By Sean Casteel
When investigator and researcher Christopher O’Brien first moved to the San Luis Valley in Colorado in 1989, he didn’t have a clue as to what lay ahead of him.
“I’ve always had an interest in the paranormal,” O’Brien said, “the things that aren’t really supposed to happen, the things that they don’t teach you about in school. And I’d known just peripherally about stuff that had been going on here over the years. I’d heard stories from books that I’d read and, after I moved out here, from people that I met here.
“But I had no idea,” he continued, “that this place was like a paranormal Disneyland. In about 1992, all of a sudden a lot of very strange things started happening.”
O’Brien began to investigate the odd happenings, which included cattle mutilations, black helicopters and UFO sightings galore. He also interviewed many witnesses to the events taking place there, initially to write articles for the local newspaper.
“Within three months,” O’Brien said, “I was on national television. So here I am. I’ve written a couple of books, written a lot of magazine articles, and been on all kinds of television segments. And I’m probably more confused now than when I started.”
O’Brien’s first book was called “The Mysterious Valley” (St. Martin’s Press, 1996).
“It’s sort of like an inside view of not only just an amazing time period here,” he said, “from 1992 to 1995, when there were just all kinds of very, very strange events that took place, but it was also [written] as a way for people to kind of understand what I went through, immersing myself into this whole area.”
The follow-up was called “Enter The Valley” (St. Martin’s Press, 1999).
“The second book has a lot more historical facts,” O’Brien explained, “about what has gone on here over the past several hundred years. And then the third book will continue on from there and have a lot more analysis and insight based on [my] ten or eleven years of investigative work.”
The historical research O’Brien refers to turned up some fascinating characters from Colorado’s past. One of them, a would-be gold miner turned cannibal, surely qualifies as a creature of the human kind.
“Most people realize,” O’Brien began, “that Colorado was first explored and the first real settlers moved here as a result of gold and other precious metals being found here. And Alferd Packer was like many people who arrived here from elsewhere. He was interested in finding gold and striking it rich. He and a group of men arrived on the western slope of Colorado in the early 1850s, late in the season.”
Packer and his associates were trying to get the central part of the state in the dead of winter, where temperatures can drop to 50 degrees below zero and snow falls for days and days at a time. Packer and his team were even told by local Indians that it was too late for them to make the journey.
“Well, they waited around and then decided ‘What the heck, we’re going to be the first ones there,'” O’Brien continued. “So instead of waiting until the real spring thaw, they started out to try to get to the area of the of the gold fields, which is just west here of the San Luis Valley.”
There were two possible routes. One meant following the Gunnison River, which was the longer but safer way to go. The other route involved going over the mountains.
“They only had a few days worth of rations with them,” O’Brien went on. “If the weather had been perfect, if it had been the summertime, they would have had enough rations to get there from where they had been hold up for the winter.”
Packer and his cohorts tried first one route, then abandoned it for the other, both times ending up lost amid 12 to 15 foot snowdrifts. Things went from bad to worse.
“They ran out of food,” O’Brien said. “The story gets a little controversial at this point, but what we do know is that about three months later, Alferd Packer shows up in Saguache, Colorado, which is the county seat of the county I live in here, and he claims he was the only survivor of the group of six guys.”
Which immediately aroused the suspicion of the local sheriff, whose fears were confirmed the following June when a group of tourists and writers for the magazine “Harper’s Weekly” reported that they had found the graves of Packer’s victims.
“It was very obvious that the guys had been butchered,” O’Brien said. “Literally.”
Packer finally admitted that he had cannibalized his buddies, though his story of exactly how it all happened changed many times. Famous at the time as “The Colorado Cannibal,” he was tried and convicted of all five murders and sentenced to hang. Four days before his scheduled execution, his two attorneys managed to obtain a stay based on a technicality. Colorado had no death penalty provision for a capital crime committed before Colorado became a state, according to O’Brien. At his second trial, Packer was again found guilty and sentenced to 40 years in the Canon City Penitentiary.
Polly Pry, a sympathetic journalist from “The Denver Post,” later helped Packer obtain a pardon, and in a thank you note to her he wrote, “I have never closed my eyes in sleep since without that ghastly vision of the smoldering camp fire, the dead companions and the lofty pines drooping with their weight of snow, as if keeping a sorrowful death watch. But, those who have never been without their three meals a day do not know how to pity me.”
Packer died of a stroke in 1907, a broken man.
O’Brien also uncovered the story of the first serial killer in the United States, Felipe Espinoza of the San Luis Valley.
“I tried my darnedest to find earlier examples of a serial killer in the United States,” he said. “Generally, the whole idea of a serial killer really became popularized with Jack the Ripper in England. But very few people know about the Espinozas, even here in Colorado.”
Felipe Espinoza was a native Mexican who lived in Vera Cruz as a little boy.
“During the Mexican-American War,” O’Brien said, “when Admiral Whitfield Scott was bombarding Vera Cruz from the harbor with American warships, one of the shell blasts took out Espinoza’s whole family. He was orphaned basically. His only living relatives at the time lived up in Colorado, in Conejos County, which is the county that shadows the New Mexico/Colorado border in the San Luis Valley here.
“So he was sent up here,” O’Brien went on. “Back then, there were mostly Spanish-American settlers in the southern part of the valley. One night, as the story goes, he had this vision or dream in which the Mother Mary came to him and told him he had to avenge the deaths of his six family members. And the way he was told by the Virgin Mary to avenge his family’s deaths was to kill a hundred gringos or a hundred Americans for each one of his family members that had died in the shell blasts years before.”
Espinoza managed to enlist his uncle and/or cousins (the history is confused on that point) to join his crusade and he began a three or four month rampage of bushwhacking Americans.
“By the time that it was over,” O’Brien said, “they had bushwhacked between thirty-five and forty people. What made it even stranger was that they would blacken their faces, and when they would bushwhack these cowboys or settlers or miners, Espinoza would take an ax and hack open their chests and pull their hearts out. There’s some question as to why he did this and what exactly they did with the hearts.”
After the first dozen or so murders, the Territorial Governor sent out a posse and offered rewards for the arrest and capture dead or alive of the family. Their efforts proved fruitless for a couple of months, and to aggravate matters further, innocent people were mistakenly accused of being the Espinozas and hung on the spot.
“So it was getting really ugly here, and it was quite a sensational news story at the time. People were traveling around in armed groups because they were so afraid of the Espinozas.”
The Territorial Governor finally called upon famous mountain man Thomas Tobin, a contemporary of Kit Carson and Jim Bridger. Tobin succeeded in finding the murderous family. He killed them and cut off their heads. He was returning to collect his reward, bearing the severed heads in a burlap bag, when he was swept away by a river current and lost two of the heads, hence the confusion as to exactly who Espinoza’s accomplices had been. Tobin never received his $500 reward, however, because there were no public funds available at the time.
“Legend has it that Felipe’s head ended up in a pickle jar in the sideshow of a circus,” O’Brien said. “So there’s America’s first serial killer. Not many people are even aware of him.”
According to O’Brien, something similar to Espinoza’s extreme brand of Catholic fundamentalism is still practiced quietly there in the San Luis Valley. The sect’s name in English is “The Brotherhood of Blood.” Their rituals include stripping naked and flagellating themselves with a cat o’ nine tails and marching in long processions over cactus fields barefoot.
“Back in the old days, they used to take the most worthy, pious brother and crucify him on Good Friday,” O’Brien said.
The site of the crucifixion would be marked by a white cross, many of which are still visible on the hilltops in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado.
“Now I think it’s pretty rare that they actually crucify somebody. It’s more of a mock crucifixion now. But the penitentes are alive and well. They still are very secret but very real-the most fundamentalist of all Christian sects that I’ve been able to find. It kind of puts a new twist on Christianity.”
The sister of a friend of O’Brien’s married a member of the sect, who would occasionally show up at the friend’s home to visit.
“He would sit back rather gingerly in his chair because his back was all flayed from doing these rituals,” O’Brien said. “So it’s the real deal.”
Meanwhile, the San Luis Valley is also home to more conventional “creature” appearances.
“We’ve had quite a number of Bigfoot sightings that I’ve been investigating in this part of the country,” O’Brien said. “We have, right on the border of the San Luis Valley, these two very large mountains that sit separate from one another and separate from any other surrounding mountains. The locals have a lore that says the Bigfoot lived inside the mountains, and the Pueblo Indians believe that’s where the Creator lives and that he appears to mortal men in the guise of a Bigfoot.”
Local law enforcement officials in Conejos County recently videotaped some sets of tracks that wound through and over a variety of terrain for hundreds and hundreds of yards, O’Brien said. Seven separate Bigfoot sightings occurred that same week.
Reports have come from the eastern side of the San Luis Valley of something called a Thunderbird, a giant bird that looks similar to a raven or a raptor, but with a 40-foot wingspan. The bird is said to soar quite high and create a visual effect that looks something like a hole in the sky itself.
A serpent deity called Talulukang is rumored to haunt the Valley as well.
“He’s the serpent underneath the mountain holding the world in check,” O’Brien explained. “It’s very similar to the Tibetan tradition of the Nagas, which are said to be large serpent-like entities that live in the Himalayas and have the exact same responsibility. The San Luis Valley is one of the places where Talulukang is supposed to be. The shaman-medicine men-type are able to see this creature, but it’s a creature that is normally underground and he doesn’t reveal himself very often.”
The leader of one of the first major Spanish incursions into the valley, prior to President Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase, reported in his diary that he and his troops saw weird flying lights at night in the mountains and also heard strange very low humming sounds coming from beneath the mountains. What the Conquistadors experienced then still goes on today, according to O’Brien.
The San Luis Valley is also known as a hot spot of concentrated cattle mutilation activity.
“I’ve always wondered,” O’Brien said, “if the paranormal aspect of that whole thing may be some sort of predator that’s going around-that we may be dealing with some sort of ‘dimensional’ or just ‘otherworldly’ type predator. But again, that’s a couple of books down the road.”
Perhaps O’Brien is quite right when he calls the San Luis Valley a “paranormal Disneyland.” For the moment at least, he offered the following in conclusion:
“There’s not many places in the country that have the variety and intensity of ‘creatures and features’ that this place does. I think I’ve established that pretty accurately in ten years of investigative work. So let your readers decide if that’s an accurate statement or not.”