Chapter 8: Sabotage
That evening at the Tawapa camp, Rosalie Ribera was outside the Flock dormitory standing in the shadows smoking a cigarette, waiting for Jane to emerge. Finally, Jane crawled out of a side window and joined Rosalie, who put a finger to her lips to indicate silence. Rosalie led Jane to an old wooden shed in a remote area of the camp that Jane had not noticed before. Once inside, Rosalie instructed Jane to help her move a pile of large boxes which were unexpectedly light despite their size. Once the boxes were set aside, Rosalie removed a large canvas tarp to reveal several small cloth sacks marked Fertilizer and a few cardboard containers which were unmarked. “Help me carry these to the cart behind the shed”, instructed Rosalie.
The two women carried the sacks and containers outside and behind the shed. They placed everything onto a small wooden cart next to a portable cement mixer. “What is all this stuff, asked Jane and where are we going with it?”
“You said you wanted to be a more important part of The Cause, snarled Rosalie. In a few days, we will make a statement that those rich corporate types can’t ignore. You heard The Steward talk about God’s wrath and His use of fire and brimstone to punish man for his evil ways, didn’t you? Well, we’re just going to help God out a bit.”
“Yeah, I get all that, but I never understood what brimstone is. I just thought it was some sort of make-believe biblical thing.”
“Brimstone, my dear girl, is sulfur and the pipelines running through Placitas carry a type of natural gas or oil that contains sulfur. God put it there for us to carry out our little demonstration. Soon, Oklahoma City will seem like just a little pop.”
“Oh, wow, Mama Rosa. That is so cool. People will understand that The Steward’s visions are true and they will gladly join our Cause.”
“But first, we have to get their attention and punish them for how they have ruined this beautiful place with their greed.”
“What can I do to help?”
“Nothing for now, my child. I was able to obtain all the information I need from the Internet. You have been chosen to assist me and I will let you know when the time is right. Return to your bed and we will talk more at a later time.”
Jane climbed back into the trailer dormitory and returned to her sleeping bag, but sleep was out of the question. Jane laid on her back staring at the ceiling imagining what would soon happen and envisioned herself as the favorite among all the Flock Girls. She even allowed herself to think about replacing Rosalie as leader and sharing the glory with The Steward.
The next morning, as the girls gathered for their simple breakfast, there was much talk about the most recent trip to La Vida Aureo and how easy it was to steal from these crazy old rich people. Cassandra was particularly boastful about her recent role as Guide for The Steward’s vision quest. The more Cassandra talked, the angrier Jane became. “Well, just wait and see, bitch. Soon, I will be more important than you could ever be. Mama Rosa and I are planning something really spectacular. We’ll cause a firestorm with some of that brimstone stuff and then you’ll see who’s been chosen. We’ll show those corporate types that operate the pipelines not to mess with God’s environment.”
“What are you talking about?” challenged Cassandra.
“Oh, nothing, responded Jane in her most condescending voice possible. You’ll just have to wait and see what Mama Rosa and I do.”
Rosalie banged on door. “OK, my sleeping beauties; it’s time to go to town. There are people driving to work that are eager to put a few coins in your pockets. Let’s get moving. The van leaves in ten minutes.”
As the girls grudgingly put on their ragged clothes and filed out of the trailer, Valentina suddenly stopped and steadied herself against the door jamb. “I’m going to throw up, she moaned. I can’t go out.” She gagged a few times and ran back inside toward the bathroom, clutching her mouth.
“Mama Rosa is going to be pissed”, shouted Jane as she headed toward the van.
There was no response. The other girls got into the van and Rosalie drove off, leaving Valentina alone to deal with her misery. When she was certain that everyone had left, Valentina quietly snuck out a rear window of the trailer and crept toward the boundary fence. She had previously noticed that one of the support posts was damaged which allowed her to crawl under the fence and begin walking. She knew that the gravel road eventually led back toward the village of Placitas from her many trips to Albuquerque in the van. She had no destination planned, just to get as far away from the camp as possible. She felt that no one had seen her leave, but she continued along the shoulder hoping that it would provide sufficient cover. Her fear of being caught was exhausting and she sought shelter behind a large trash dumpster with the intent of resting for a few minutes before continuing her journey.
As part of her daily duties, Sarah emptied all of the waste baskets and trash containers at the Placitas Senior Center before anyone arrived for the morning’s activities. She discovered Valentina asleep behind the main dumpster. Sarah knelt beside the young girl and gently touched her shoulder, trying to wake her without startling her.
There was panic in Valentina’s eyes as she woke and stared into Sarah’s face. “Don’t be afraid; I won’t harm you; you are safe.”
Valentina broke into tears and began sobbing uncontrollably as she pressed herself into Sarah’s open arms. “Please protect me. Don’t let them find me. Don’t let them take me back to that place.”
Sarah assumed from her ragged clothes, that this frightened young girl had come from the hippie camp further out Las Huertas Road. And, it was apparent that this young girl was terribly frightened. “Let’s go inside, said Sarah. You’ll be safe there and I can get you something to eat.”
Sarah took Valentina into a back room of the Senior Center where there was a cot to lie down and rest. The room was also away from any prying eyes from the seniors that would be arriving soon. “Just lie down and rest. I’ll get you something warm to drink and something to eat. I’ll be back in just a minute.” When she returned, Sarah noticed that Valentina had wrapped herself in an old blanket, curled into a fetal position and fallen asleep.
The seniors started arriving and Sarah asked one of them to get everyone settled and started on the morning’s activities. “I have some paper work to do in the back, but I’ll be back in time for lunch. I really appreciate your helping out.”
Valentina was awake and sitting on the side of the cot when Sarah reentered the back room. “My name is Sarah and you are safe here at the Senior Center. Can you tell me your name and why you are so afraid?”
Valentina realized that she appeared to be in a safe place and that she could trust Sarah. She spoke in short gasps, trying to expel a host of emotions all at once. “My name is Valentina. I came from the camp down the road. I’ve only been there a few months since I ran away from home. There are some really nice girls there. It was so exciting at first and I loved the thrill and danger of begging for money along the Interstate. But since we started stealing from those old people at the retirement home, things got kinda crazy. I think some of those people have even been harmed. Some of the girls have turned nasty and I’m uncomfortable around them. Yesterday, one of them started talking about some big deal that the leaders are planning. It sounded really dangerous and like people could get hurt. I don’t want to be a part of anything like that. I had to escape.”
Sarah attempted to comfort Valentina while trying to absorb and understand everything she was saying. She repeated, “You are safe here. Those people can’t harm you. Do you have the courage to repeat these things to some friends of mine? I believe they would be able to put a stop to anything that’s planned.”
“They aren’t the police, are they? I don’t want to get sent back to my parents. I will run away again if I have to.”
“No, they are not the police. They are just friends of mine who were here a few days ago because they were concerned about what was going on at the camp. Actually, they are connected with the retirement home you mentioned.”
“I just don’t want to cause any more trouble.”
“Valentina, just stay here in this room and rest. I’ll be back very soon and I’ll bring you some more food. Is there anything else you would like?”
“No, I’ll be fine. Just don’t let anyone know I’m here, OK?”
“You have my word.”
Sarah went to the office of the Placitas Senior Center and retrieved her cell phone from her purse. She stepped outside and called Hannah Halverstrom who answered on the first ring.
“Hannah, it’s Sarah. I’m not calling to talk about our past times together. You were here the other day asking about the hippie camp down the road because you thought it might have something to do with what’s been happening at that retirement home. I think you should come here as soon as possible; there’s a young girl you need to meet. Hannah, I don’t mean to sound melodramatic, but this is really important. Come as soon as you can and bring that other gentleman with you. Please hurry.”
Hannah did not need any further persuasion. She immediately called Matthew Dudley. “Doc, I’m on my way to La Vida Aureo. We’re going back to Placitas to talk to someone that my friend Sarah says we need to meet. Tell Isabella that you’ll be back in a few hours. I’m not completely sure what this is about, but Sarah said it was urgent and she’s not one to cry wolf unless she actually sees one.”
Hannah and Dudley drove in silence to the Placitas Senior Center. By the time they arrived, most of the seniors had gone home for the day and all the doors were locked. Hannah called Sarah on her cell phone to let her know they were waiting by the front door. Sarah quickly ushered them both inside and relocked the doors. “Please come with me”, said Sarah as she led them to a small room near the back of the building.
“Hannah and Mr. Dudley, this is my friend Valentina. Valentina, these are very good friends of mine. Hannah and I once lived near your camp when it was called Tawapa, many, many years ago, when we were both about your age. I remind you that you are safe here and my friends are here to help you. Please tell them all the things you’ve been telling me today about what’s going on at the camp. It is important that you don’t leave anything out.”
Valentina spoke softly and began to tell the story of how she had run away from home and wandered around New Mexico before Rosalie found her on the street and offered her food and a place to stay. As her story progressed, Valentina seemed to gain strength and she talked about how the girls were organized to work specific highway intersections and some of the tactics they used in begging. She talked about the group’s leader, called The Steward and his message about the environment. Eventually, she told about their most recent activities at the retirement home and what they had been encouraged to do. Since she did not recognize Dudley, she spoke openly about the tea they used to persuade the residents to donate to their Cause and to steal when they could. Neither Hannah nor Dudley said anything and simply allowed Valentina to continue with her rambling narrative. It was when Valentina related the conversation among the girls from the previous evening and mentioned the reference to fire and brimstone and that some major event was planned that Dudley became visibly upset.
“I don’t mean to interrupt your story, Valentina, said Dudley, but can you tell me anything more about the nature of this event or about the reference to fire and brimstone? It is very important.”
“Not really. One of the girls, Jane, said that she and Rosalie, I think she’s kinda The Steward’s wife, were planning something spectacular. She called it a firestorm and mentioned something about pipelines.”
Dudley looked at Hannah and said, “I think we should go. We’ve troubled Valentina enough for now and we should let her rest. I’m sure we can rely on Sarah to keep her out of harm’s way.”
Hannah understood Dudley’s sense of urgency and quickly rose to leave. “Sarah, thank you so much for calling. I know you will take good care of Valentina. I will call you in a day or so; I promise.”
Once in Hannah’s car, Dudley spoke first. “It all fits together somehow, Hannah. I heard this Steward guy talking about God’s wrath and using fire and brimstone to punish Man for his destruction of the environment. I fear that these crazies are planning some kind of explosion around here as a demonstration. I don’t understand the reference to pipelines, however,”
“Oh my God, Doc. If I remember correctly, there are several pipelines running through the open space just north of where we are now. You don’t think they would try to blow up one of them, do you?”
“It sounds crazy, but I don’t think we can take any chances. I may be wrong, but it looks to me like they were stealing from the residents at La Vida Aureo to get money to buy explosives or some other supplies and equipment for this major event. That would certainly explain why the place was so heavily guarded when we tried to get in. And, they are the ones that brought those flowers and I believe they are somehow involved in the death of Mrs. Hancock. You keep driving; I’m going to call Frank Garcia; maybe he’ll know how to handle this.”
Fortunately, Dudley had entered Lt. Garcia’s direct cell phone number in his new smart phone, just in case. Garcia answered and was obviously surprised to hear Dudley’s voice. Dudley quickly summarized what Valentina had told them and then paused. Garcia didn’t respond immediately which concerned Dudley.
“Doc, Placitas is in Sandoval County and way out of my jurisdiction. I could call the local Sheriff and maybe he could help. I can deal with anything that occurred at La Vida Aureo, but I’m helpless as far as the camp goes. Sorry.”
Dudley was disappointed but understood the politics of police jurisdiction. He was about to hang up when Garcia said, “Doc, you and Paloma were correct about the datura plant and Mrs. Hancock; it looks like she was poisoned. I’ve started a file to investigate whether her death was accidental or murder. At least I can help with that part of this overall mess.”
“Then, there is something you can do. There’s an old VW van driving around Albuquerque with all of the girls from the Placitas camp. They spend the day panhandling at various intersections and are collected at the end of the day. Based on what you said about Mrs. Hancock’s death, I believe at least one of those girls is involved. You could pick them up for questioning while they’re still in the city.”
Dudley hung up and turned to Hannah. “Garcia can’t help with the camp; it’s out of his jurisdiction. But he will try to intercept the van before it leaves town.”
“I have a better idea, said Hannah. If these idiots are really planning to blow up a pipeline, the FBI or someone like that needs to get involved ASAP! Let me call Bob Witherspoon; he’ll know how to handle this.”
Hannah pulled into the parking lot of the Mercantile Shopping area and dialed Bob Witherspoon. She quickly summarized what they had learned and stressed the urgency of action. “This is all happening at the former commune called Tawapa near Placitas. I know I told you about that place and my time there during one of our extended evening social sessions. I didn’t know who to call, Bob, but I knew you could get things in motion. In the past, I would have thought it would be ATF, but you Feds have changed so much with all this homeland security stuff, I’m confused.”
“Don’t worry, Hannah. I’ve got this. The Homeland Security guys owe me a Big One after the Professor Pearson debacle. I’m sure they would be more than willing to consider this a potential domestic terrorist activity and stage a full-scale raid of the camp, even just for practice. If there are any explosives or explosive components on site, they’ll find them. I can assure you, they will move quickly.”
“Thanks, Bob. And please contact Lt. Frank Garcia with the Albuquerque police to keep him in the loop. He’s looking into some very suspicious activities at La Vida Aureo associated with these folks, including a possible homicide.”
Hannah turned to Dudley much relieved. “I trust Witherspoon completely; he’ll know who to call and exactly what to do.”
“Thanks, Hannah. Our job right now is to get back to La Vida Aureo and make sure all of those dangerous plants are removed and that everyone is safe. We’ll talk to Isabella about getting everyone together to warn them about this scam. Paloma told me that she overheard some of the residents talking about changing their will to leave everything to this Steward or his Cause.”
As they were turning south onto I-25 to drive back to Albuquerque, Dudley heard several large helicopters overhead and watched as they turned east toward Placitas.