‘Murder, Mystery & Mayhem in the Rio Abajo’

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To many history is a dry, dusty topic, boring and tedious, full of people and dates that don’t matter anymore.

But if you live in the Rio Abajo, history is still very present and it’s never been more so than in Valencia County. Two local historians and authors, Richard Melzer and John Taylor, have taken the last year to assemble some of the most interesting local history stories this side of the Mississippi into an anthology that goes by the eye-catching name of “Murder, Mystery and Mayhem in the Rio Abajo.”

Julia M. Dendinger-News-Bulletin photo: John Taylor and Richard Melzer have spent the last year editing a book of stories about crime, unexplained spiritual and supernatural events and general mayhem spanning Valencia, Socorro and Cibola counties.

With what can only be called a strong affinity for history, both serve on the board of directors for the Valencia County Historical Society. During a discussion one day, Taylor suggested doing a museum exhibit of high-profile crimes and murders across the county.

Melzer countered, “What about a book?”

Thanks to the society’s monthly column, “La Historia del Rio Abajo,” published in the Valencia County News-Bulletin since 1998, there was certainly enough information.

When contemplating the book’s contents, Taylor said the two began with a list of possible stories “this long,” he says, holding his arms a good three feet apart. That array was winnowed down to a list about 12 inches long and, through persistent editing, into a 373-page book.

The project came together quickly, they say, in about a year since most of the stories already had been written. Some of the pieces are new, like Sandy Battin’s tour de force of Valencia County’s haunted places.

Melzer and Taylor both authored pieces, as well as Matt Baca, Oswald G. Baca, Battin, Jim Boeck, Don Bullis, Paul Harden and John W. Pope.

Both thanked the faithful readers of “La Historia” column for their positive feedback over the years and for the great reception the book has received so far.

After many long sessions at the Village Inn, the book was nearly complete. But what is history without pictures?

So the two found a wide variety of images to illustrate the book’s stories — family portraits, images of plane wreckage, snapshots of purported hanging trees all come together with the finely honed words of local authors to bring the past to life.

The book’s cover was produced by local artist Brent Jeffrey Thomas.

The two historians laugh easily together, talking about those who are a part of the Rio Abajo’s distant past like they are still around. They smile about the crimes solved thanks to corn and onion skins, and become somber when talking about the chapter dedicated to the lawmen who died in the line of duty.

“We thought it was so important to have a chapter about law enforcement because so many of the happy endings to these stories are because of them,” Melzer said.

When asked to name a favorite chapter, Melzer immediately says the one on Solomon Luna’s mysterious death at a mountain sheep camp. This may be a favorite, he says, because he is currently working on a biography about the late statesman.

Taylor says he has two chapters he likes best. One is about the 1988 disappearance of Tara Calico. The other recounts the story of Francis Schlatter, a pious man answerable only to God, “the Master,” who traveled the area in the late 1800s and is said to have Christ-like healing abilities.

“There are positive stories in the book – the healer, the Lady in Blue,” he says.

While the stories are primarily set in Valencia, Socorro and Cibola counties, Melzer said he considers the Rio Abajo a microcosm of the whole state — these types of stories of murder for love and political gain, hijackings, unexplained visions and natural disasters happen all across the state.

“Crimes and controversies bring out the best and the worst in people,” he said. “There’s always the bad guy, the villain. But there are those who help.” Those who form the posse, who search for the lost soul, who put out the fires and bring a drink of water.

Both Melzer and Taylor said not only has the book been well received by the reading public but by those telling the stories as well.

“People have been so generous with their history,” Melzer said.

“And to trust us — outsiders — with that history means a lot,” Taylor added. People have asked them to do research for their families, to tell more stories because as Melzer puts it, with every story, there’s another story.

“Sometimes it’s too personal, too scandalous to tell,” he said. And sometimes, people tell them the story by what they imply, Taylor said.

A prime example is the story of Tara Calico and former sheriff Renee Rivera.

Rivera has publicly said he knows who is responsible for the disappearance of Calico — he just needed a few more key pieces of evidence before action could be taken.

The Calico case, the book’s most contemporary mystery, like many others, remains unsolved.

Calico, described as a “freckle-faced brunette,” was 19 when she left her parent’s Rio Communities home the morning of Sept. 20, 1988, setting out on her daily bike ride.

She was last seen riding her bike north on Route 6, about two miles from her home. Calico has not been seen or heard from since.

The disappearance of such a young vibrant young woman, seemingly into thin air, has remained a barely healed wound for the community, Taylor said.

“Her disappearance is an undercurrent in law enforcement in Valencia County,” he said. “It’s never quite healed.”

The book is dedicated to Tara Calico: “May your mystery be solved so you can find peace at last in the Rio Abajo.”

The book is broken into three sections, according to topic, such as “Miracles, Mysteries and Disappearances.” There are no footnotes in the anthology — the editors didn’t want the work to intimidate readers by being “too scholarly” — but instead has an extensive bibliography and comprehensive index.

The index is actually a very important part of the book, Melzer says, especially for those doing genealogy research. Those seeking to find out just why their ancestors were famous or infamous can easily find all the pertinent references.

Melzer gives all the credit for that tedious job to Taylor.

“He is an indexing genius,” Melzer said, laughing. Taylor accepts the praise since he dedicated weeks of his spring to the index.

Taylor said the book’s chapters can be read independently of each other, making it “the perfect 10:30 at night reading material on your night stand. You can read a chapter before you go to bed and know the whole story.”

The book can be purchased at Los Lunas Museum of Heritage and Arts and the Harvey House Museum.

All proceeds and royalties from the anthology go to the Valencia County Historical Society.


-- Email the author at jdendinger@news-bulletin.com.