By Gary Herron
Observer staff writer
Kelley Hill of Rio Rancho, an assistant football coach at Rio Rancho High School, had quite an adventure recently — one reminiscent of an episode of NBC’s “Dateline” or CBS’s “48 Hours.”
At the request of the victim’s mother, Hill participated — at his own expense — in a concerted hunt for the body of a California woman, last seen alive on June 28, 2004, and presumed dead.
Today, Gloria Denton still doesn’t know where her daughter’s body is, but she knows where it isn’t: in the abandoned Red Dog Mine in Ludlow, 30 miles west of Barstow, Calif.
This is quite the intriguing tale.
It began after April Beth Pitzer testified in a drug trial and, many believe, was killed in retribution for her testimony, which helped convict 34 people.
Since that June day, Denton has searched relentlessly for her daughter’s body. April had been separated from her husband and father of her children, and fell into a bad crowd while living in a small California town. But she had told her mother, just one day before her disappearance, that she was going to return home to her mom and two daughters in Arkansas.
Then, Pitzer, 30, was staying with a man she knew and affectionately called “Uncle Chuck” (Hollister) in Newberry Springs, Calif., in San Bernadino County, off historic Route 66.
The day she disappeared, Hollister said he’d helped a friend move to Oregon; when he returned home, Pitzer was gone — but some of her suitcases and a backpack, left on his property — were still there.
Oddly, a bus passenger told authorities she’d heard at a party that April was dead and in a mineshaft. Dan Dansbury, who worked the Red Dog Mine in search of gold, revealed in a deathbed confession that Pitzer had been murdered and sent to the bottom of a mine.
That’s where Hill came in, after one search in the Red Dog Mine — one of an estimated 20,000 such sites in the area and productive back in the late 1800s — “revealed” a cluster of rattlesnakes at the mine’s boom, where it was believed Pitzer’s remains would be found. Hill’s not afraid of snakes, mind you; plummeting hundreds of feet down a century-old mineshaft, though, is another story.
Fortunately, it’s a harrowing story he easily lived to tell.
Denton contacted some snake fanciers — Hill is a herpetologist and a rattlesnake aficionado. His love for snakes began at a young age, when he was growing up in Abernathy, Texas.
“My mom has pictures of me in diapers, holding a bull snake,” he said. “I looked like I won the lottery. I was just a pup.”
In March 2015, Denton had managed to get a crew down in the mineshaft, or at least partway.
“The man never got near the bottom; he said don’t come down, it’s a rattlesnake pit,” Hill said.
Hearing that warning — which proved false — Hill thinks the snake spotter was somehow in cahoots or in fear of his own life if the search continued.
“She, through a Google search, came across our (rattlesnake) group and sent an email,” Hill said. Soon, a five-member team was assembled and headed to Barstow, “in the middle of the Mojave Desert.”
Hill’s wife, Drea, was “very supportive, even though she was worried and upset,” he said. “She knows me; of course, she was worried and a little upset. We were going. Period.”
Once at the Red Dog Mine property, Hill’s group was to rendezvous with a caving group, but nobody showed up.
So, he recalled, “We’re out there with (Denton), who’s devastated,” he said, noting his group wasn’t going to back out and devised a plan.
“I’m not a miner,” he added.
Donning hardhats with powerful lights after dropping glow-sticks into the mine for added visibility, four of the men headed into the mine, which was more of a maze, with shafts running vertically as well as horizontally. They found themselves perilously crawling along parallel 4x4s, but hearing creaking, they decided they needed more wood and supplies, and ultimately sawed sheets of plywood into stripes that would be supported by the 4x4s.
Then, he said, “One person was to stay outside all the time; one person was on the first level, 40- to 50-feet down. It was yell up or yell down.”
Once they felt safe with the shoring of the wood, Hill said, he and Don Hyatt, an organizer of the Texas Rattlesnake festival despite being a resident of North Carolina, headed as deep as they felt safe.
“We made it all the way to the bottom,” he said, “but we know there’s one more level — we see another ladder that goes 50 feet down.
“We realized there were no snakes at the bottom, but we’re being careful. We climb down that last ladder and into a room about 15 feet by 40 feet. It’s crazy.”
They noticed a small, conical indentation that “looked like something had been there and had been lifted straight out,” he recalled. “Whatever was here is not here. We took pictures and left it undisturbed.”
Ultimately, the San Bernadino Sheriff’s Department had them return to that site, wearing “white suits, masks and gloves,” with Hill finding himself part of a virtual forensics team.
They retrieved dirt samples from every few inches, separately bagged them and had them returned to the surface; that required another two days of work. The SBSD wanted to have the samples analyzed to see if there was any DNA evidence from Pitzer contained.
Hill said he hung on to some of the samples, planning to drop them off at a scientific lab at North Texas State University, on his way to the Texas Rattlesnake Festival.
Also during the adventure at the Red Dog Mine, Hill said, they fanned out in a 200-yard or so radius to walk around the area, finding tattered clothing and what remained of a purse and suitcase, which Denton believed had belonged to her daughter.
Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it won’t kill this football coach, it seems.
And Benton will remain eternally curious.
“She knows her daughter’s dead,” Hill said. “She’s a desperate mother who desperately wants to bring her daughter’s remains home.
“Unfortunately, they’re not (in the Red Dog Mine. She said, when we were standing over the mine (for a farewell prayer), ‘I won’t be back.’
Neither will Hill.
“She thought for 12 years she was at the bottom of the Red Dog Mine,” he said. “Snakes don’t bother me a bit – I was scared of the hole.
“That was probably one of the most … (he searches for the right words) … frightening, scary – from the danger part of it. I’ve never been sitting on a nine-inch piece of wood, looking down. I won’t even go over the Taos Gorge bridge.”
Back home, he said, he had trouble sleeping for a few nights.
“It’s kind of an empty feeling. We did all you can.”
There’s a postscript to the story, Hill said. It turns out one of the men suspected in the killing of Pitzer, meth manufacturer Steve Wilkinson, was seen in the area of the mine last September, one day before he was thought to be on his way to Amarillo – to dispose of Pitzer’s remains there? – and killed when the Cessna 310 he was a passenger in crashed into a mountain near Silverton, Colo., well off the I-40 corridor a small plane would have followed southern California to Amarillo, even after a confirmed stop for fuel in Flagstaff.
Perhaps Pitzer’s remains now lie somewhere in the San Juan Mountains.
The bizarre case was aired on the TV show “Disappeared” in 2010 on the Investigation Discovery (ID) network. You can learn more about the case by visiting charleyproject.org.