A Desert Mystery

Perfect for telling on Halloween

Part I

Brent had a tummy ache most of the day, so I’m surprised when he agrees that a little walk might do him good. The sun is behind a mountain and will fully set within the hour, so stepping outside feels lovely. We walk down our rutted dirt road toward the open desert at the end of our street.

After 10 minutes, Brent points at a trail to the left and says, “Do you want to go up here?”

I’ve fattened up recently and am trying to keep moving, to lose that dang weight, and going up inclines is the perfect way to get the heart pumping. The trail is used by hunters, which is annoying since it’s in our neighborhood and on private property. People shouldn’t be out here unless they belong here.

We walk past a recent fire using pallets for fuel, obviously left by folks who came out to the desert to play around. It’s carelessly surrounded by broken pieces of cement block. Another 50 yards and we’re able to stand in one place and spin around, seeing a view of only softly rising hills and Saguaros in every direction, an ideal spot for a home. Nothing human-made in sight. Absolute quiet.

We keep walking toward the base of Apache Peak and I notice the road curves and then heads up a short, steep hill.

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The winding path toward Apache Peak.

“Let’s walk this way,” I say, wanting to see if it goes over the hill and beyond. “And, then tomorrow, let’s walk up there.”

“Okay,” Brent says, and we chat as we come to the end of the trail. A red shirt hangs from a Palo Verde tree. “I’m going to regret this,” Brent says, walking toward it.

“Don’t touch it,” I say. But he pulls it off the tree and holds it up; a halter top in bandana red material, perhaps for a child. A buzzing noise behind us makes me think we disturbed a group of grasshoppers.

I turnaround and look toward the steep path we’ll climb tomorrow and see a man in a black tank top, with a power tool sending sparks everywhere. He must not have seen us.

“What’s he doing?” I ask. “There’s no electricity out here.” His red Honda motorcycle is parked at the bottom of the steep hill, about 40 feet below where he’s working.

“Is that a yellow tent?” I ask. It looks like a bright yellow tent with a pitched roof.

“Maybe he’s building something,” Brent says, as curious as I am.

“But this is private land,” I say.

He sees us looking, so we start back down the path and walk toward the main dirt road, our backs to him. It’s getting dark anyway and the snakes and tarantulas will be out feeding soon.

In a minute, I hear the motorcycle.

“Let’s get out of the road,” I say. “Or maybe we should hide. He might kill us if he was doing something illegal.”

“You watch too much Dexter,” Brent says, laughing.

The guy has to pass from behind us on the road and I wonder whether to acknowledge him or not. Brent says to not wave, he doesn’t belong out here. I look at the motorcycle rider anyway, prepared to smile neighborly, but he has his helmet on, covering most of his face, and he doesn’t look at us, although he’s only three feet away and driving very slowly to avoid throwing up dust.

His black tank top reveals tattoos on his arms. A black backpack looks out of place on him.

Brent immediately calls Neal, a neighbor whose house we’re about to pass. Neal is around 70 and a retired attorney. Brent asks Neal if it’s legal for the guy to be building something on private land.

“I’ve seen this guy a lot lately,” Brent tells Neal. “He rides by our house regularly on his motorcycle with his back pack.”

They agree that when we get home Brent will get his 4-wheeler, will return to pick up Neal and they’ll go check out whatever it is the guy is working on.

“Take a gun with you,” I tell Brent, “and watch out for booby traps.”

“You do watch too much NCIS,” he says. “And we now call them man traps instead of booby traps.”

“What’s the difference?” I ask, and I kiss his stubbly cheek.

I take a shower and settle in to read while Brent goes on his adventure. It’s dark when he leaves. An hour later, he’s back.

“He wasn’t building something,” Brent says. “He was recovering something. That wasn’t a yellow tent you saw, it was a brand new Jeep Wrangler 4.0, turned over into a big hole.”


Who would wreck their jeep and leave it in the desert? Did it belong to the guy on the motorcycle?

“He was using a grinder to remove pieces of the Jeep,” Brent says. The jeep had custom wheels and tires, custom upholstery, and a spacer on the axles to spread the tires out, making the jeep less likely to turn over. Obviously, it didn’t help. “The spacer is expensive,” Brent says. “The whole Jeep is expensive, but that’s what he was grinding on this evening, trying to dislodge it.”

Brent said the Jeep is literally upside down in the hole. The motorcycle guy had taken a jack and placed it between the jeep and the side of the hole, which was rock, and had extended the jack so it lifted the jeep off the wall. We were seeing one side of the jeep that looked like a pitched tent. Easier to remove the wheels and tires. So far, the guy had removed two wheels and tires.

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Discovered Oct. 6, still in the desert as of Halloween.

The radio and anything else that could be pulled out has been. Brent estimates the value of the jeep to be more than $50,000. They found the license plate holder but no license plate. They couldn’t get to the VIN number.

A big mystery.

Neal is part of the Jeep Posse, a group of Jeep owners who are certified in search and recovery methods. After Brent drops Neal home, Neal gets on the phone and calls someone connected to the county. They decide to try to recover the Jeep, right now, at night. 

When Neal gives Brent the news on the phone, I ask if he wants to go back.

“No, Neal loves stuff like this, and I’m done with it,” Brent says.

An hour later, Neal calls to update Brent. When Neal and his buddies went to get the Jeep, Neal couldn’t remember exactly where it was. Makes sense, they did go over in the dark and Brent was driving.

Neal found the license plate, however, and when they ran it, turns out the Jeep was stolen on September 27, only ten days ago.

Did the motorcycle guy steal it and wreck it in the desert? Did he somehow find it accidentally and decide to strip it?

No one knows anything.

I’d really like to walk by there again tonight, but admit to being a little scared. What if the motorcycle guy blames us for snitching on his secret in the desert?

I guess, we’ll have to wait until Neal’s posse can take a look in the daylight and get to the bottom of this mystery.

Part II

When Neal took the police to the upside-down Jeep the other night and couldn’t find it, he was a little embarrassed. 

The police said, “if you find it, call us,” and they left. 

So Neal eventually finds the wreck and sits on a nearby hill, watching with binoculars, waiting for the guy on the motorcycle to show up and strip parts. 

As Neal is watching, the guy drives up in a red Ford Explorer and parks at the bottom of the hill behind two Palo Verde trees, so anyone coming from the main road can’t see his truck. 

Neal calls the Maricopa County Sheriff Office’s head of the stolen car division and says, “He’s on-site, stripping the car.”

“We’ll be right there,” the officer says.

Neal greets the officer and his partner, then stays back while they hike over to the Jeep. They don’t want the guy to see Neal and identify him as a snitch. 

The man is walking back to his Explorer when they catch up with him and arrest him, handcuffs and all.

Brent isn’t convinced the guy who was stripping the Jeep also stole it. But the right thing for him to do would have been to call the police when he first found the Jeep upside-down in a hole. 

Neal calls Brent to tell him about the arrest, says they left the guy’s Explorer parked out in the desert.

“This is right up Neal’s alley. He loves this stuff,” Brent says. 

As I’m tying my shoe laces to go hiking, I tell Brent I’m going to walk by and look at the Jeep. 

“Best to stay away from stolen cars,” he says. “Besides, Neal said the cops are watching the area, in case the guy had an accomplice.”

“Well, I’m gonna check it out.”

“Don’t take any tools with you,” he calls out.

The sun is setting, so I step quickly, enjoying the quiet, except for the crunch of my steps on the dirt round. A dog howls on a nearby ridge. 

When I reach the trail to the Jeep, I can’t resist going to see it. Who knows, it may be gone tomorrow. In the lowing light, I stay in the center of the trail and check ahead for snakes. 

There is the guy’s Explorer. The license plate frame on the back is from a dealership in Iowa. I feel a little sorry for the car’s owner, knowing he is in jail.

I keep up my pace, until hitting the steep rise, then step carefully on the loose dirt and rocks until I’m at the top, looking into a hole on the left. After the exertion of climbing the steep hill, I catch my breath, trying to calm my pounding heart. 

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The steep rise; final approach to the Jeep in a hole at top left.

The black gas tank of the yellow Jeep points skyward. The jack that held the Jeep away from one side of the hole is gone so the car sits on its roof, level at the bottom of the hole. 

A piece of tailpipe and fog lamp lay on a clump of grass, staged for taking, next to empty big gulps and Gatorade bottles. The guy had been coming out here a while, slowly stripping the Jeep.

A home decor catalog spilled out of the back, along with a folder of information about Paradise Med Spa. Makes me think the Jeep’s owner is a woman.

I’ve dallied enough in the dusk and move down the steep hill, then past the Explorer to the main road. Brent had said the guy would be in jail a couple of hours, then would bail out and probably return to get his Explorer. I quicken my pace until I’m on the main road once again. Ahhh. Safe. No one will know I was anywhere near the Jeep or the Explorer. 

An older man half-jogging with three small dogs on leashes passes. “Good evening,” we both say. 

As I near Neal’s house on the left, he drives his white Jeep down his drive and turns toward me. ‘He must be headed to the dang yellow Jeep,’ I think.

He passes and we wave at each other and I watch as he goes down the road just a little bit then turns left.

Yep, he’s going to the Jeep. But why? It’s practically dark. Will he hide and watch to see if the man returns to get his car? To see if the man had any accomplices who might show up? Maybe the county is sending someone to recover the Jeep and he wants to be there. But in the dark?

When I get home, I tell Brent to get an update from Neal tomorrow, although Brent isn’t as interested in this entire affair as I am. 

Neal is interested, though. Man, he sure does love this stuff. 

Part III

Just after sunrise today, I put on my golf shoes (which are now hiking shoes since I don’t play golf) and heard South on the dirt road. It’s 74 and overcast; a perfect combination for enjoying the desert.

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These golf shoes are excellent for hiking rocky trails.

I turn up a side trail, very steep with loose rocks, and spot a jack rabbit running away from me. Then, to my right, another jack rabbit leaps over dried grass to hide amongst the cactus. Coyote scat (identifiable by bright yellow Mesquite beans) and horse pooh dot this rough trail that takes me near the abandoned stolen Jeep. I must see if it’s still there. The way is straight up and littered with rocks, but soon I reach the peek, see the jeep’s wheels and then turn to look out over the valley. Here, there is no sound, only an occasional bird or a soft breeze tickling dead grass. 

Peaceful, even spiritual, sitting in quiet contemplation next to the altar of the sacrificed Jeep. 

Neal has kept up with the stolen Jeep story and recently told us the man who had been arrested for stripping the Jeep “rolled on” three other people. I’m assuming they were men. The Jeep was a two-seater, so there couldn’t have been three of them when it crashed. At least I hope no one was in the back, unrestrained, when they toppled over. 

The driver’s bucket seat has been removed. I get a good look at the passenger seat today when I climb into the back of the Jeep. The seatbelt has been severed and the buckle piece is still on the ground. The cut isn’t clean, though, and instead is frayed with two inches of woven strands puffed up like cotton. I wonder what they used to slice it. Something very dull. And how do you get enough slack in a belt from which you’re entire body weight is suspended to actually cut it? 

Must have been terrifying to land upside down in a hole while joy-riding through the desert in a stolen car. 

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The view of the valley from the Jeep’s resting place.

Another weird thing. The keys are still in the ignition. 

How did the car thieves get their hands on the keys?

I leave the wreck and walk on, enamored with how deep the colors of the desert look when the sun is behind clouds.

Part IV

This morning, I set out for my hike with my phone, for picture-taking, and a trash bag, to pick up the beer cans, water bottles and fast food boxes carelessly thrown into the desert. As usual, I can’t resist climbing up to the Jeep, to see if it’s still there.

Since yesterday, the passenger seat is now also gone.

You better believe I’m surprised to see several parts that had been on the Jeep yesterday now lying on the grass. And the passenger seat is also gone! If the insurance company paid the claim to the owner (who turned out to be a woman; her business card was in several spa portfolios scattered on the ground), then they now own the car. Why haven’t they removed it?

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A new culprit is trying to remove the wheel well.

It’s a strange sensation to see a brand new vehicle upside down in a hole, and watch week by week as vultures pick away its parts. Such a waste! And, who are the new people stripping parts? Are they dangerous to hikers like me?

I wonder if we’ll ever find out.

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Cindi Brown


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