition Wilderness Area on the southeastern edge of Hackberry Mesa near Cholla Tank. The tank is about three quarters of a mile west of Boulder Canyon in a flat filled with Chain Cholla cactus. It was here near the rock dam the rider found skeletal remains. The rider made the discovery on December 3, 1999.

Maricopa County Sheriff’s deputies collected about fifteen pounds of bones at the site, including a man’s skull. The Maricopa County Medical Examiner was able to trace the dental work down and identify the man. The sheriff’s office confirmed the remains belonged to a Richard Pietras, 58, a known bank robber. I rode through this area two weeks prior to Thanksgiving in 1999, with a group of riders and I didn’t see any sign of a skeleton in the area. As a matter of fact we ate lunch nearby because the tank was full of water. During the summer months this tank usually has no water in it at all.

Our ride and lunch stop at Cholla Tank on Hackberry Mesa, c. November, 1999.
The authorities figure Pietras died sometime after his release from prison in August of 1998, after serving time for Bank Robbery. His cause of death still remains unknown. Pietras was wanted for bank robbery again shortly after his release from prison. Federal Marshals and the FBI were after him for robbing a Chicago Bank of an undisclosed amount of cash.

I was told several years later that the money from the bank robbery was found near Pietras’ remains at Cholla Tank. Here was a man who probably read about how rugged these mountains were and headed into the Superstitions believing he could evade capture. However, he was not prepared. He carried his loot but ignored the essentials for survival, like water. My guess is he walked into these mountains when it was hot and very dry. He probably died from exposure or dehydration. He sure didn’t follow any of the basic rules for survival in the desert.

He carried his bank loot to his final resting place in the Superstition Mountains. The law didn’t capture him, but the heat of summer in the Superstition Wilderness did.

I have never figured out why I am so fortunate to meet such people in the middle of nowhere. I actually associated with John Dark and Keith for a while, but I knew nothing about their criminal backgrounds.

My friend, FBI Agent Lynn Bedford, opened my eyes to reality about men on the lam. As I matured, I became very careful with whom I associated with. Some of you old-timers around Apache Junction may remember John Dark as the cabinet builder and he drove a 1957 Blue Plymouth Fury. His mother and dad lived up on the Apache Trail.

I am certain John Dark took advantage of our friendship. I did learn the hard way growing up, not to trust people on their word. Of course my dreams about my silver screen cowboys had been shattered.