After 50 years, Snippy still a mystery

VALLEY — The death of a horse 50 years ago put the San Luis Valley on the world map, and discussion continues today.

The diary of an old family friend says it took place on Sept. 27, 1967, while other accounts have the incident happening on other dates.

A columnist for the Rocky Mountain News observed that Lady/Snippy had become more famous in death than Man O’ War was in his prime. He also suggested the horse had tripped and fallen with its head in a band of cannibal ants.

The only thing people can say for certain after the past five decades is that something killed Nellie Lewis’ horse.

The horse, an Appaloosa named Lady, was a creature of habit, so caregiver Harry King became concerned when she didn’t come to the fence behind the King home for her water and usual treat.

Harry lived with his aged mom, Agnes, then 87, and cared for the horse belonging to his sister, who lived in Alamosa. He went looking for the horse and found her lying on her side, with her head stripped bare to the bone. He said the precision cuts on the flank couldn’t have come from a coyote or even a pack of them. A strong chemical smell akin to acetone lingered in the air. 

Nellie called a friend and then hurried to the ranch. What she found there is carved in the annals of history, embellished by many, and featured in short films, folk legends and books, which have brought fame and fortune to the authors, but no answers about the horse’s death.

The carcass was poked, prodded and renamed “Snippy,” a name Nellie used for her horse from then on. The bizarre event, one of many that had been plaguing the sparsely populated San Luis Valley, began 50 years of mysteries.

When Nellie and husband Berle Lewis began walking around the grisly scene, the odor was still in the air and the bones appeared to have been exposed to the sun for years, though they had a pinkish cast.

Although the carcass had lain exposed for several days, it was not bloated and the smell was not that of decomposition. No predators, vultures or buzzards had found it appealing, though the flesh at the base of the neck was pliable.

The horse’s footprints ended about 100 feet from where the remains lay. No other prints were around. The Lewises found 15 burns that could be circular exhaust marks. A hundred yards north of the carcass they found a three-foot bush and bushes within a 10-foot radius of the bush that had been flattened to within 10 inches of the ground. Six indentations two inches across and six inches deep formed a circle three feet in diameter.

On the bushes, Nellie found some gelatin-like green globs and a piece of metal covered with horsehair. After touching these, her hands began to burn and hurt until she could wash them.

The only footprints around by then were those of people Nellie knew had been there.

Nellie reported the incident to then-sheriff Ben Phillips, who declared the horse had been killed by lightning. Weather reports for the time period did not show any such activity. Duane Martin, a United States Forest Service employee, arrived with a Geiger counter and began testing. The area around the burn marks was radioactive and so were the green globs and the horsehair-wrapped metal object.

Residents and visitors also reported strange phenomena. One man said his car was followed by a top-shaped object, a college student said both his rear tires blew out as he approached an object as it sat in a field and two sheriff’s deputies were followed by an orange globe, then threatened with their jobs if they wrote reports on it.

Several days after the horse was found, police at the nearby Great Sand Dunes found Dr. John Altshuler, an award-winning pathologist, trespassing on the monument after dark. When police lectured him about breaking the law, he begged to keep his name a secret, afraid his reason for being in the park would ruin his career if it came out. He was watching for UFOs.

When the officers learned Dr. Altshuler’s area of expertise was in the study of blood coagulation, they decided to let him off the hook if he would take a ride out to Harry King’s ranch and view the remains of a horse to see if he, a medical expert, could make some sense out of them.

He found the animal’s lungs, heart and thyroid were completely missing, removed with some of the cleanest cuts he had ever seen. The brain and abdominal organs were gone, he said, and there was no material in the spinal column.

At the edges, the sliced skin was a deep black in color. Even stranger to him was the lack of blood. Many years later, as an old man, he told a reporter, “I have done hundreds of autopsies. You can’t cut into a body without getting some blood. But there was no blood on the skin or the ground. No blood anywhere. The outer edges of the skin were cut firm, almost as if they had been cauterized by a modern day laser, but there was no cauterizing laser technology like that in 1967.”

Reporters from Associated Press, United Press International, The London Times, Parish Match, periodical magazines and publications devoted to strange things arrived to cover the story.

A guard was placed at the gate, pending investigation by the Aerial Phenomenon Research Organization (APRO). News of possible UFO involvement eventually reached the Condon Committee, a group funded by the U.S. Air Force from 1966 to 1968 at the University of Colorado. Their purpose was to study reports of UFOs. They reached out to pathologist Dr. Robert Adams who agreed to take a look at the animal and present his findings.

Adams examined Lady and the evidence. He concluded there were “no unearthly causes, at least not to my mind.” Harry King saw no one in the area before finding the horse, but Agnes King reported seeing and hearing an unknown object flying over the house.

Nellie Lewis contended Adams’ conclusions failed to account for the chemical odor and lack of blood at the scene.

The mutilation was blamed on space aliens, but those who didn’t believe stories of flying saucers attributed the injuries to everything from secret government projects to the work of Satanic cults until Superior Court Judge Charles E. Bennett of Denver and his wife said they had witnessed “three reddish-orange rings in the sky that maintained a triangular formation, moved at a high speed and made a humming sound.” And then there were the small black jet planes people claimed to have seen buzzing the area where Snippy died.

Berle Lewis pounded a stake in the ground with plans to erect a monument, but Nellie died and the plans faded away. After being removed from the meadow, Snippy’s bones began an odyssey of their own. Alamosa veterinarian Wallace Leary boiled off the remaining skin and tissues in 1968 and mounted the skeleton on a metal platform, bones held together by wires and screws.

In that condition, Snippy spent a few years on the sidewalk in front of the Chamber of Commerce and was in a private museum for a while before ending up in an abandoned house on Carl Heflin’s ranch, where she sat for about 20 years.

Frank Duran, a marketing specialist with Dell’s Insurance, offered the bones on eBay at the behest of Helfin’s nephew. Some $10,000 was raised. The nephew reportedly wanted $50,000 and took the skeleton away. It’s in a warehouse somewhere.

Snippy’s legacy still hangs over the San Luis Valley in places like the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve and the nearby UFO Watchtower, where sky watchers continue their hopes of glimpsing a visitor from outer space.

Caption: In this old photo, from left Duane Martin, Nellie Lewis and Leona Wellington watch as a Geiger counter records radiation around the carcass of Snippy the Horse.