by Mike Smith
It was cold up in the mountains, and there was snow on the ground. It was February 5, 1936. A roughly paved highway wound from the Sandia Mountains’ southern end, north and up, into high, wooded desert villages—Tijeras, Ranchitos, San Antonio—and met with a then-unnamed dirt road that veered west into sloping hills.
The unnamed road cut a path between poplars and cottonwoods, hills and arroyos, junipers and elms. On the right, to the north, several hundred yards up the nameless road, stood two small buildings—one made of mud, and a smaller one just in front of it, made of wood, with a stone chimney. It was just around eight o’clock, and dark out. Light shone from a window of the wooden cabin, and smoke climbed from its chimney.
Then, without warning, a gunshot exploded over the hills, muffled only slightly by the cabin’s walls. A long moment passed, another shot sounded, and another, and the night rang with silence. The cabin’s back door soon opened and a dark figure slipped out, its footsteps crunching in the snow as it hurried into shadows.
The cabin sat just inside the northern perimeter of the village of San Antonio. Its renter was a journalist named Carl Taylor. The retreating figure was a 15-year-old boy, Modesto Trujillo, who lived in the house just above the cabin.
Trujillo made his way home through the darkness, and entered his house to find his mother holding his baby brother. In Spanish, he told his mother what had just happened.
According to Trujillo, Carl Taylor—who had hired Trujillo to do his chores and run his errands—had been sitting near the fireplace, reading, with Trujillo nearby. Suddenly, the front door opened, and two men strode in. The men’s faces were hidden behind white rags; one man pointed a gun at Taylor. Taylor leapt up from his chair. Trujillo began backing away, toward the rear of the cabin. The gunman fired at Taylor’s head, and before Taylor could even fall to the ground, Trujillo escaped into the kitchen. As a second shot sounded behind him, Trujillo ran out the kitchen door and headed home. To the Albuquerque Journal later that night, Trujillo said, “I went home and told my mamma what happened. My mamma got scared. She cried.”
The story made national headlines for weeks, and soon became a sensational movie, primarily because of what Taylor had been writing about. Taylor had come to the Sandias to research a feature for Today magazine—a piece about New Mexico’s Penitentes, a then-unofficial Catholic sect. The Penitentes believed in making amends for their sins through physical suffering—suffering which included whipping one’s self with whips, throwing one’s self onto beds of cactus, dragging heavy chains along the ground, wearing crowns of thorns, and even, if chosen for the honor, hanging upon a wooden cross.
In 1936 perhaps as many as 10,000 Penitentes lived in the American Southwest, and many of those lived in San Antonio. A low hillside at the town’s northern end was the site of one of the area’s only moradas—the exclusive, adobe chapels in which the Brotherhood met to worship, and from which they began their processions. Many local farmers and woodcutters were Penitentes, and Taylor had evidently managed to befriend—or bribe or deceive—them, because the day before his murder, he had reportedly been granted entrance to the morada with Modesto Trujillo. And, he had brought a camera.
To his literary agent, Taylor wrote: “I have just finished taking about two dozen pictures of a Penitente morada (temple of worship) and various pictures of crosses in the hills. If I haven’t forgotten how to use a camera, some of these should be excellent. Last night I made 3 flashlight exposures within a Morada—something I don’t think has ever been done before. I’m praying over those, for there will never be a chance to repeat the performance.”
As the Albuquerque Journal drily reported on February 6, 1936: “Penitentes ordinarily do not permit uninitiates to enter their moradas, much less to photograph them.”
Trujillo’s story, however, did not withstand scrutiny. Taylor’s body had blocked the cabin’s front door, ruling out the possibility of people in the doorway. The gun was traced to Trujillo, who had a reputation for petty theft and for a troubled, violent nature. And before long Trujillo had confessed, claiming the murder had not been done by Penitentes, but was part of a simple robbery.
Still, suspicions remained. Trujillo’s grandfather and father were Penitentes. The Penitentes’ hermano mayor, or spiritual leader, was a close family friend. The police report called Trujillo a Penitente. And Taylor had written that, “The boy who chops wood for me, and who, I think, secretly cherishes an ambition some day to be elected the village Cristo and hang upon a cross, is immensely proud of his shiny new bicycle.”
As the world talked of masked men and motives, Trujillo’s mother sat at home and cried. “She is prostrated, apparently unable to comprehend the tragedy that has descended upon her little household,” reported the Albuquerque Tribune.
Trujillo’s father came home from herding sheep near the slopes of Mount Taylor, at his wife’s request. Trujillo himself sat in his cell, awaiting a trial that would soon result in the story’s second major tragedy: the bulk of a life spent growing old behind bars. In the end, his motives were irrelevant: he had killed, and now the law would dictate his future.
During his jail time before the trial, Trujillo would sit and stare at the wall, work crafting a beaded belt, or play with the Spanish words of a song he was writing to an old tune. He had begun writing the song before the murder, in the mountains, but now, the song had changed.
“If you want to know who I am,
Just ask the jailer.
I am Modesto Trujillo,
Who has just come from San Antonio.”
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