It was supposed to be a planned development aimed at giving residents a taste of the desert of the American West, in all its peace and natural beauty.
Instead, an isolated, unincorporated area northwest of Albuquerque has become a harbor for illegal shooting ranges and the disposal of stolen cars, old appliances and even bodies.
The land known as Rio Rancho Estates, once envisioned as place for upscale homes, is a popular spot for illegal dumping, the Albuquerque Journal reports . That’s because of easy access provided by about 660 miles (1,060 kilometers) of well-maintained dirt roads, Sandoval County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Keith Elder said.
He says almost 40 percent of all stolen cars that were recovered throughout the county last year were found within 21 square miles (54 square kilometers).
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Since August, the bodies of two slain Albuquerque residents have been left in the barren area.
The land also is used for legal and illegal recreation. ATV riders zoom around curves and hills, and gun enthusiasts empty their rifles at makeshift targets.
Officials say around 1,200 people live in the area, based on a 2010 estimate of more than 500 homes in the area. Many live in mobile homes and trailers, mainly powered by generators and with wells or storage tanks for water.
The county doesn’t have a specific plan to develop the area as it envisioned decades ago.
Although the barren expanse is largely ignored by the public on a day-to-day basis, it has cropped up in the news and in court documents related to two murders out of Albuquerque in the past eight months.
One August evening, for example, detectives say two men and a woman drove a Chevy Silverado king-cab to an off-roading area to bury the mutilated body of a man they are accused of killing over a drug debt.
In mid-September, authorities found the body of John Soyka, 41, buried in a shallow grave off a wide, sandy road. Six months later, Albuquerque police crime scene tape remained ensnared in cactus spines at the scene.
Chase Smotherman and Mariah Ferry are charged in Soyka’s death. Their trials are pending.
Then, in January, another homicide investigation began about 5 miles (8 kilometers) southeast.
Sandoval County sheriff’s deputies found the charred body of Marilyn Gandert, 65, of Albuquerque on a mattress.
No one has been charged in her death.
Some days, gunfire is a near constant echo as recreational shooters risk fines or even jail time if they’re caught by law enforcement. Piles of shotgun shells and bullet casings cluster on overlooks and in shallow gullies.
Illegal shooting is one of the most common reasons Sandoval County sheriff’s deputies are called to the Rio Rancho Estates Area west of the city, officials said.