Authorities have seemingly reached a dead end into an investigation of an abandoned car that was found buried under a massive pile of debris in a remote, mountainous area outside Pagosa Springs, with its owner missing.
“He’s nowhere to be found,” said Mineral County Sheriff Fred Hosselkus. “It’s kind of weird.”
On Aug. 13, a passerby spotted a part of a silver 2014 Toyota Camry with New Mexico plates sticking out through a massive debris pile, located up West Fork Road (Forest Service Road 648), about 15 miles north of Pagosa Springs.
The area in question is located in Mineral County, right before U.S. Highway 160 starts to climb Wolf Creek Pass.
After the car was reported to law enforcement, investigators determined it belonged to Gabriel Max Baldonado of Albuquerque, who is in his early 40s.
But in the days since, authorities have been unable to locate Baldonado or piece together what may have happened.
A host at a nearby campground said the car couldn’t have been there more than 10 days, but neighbors had reported nothing unusual or out of the ordinary.
Nothing was found inside the car to help determine what might have happened, other than a mask, which leads authorities to believe the car was left there at least after the COVID-19 pandemic. The vehicle was in good, working order.
The debris used to bury the car had been there for years, Hosselkus said, as a U.S. Forest Service slash pile. Because of the way the wood and logs were stacked, he believes the intent was to set the pile on fire.
“It just seemed to be like they were building a great big bonfire,” he said.
More recently, search crews with a human remains detection dog combed the area, which turned up nothing.
“They did a pretty good search,” Hosselkus said. “They are pretty good dogs, they’ll find something if it’s there.”
Adding to the mystery, Hosselkus said a pentagram, a five-point symbol often associated with mystical or occult meanings, was found 300 feet from the car. The pentagram was made out of sticks.
“It’s hard to say how long it had been there,” he said. “But it was weird when we found that.”
The Mineral County Sheriff’s Office worked with investigators in New Mexico to help track down credit card or bank activity, which again, turned up not a trace.
“There was no (recent) activity on anything,” Hosselkus said.
Baldonado was not known to have a cellphone, Hosselkus said.
Investigators located Baldonado’s family, but to make matters more complicated, Baldonado had become estranged from his family, and hadn’t spoken with them in years.
Angela Atwood, Baldonado’s sister, said in an interview Monday with The Durango Herald that Baldonado’s wife of about 15 years suddenly died in 2017, and that was the turning point for her brother.
“That made Gabriel spiral,” she said.
Baldonado and his family moved to New Mexico a few years ago after his wife, Carol, finished nursing school. After she died, Baldonado and his three children went to stay with Atwood in the Seattle area.
“He just wasn’t in a good place mentally ... to raise his kids, so they moved in with me,” she said. “He went back down to New Mexico to sort himself out, and then we never heard from him after that.”
Atwood said her brother is quiet and introverted, and never got caught up with the wrong crowd. She, too, is at a loss as to why he went missing.
“I just don’t understand the car,” she said. “He’s not a super strong person. I don’t know how he buried it like that. That’s not Gabriel.”
Hosselkus said it appears he had no connection to the Pagosa Springs area. There are no planned future searches of the area. Foul play is not suspected. Authorities in New Mexico will keep an eye on credit card and bank activity.
“I don’t know what else to do,” he said.
The location in question has been a problem area for missing people, Hosselkus said.
In September 2017, Matthew Johnston of Rico called 911 to say he was lost. His car was found parked at an overlook on the west side of Wolf Creek Pass, and a robust search effort turned up nothing. He remains missing to this day.
And a year or so before, Hosselkus said a truck that went off Wolf Creek Pass near the same overlook resulted in the death of the driver, but authorities have reason to believe there was a passenger, who was never located.
“Maybe if we find one, we’ll find them all,” Hosselkus said.