Death in Empty Places

Chris Becker recounts recent tales of people meeting their maker in the Western United States

One mid-winter day in the late 1990s, I traveled with my brother to Truth or Consequences, N.M., its name so evocative to my noir imagination despite its provenance in a game show.

The town, as well as surrounding Sierra County and nearby Elephant Butte Lake--the area's main draw and as busy as Lake Havasu in the summer--were deserted and depressed out of season, a methamphetamine landscape pocked with junkyards and boat-storage facilities. Everybody asked us what we were doing there. We got drunk in a cheap motel room on packaged liquor we'd bought from a honky tonk out by the lake, and in my inebriation, I let it slip to the pizza delivery girl that we found her hometown "creepy." She wasn't amused, but it was nevertheless a true statement.

How true, I didn't know until I read Chris Becker's Death in the West, out now from Flagstaff's Northland Publishing.

This interesting compendium of stories about high-profile deaths unique to the Western United States, most of which occurred within the last 10 years, is meant, the author writes in an afterword to the short text, to be "a brief history of rarity, the rare victories of calamity over humanity ... the sinister and ancient over the innocent and unprepared."

Becker is surprisingly low on froth in his chapter on animal attacks, most of them of late in California and involving charismatic megafauna like the misunderstood mountain lion. This, despite the book's lurid cover, complete with a teeth-gnashing grizzly bear and the subtitle "Fatal Stories From America's Last Frontiers." We'll ignore the fact that grizzlies almost never attack humans who aren't misguided, self-obsessed romantics like Timothy Treadwell (of Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man fame) and that the West hasn't been a frontier proper for more than 100 years. But reading Becker's chapter on animal attacks, one gets a more balanced view, and he is right to blame any increase in such encounters on our relentless appetite for more space in which to overbuild, pushing predators to the brink and perhaps even jumbling their otherwise perfectly wired primordial brains out of whack.

He strikes a similarly even-handed tone when discussing the myriad idiocies exhibited by greenhorns and survivalists alike in the West's backcountry. The stories will be familiar to anyone who has paid attention to the papers over the last decade or so, and include the chopping off of rock-stuck arms with pen knives and the desperate, near-daily deaths of desert-marching economic immigrants--who, interestingly, make up the largest category, by far, of outback-related deaths in this part of the county.

With this collection, Becker does manage to give some hint of the dark chaos that roils just beneath contemporary American life. Because the West still has vast tracts of uninhabited and unforgiving wilderness, it may seem like darkness holds sway here more so than in other parts. And if sudden, violent death, or even harrowing adventure, are less a part of daily life here than they used to be (this can be evidenced in the 20-year rise of adventure sports, loved by those who need to face death regularly in order to live well), the retelling of such stories can remind us that at any time, perhaps sooner than later, we may all be hiking out of this mortal coil.

But there is nothing in this wild world that compares to the evil just one man can wield. A mountain lion is only going for your jugular; an evil man will keep you alive in a trailer out in the desert around Truth or Consequences, torturing you daily for weeks, then playing back films of each session for your edification. Thus was the modus operandi of one David Parker Ray, a little-known serial killer who hunted and tortured young women around Sierra County throughout the 1990s, enlisting friends, his wife and even his adult daughter in his crimes. Apparently, the meth epidemic there left Ray with a buffet of victims, each of which he tortured in unimaginable ways--so unimaginable, in fact, that one of the FBI agents who first entered Ray's torture trailer, which he called his "Toy Box," shot herself in the head just a few days later.

That my brother and I were there in deserted T or C at the height of Ray's activity accounts somewhat for the creepiness we felt, I like to think. We sensed something. But maybe it was just those empty, arid spaces, so many of them missing something unknown but fundamental to human happiness--haphazard, unplanned and always feeling temporary, no matter how long people have lived there--driving bored kids to meth, my brother and I to drink and broken monster-men to kill and kill again.

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