A TRUE STORY BY J.C. DRAKE
I still have the yellowed newspaper clipping, the piece of evidence, and the skull wrapped up in an old box in the back of my personal files. These are artifacts left over from the case that began my career as an investigator of the weird and unexplained. I’d always been interested in mysteries, spending my nights hunched over Sherlock Holmes stories or meeting my friends at the local bowling alley to watch “Twin Peaks.” I dreamed of investigating something strange on my own.
That opportunity came on November 23, 1991 with a story in the Dallas Morning News. The words leapt off the page: Azle, Texas; bodies of 800 dead animals found dumped; believed to be the result cult activity; ritual sacrifice documented; police had no leads. This was the height of the “Satanic Panic,” when cops and concerned citizens nation-wide saw everything from candles found in the woods to heavy-metal graffiti as the result of “cult activity.” I didn’t know better at the time – this looked like a real live cult not far from my house. I had to check it out.
I spent the next few days preparing as best I could: pinpointing the location from the description in the paper, gathering a camera and some sandwich bags to use for evidence collection, reading up on “ritual crime,” and meditating on that news story constantly. I had a case straight out of MR James or HP Lovecraft on my hands. It only took the offer of a box of burritos and relief from post-Thanksgiving boredom for me to enlist the help of two friends, whom I’ll call Bill and John.
We drove out just before sunset and feasted on bean burritos and Mountain Dew along the way. My research was surprisingly good and we had no real trouble finding the spot. It was on a big horseshoe shaped drive in a sparsely populated rural development. The dumping site was in the middle of a huge area of mesquite scrub and cactus; close enough to civilization to be accessed easily from the highway, but far enough out not to be noticed.
The police tape was still up, but coming lose and blowing in the winter wind. The few houses nearby were dark, except for one. I pulled my car around the horseshoe and found a place to park out of the immediate line of site of any of the houses. If the police or neighbors came upon us we were planning to play dumb kids. If we ran into the cultists, we were packing an oddball assortment of baseball bats and brass knuckles.
There was enough moon to see in the cold night – the sky was clear and we were used to walking at night without flashlights. We stepped over the police line and walked into the woods, emerging shortly into a little clearing. And there it was. Nothing had been cleaned up or removed.
Bones. Thousands of bones. Ribs. Femurs. Skulls. All kinds of species, mostly farm animals: goats, sheep, cows, horses. Some had clearly been there for a long time, others were fresh. I began to shake. Just a little shake at first but then I began to actually quiver. This…was real. This wasn’t a movie set or Halloween props. This was no longer words on a page and the phantoms of imagination, but real bones and teeth glistening under an empty Texas sky. The realization collapsed down upon me; someone had put them here – and that someone was still at large.
I looked around and realized that Bill and John were going through the same panic – staring out, shaking a bit, and trying to come to grips with the gore that lay before us. I don’t think any of us thought we’d find this place or, if we did, summon the courage to get out of the car. But here we were. Bill and I came to our senses as the adrenaline began to pump and excitement took over from fear. Johnny never got there – he continued to stand rather rigid, just looking around and mumbling a bit.
We began to investigate – to seriously take a look around, flashlights concealed beneath gloved hands. We noticed rather quickly that the bodies had simply been dumped – there was no evidence of any kind of “ritual” taking place. There were no magic circles or beer cans or any sign of people loitering around. But there were tire tracks: big ones, not the kind of vehicle your average cultist drove around in. This was a dumping ground for something that was taking place elsewhere.
Then I found the clue.
It was hanging about a foot off the ground, caught in the branches of a low mesquite tree: a piece of yellow plastic like one would use to tag an animal in the ear on a farm. It had a company name and logo on it. Someone had been careful to clean these kind of identifying items from the site, but this one had been missed. We “tagged and bagged” this evidence, took some pictures, and I gathered a particularly heavy-metal looking goat skull as a souvenir before we departed. Bill and I took John home – he was rattled – and then made our way to our favorite diner to drink a milkshake and ponder our case.
It turned out our two-bit sleuthing had actually solved the mystery. There were no cultists; a little bit of research revealed that the company on the tag we found did bio-medical work. (They have since ceased operation.) No doubt the police knew exactly who did it – they probably found similar clues, but in such a small town it would have been easier to blame the whole mess on Satanists and tell the owners to stop dumping or face stiffer consequences. In little towns everyone is related either by blood or business, and what hurts one often hurts many.
We kept it quiet, too, sharing our adventure with a few friends and bringing out our “clues” like they were saintly relics. The solution turned out to be mundane – biological research – but in many ways far more insidious than cultists. I’ve been fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to have had many strange experiences since then. But of all of them, this is perhaps the most glaring in my mind, the first step through the looking glass into a luminal world where the weird is real and craving exploration.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY GABINO IGLESIAS
J.C. Drake is a professional researcher and general problem-solving factotum. He holds a BA in Anthropology, an MA in History, and a PhD in Adult, Professional, and Community Education, specializing in understanding how people obtain cultural knowledge through narrative. His hobbies are writing weird fiction, traveling, and researching unsolved mysteries, which he has been doing for more than 20 years.