On the night of Wednesday, Feb. 4, 1959, Redmond A. Stevens stopped by Fido’s Bar in Tijeras. His roots were in California, where he had a mother, a sister and seven children, but he had moved to Tijeras two years earlier.
A 51-year-old journalist, he had worked for a number of publications and done considerable investigative work, according to one of his sons. He had just founded the East Mountain area’s first newspaper, the Tijeras News.
Fido’s was a popular neighborhood gathering spot near the Tijeras school on Route 66, about 6 miles east of Albuquerque, and Stevens may have rented a room in a small motel behind the bar. Witnesses told State Patrolman Robert Schmerhheim that Stevens chatted with friends at Fido’s but wasn’t drinking.
About 10 p.m. Stevens left the bar. It was the last time he was seen alive.
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Last month, a granddaughter of Stevens, Maria Bare, who lives in Charleston, S.C., emailed me with a request: Would I help her find out more about her grandfather’s death? She had seen a column I had once written about the history of the area, “Tijeras: 40 years of speeding slowly into the future,” and hoped I’d be willing to do a little detective work on behalf of her family.
“I’m working with my uncle, John Stevens (my mom’s brother), to riddle out the death location of his father,” she wrote me. She then quoted notes her uncle wrote in 2000:
“Redmond was struck by a car and killed while walking down a road in New Mexico. One version of his death is that he was murdered as a result of having uncovered some kind of public scandal (which he often did in his career as a journalist) which he was proposing to publish. Another version is that he was carrying a large sum of money with which he was going to start a newspaper (which he often did)—and he was killed as a result of a robbery. There was, as far as I know, no investigation into these stories. I believe the source for these tales was my grandmother, Redmond ́s mother, Mima.”
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In 1959 Tijeras was still a sparsely populated rural village. Farms and small houses were intermixed with a handful of bars, shops and motels. Unincorporated, it had no local government and one school. Law enforcement relied mostly on a sole deputy sheriff, the legendary Tom Herrera. Amid heated local controversy, the cement plant had been officially inaugurated a few months earlier but was still gearing up production. Route 66 had been paved but Interstate 40 was not even a dream.
This was the village in which journalist Redmond Stevens found himself in 1959. The reports of that time are contradictory on whether he had just started or was preparing to start the Tijeras News. No newspaper had existed before in this area, and I have been unable to find any record of his newspaper.
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About midday Thursday, Feb. 5, 1959, three Tijeras school boys—brothers Michael and Steven Nese and James Price—were walking through a culvert beneath busy Route 66. They said they were using the culvert to go home from the school on the south side of the road. But since almost no one lived on the north side in those days, is is more likely they were using the culvert to play hooky in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains.
The culvert was 100 yards east of Fido’s Bar and 15 feet deep. On its bottom lay the body of Raymond Stevens. He had been dead for about 14 hours.
The bar’s owners had a long, low-slung motel-type structure behind Fido’s where they rented out five rooms and where Stevens may have been living.
Stevens died of a skull fracture and brain hemorrhage. Shock and exposure all night in frigid February weather may have been contributing factors.
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But how did he get the skull fracture? Was he hit over the head? Was he robbed or assassinated?
State Police Capt. John Bradford said shortly after the body was found, “We’re not sure of how he got there or the cause of death, but there’s no indication on the surface of foul play.”
After an autopsy the next day, state police and an investigator from the district attorney’s office ruled out foul play. They said Stevens died accidentally from a fall from the road into the culvert. I have talked with several people who lived in Tijeras in the late 1950s or know about the village’s history.
Victor Gonzales knew Stevens and was a schoolboy in Tijeras at the time. Sandra Lee also grew up in Tijeras and was living there in the late 1950s. Rick Hoben, a freelance dealer in “antiques and other stuff,” has become obsessed with Tijeras history and has amassed a substantial archive of documents and photographs going back to the early 19th century, including some from the late 1950s and early 1960s.
None of them believes Stevens was killed. Their unanimous conclusion: the icy February rocks along Route 66 were slippery. Walking late at night, Stevens, stumbled, fell 15 feet and smashed his skull.
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Mysteries are lovely things. Whether as readers, investigators or mere journallists, we become more alive, our hearts beat faster our blood flows more freely and our brains make giant leaps from suspicion to conclusion at the slightest hint of foul play.
But this time a death may have been just what it appeared to be: a tragic accident.