Op Ed submitted by Kurt J. Beddingfield
On September twelfth the body of Ed Bartheld was found in the crawlspace of his home. It appeared that he had shot himself. He lived alone at the end of a road in the Ghost town of Turret Colorado. He was 92 years old. Fate placed me in the middle of this story, and I feel the need to tell it from my point of view. In my opinion, the media has covered it poorly. It’s complicated, but let me try to explain.
In the summer of 2008, Ed and Jean Bartheld, an elderly couple, came down from Turret to sell their property. They had been living there since the mid 1970s. Gene was 83. Ed was 85.
Ed thought he was going to die. He thought he was going to die before Jean, and he wanted his wife to be provided for. They had lived off the grid for over 30 years and had built their place with their own hands.
I was at a barbeque. It was summertime and I was playing music with a guy named Balder Saunders. He’s a mandolin player. His family was visiting friends here in Salida, and like everyone else, their eyes had glazed over. They wanted to find a way to live here.
Balder Saunders met Ed Bartheld at Remax Realty in Salida Colorado. The Barthelds wanted to sell their property, but there were complications.
Ed and Jean wanted to live out their days on their land. They owned their property out right, but over the last 30 years, living a simple life, they hadn’t put away much money. They needed a way to get cash, but could find no one who could pay what they were asking up front and allow them to stay on the property. Balder and his wife were interested. Over the course of several meetings, the Barthelds agreed to sell Balder the sixty-eight acres in Turret Colorado for $50,000. Nothing would change. Ed and Jean could live out their days in their home.
When Jean and Ed passed, it was agreed that Balder would create a music camp for kids and a studio for musicians in the place that the old couple had built. Jean wanted others to enjoy the beauty of their place, and she liked the idea of children being there. They had none of their own. It was my understanding they had no family. She liked the idea of music. She also liked Balder and Jen. She didn’t want their place to be “developed”. They wanted to pass on the land, but they didn’t want to sell it to the government. They tried. Ed didn’t like the government.
Their place was beautiful. They found it. They carved their life out of it. Many people dream of buying land in the mountains building a house growing a garden raising animals and heating with a wood stove. Ed and Jean did it. Ed had a background as an electrical engineer and an incredible eye for practical detail. Jean was a former physical education teacher. As a craftsman, Ed was a master. As an intellect, he was a genius. As an old man, he was deaf as a stump.
Ed communicated with everyone through Jean. You would ask him something, and he’d look at Jean. Jean would yell what you asked back at him, and then he’d answer you. He also wore a hearing device. It wasn’t a hearing aide. It was a small microphone and speaker that he would hold to his ear. It ran on rechargeable batteries and it didn’t help much.
After the sale was made, Balder called me to do some work at the house. He was trying to get the place insured. Ed didn’t want to work on it anymore, and it was in need of repair. There was a broken window. Boards in the decks were rotten, and the insurance company had requirements. The deck needed handrails. There was no thermostatically controlled heat. The house wasn’t built to code. There was no record of it at the building department. It was off the grid.
Ed didn’t want me to put up handrails. It would ruin the view. He thought the idea of an electric heater was a joke. They had heated their place with a wood stove for 30 years. He still cut the wood. Ed was an old man, but at age 87 he could climb a ladder and stairs without much effort. He was self- sufficient, and he wanted to be left alone. He did things himself, and when he did, it was perfect. He showed me around the place.
He built his own house. He cut the logs on Monarch pass. He hauled them to Turret in his pick up. He built his own barn, same way. The gates in the goat barn slide on casters with the touch of a finger. He designed and built his own off grid electrical system where the solar panels tracked with the sun by means of an electric motor powered by the system, in the early 80s, before many knew what solar power was. He showed me his well. At some point in time it had gone dry. They dug another one by hand. It’s at least eight feet across and sixty feet deep. Ed would climb down and dig while Jean would pull up the dirt and rocks in five gallon buckets. At the time they were in their mid sixties.
My friends and I were the only ones that worked on the place other than them. Ed and Jean had done it all. I could tell he didn’t like us being there. He was nice enough. We drank tea and we asked questions. We finished the work and left. Time passed and I forgot about it.
Three years later I read in the paper that their house had caught fire. Balder called me again and asked if I would go check on Ed and Jean. They had no phone. They didn’t use the computer. The only way to communicate with them was to go find them or send a letter in the mail. I went up, and the damage was pretty bad. The roof was thirty years old. It was shingled with broken cedar shakes that should have been used for kindling. They were.
Earlier that year Ed had paid a local chimney sweep to clean their wood-burning stove. They cleaned it and reset the chimney. Apparently, a cinder had fallen on the roof and ignited. It was the dead of winter and the dead of night. Ed smelled smoke. Somehow they found a neighbor to call the fire department. The fire department had a hard time with the winter road. Meanwhile, Ed climbed on top of the house with the broken cedar shingles and a thin layer of snow. Their water came from the well and was pumped to the attic into a cistern. The roof was above the attic. The water wouldn’t flow through a hose onto the roof. He lowered a five -gallon bucket on a string to Jean. She filled it half way in the kitchen sink. He’d pull it up to the roof and douse the fire. They repeated the process until they put the fire out. He was 90. She was 88.
Jean was sad, and Ed was mad. Ed assumed that after their agreement, Balder had insured the house. I had done the work for Balder to help meet the insurance requirements. He couldn’t contact Balder and he needed a claim to pay for the damage. As we continued to talk, Ed told me there was no insurance. At least, he thought there was no insurance. He said he thought it was criminal for Balder not to have insurance with the arrangement they had made, but Ed had never insured the house himself. They had already hired someone else to fix the roof.
I called Balder (in Florida) to tell him what had happened. I told him that Ed had hired someone else and was upset. He thanked me for going up. I told him to let me know if he needed anything else.
Last week I read in the Mountain Mail that a man in Turret had blown himself up. I saw the picture of the house and knew it was Ed. Balder called me. I hadn’t talked to him since the fire. The police had contacted him after the incident was investigated. Balder was now the rightful owner of the place, and they needed his cooperation. He asked me to be his contact with the sheriff and to check on things.
A deputy informed me that the property had been searched and secured. A neighbor had found Ed dead. It looked like he had shot himself in the basement. They called it a crawlspace. The police were called. An explosive had gone off. More explosives were found and the bomb squad was called in. They cleared the scene. The local police went back in and found more explosives. The bomb squad was called back, and they cleared the site again. The deputy said that the police had performed a thorough search and their work was finished. I asked if I could go up. He said that if I had permission from Balder it was fine but to be careful. I asked about Gene. He told me she had died in 2012 of a heart attack on Christmas Eve.
I knew someone who lived in Turret, and I thought that he might be one of the neighbors involved. I didn’t have his phone number, but I knew where to find his brother. When I stepped into the office it was apparent that he was upset. He said his brother just wanted to be left alone. I told him what I knew and how I was involved. He said he’d try to have him call me, but it looked like my buddy had pulled one of the greatest land scams in Colorado History. The rumor said he got a million dollar property for about $600 dollars and in the process had swindled an old man.
The brother called. He had found Ed’s body. We agreed to meet at the gate at noon. I called two friends to go up with me. I didn’t want to go alone.
He was there when we pulled up. He told me that last week he had found his hero dead. Now, the media was calling his friend crazy. He had found Ed in the basement and it looked like he had shot himself. The police searched the scene and had found fertilizer in the crawl space. They said they had found detonators and explosive devices. He hadn’t seen any of that.
I told him how sorry I was, how I ‘d known Ed and how much I respected the work he’d done. He put aside his anger, and listened to what I had to say about Balder. He said he would do his best to keep an open mind, but the bottom line was, in the end, Ed was ashamed of the deal he had made.
I asked if he wanted to walk through the property with us. He did. We saw the greenhouses. We saw the well. We walked around the house. It was locked and secure, so we didn’t go in. He’d taken the handrails down. We looked through the windows, and there seemed no damage from the search. The battery light on the solar control panel was glowing, so the refrigerator was still cold.
We walked out to the goat barn, and I showed the neighbor where Ed had shown me his sprinkler system. When they had raised goats, Ed had figured out a way to water his alfalfa field. He ran PVC and black plastic hose for a half mile up the mountain to a spring. From there the water would run through the pipe and hose by gravity with enough pressure to run a sprinkler for the field. It was a small field.
On the way back down the road we talked about Ed. We talked about Balder. After walking through it, we were dumb-founded. It seemed apparent that Ed had wanted to kill himself, but his neighbor wasn’t sure. He thought the police had misinterpreted the scene. Yes, there was an explosive in the basement, but it was fertilizer. It was in bags that were 20 years old that haven’t been legal since the Oklahoma Bombing. Was he was just storing them? He was a gardener. You need fertilizer to garden in Turret.
In his previous life, before Turret, Ed was an electrical engineer. There were devices all over the workshop upstairs that looked like transistors, relays and technology from the 70s and 80s. He was an inventor. He tinkered with electronics. He built his own photovoltaic system. Did the police misinterpret all the equipment for a cache of bomb making devices? It seemed to us that if Ed had wanted to blow up that house, it would have blown up.
I drove home and called Balder. He had just gotten out of school. He’s a music teacher in Florida now. I told him the rumor and asked him if it was true that he had paid Ed $600 and walked away with the title.
He told me of not being able to get financing. The house and property did not meet lending standards. A bank requires an appraisal of a property on every loan. To a lender, the sixty-eight acres in Turret was land with minor improvements.
Ed didn’t build his house by the rules or building codes. The bank considered his home an out building. When buying raw land, a standard down payment at the minimum is twenty percent. If Ed and Gene had sold their property for a million dollars, the bank would have required a $200,000 up front.
When the deal was about to fall through, Ed had another idea. In fact, he didn’t want Balder to get financing through a bank at all. If Balder were to borrow money from a bank to finance the loan, the bank could foreclose on the property. If Balder missed one payment, Ed and Gene could be evicted.
Ed wanted to finance the loan himself. He did. He agreed to a down payment of $15,000 and a payment schedule on a monthly basis until they died. Afterward, the property would go to Balder and a future music camp. Balder said that when the papers were finally signed, it was like the Universe was smiling down on him. It was an unbelievable opportunity.
The next morning I told the police what had happened the day before. I asked the deputy if he was completely sure that Ed was going to blow up the house. He was. He said that a series of explosives and detonators were rigged. The fertilizer was part of it. It seemed however, that Ed wasn’t finished with his work when the small explosive went off. They were not sure of the order of events in relation to the gunshot and explosion, but Ed had died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Maybe sometimes the world isn’t as bad as we think. In general, reading the news, it’s easy to assume that it is. The story isn’t about an old man being swindled. It’s not about a crazy hermit blowing himself up while trying to destroy his house out of spite. In my opinion, this is a story about a man in pain facing the end of his life and grieving the loss of his wife. It’s about an old man… losing touch. I feel for Ed. I feel for Balder. I feel the need to tell this story. Fate set me right in the middle of it. I don’t have all the answers, but I know more about Ed’s story than anyone else. I respected Ed. I’d like to do my best to honor his legacy.
Maybe the bargain that Ed had made to provide for his wife in his absence became his greatest regret and all he could think of after she was gone. Maybe he needed someone to listen. Maybe he was ashamed. Maybe he needed someone to blame.
What was it like for Ed those last two years alone in that house? What was it like to be alone with his thoughts in the middle of the dream he’d built with Jean, with no one and nothing but the sound of silence and the ringing in his ears?
When Jean died, communication with Balder stopped. Balder sent Ed checks with letters in the mail. Ed cashed the checks but never responded to the letters. After his roof caught fire, Ed found out there was no insurance policy on his house. There was nothing wrong with the paperwork. The deed had been signed. The dream was uninsurable. It would be a hard thing to live with.
Walking back to the gate that day, we were talking about how life can be so confusing. We weren’t sad. We were solemn. There was a sudden rattle and we both jumped off the trail. The neighbor had stepped over a rattlesnake. It was a timber rattler. It hadn’t struck, but it was letting us know it could. The neighbor bent down, smiled at me and whispered “Hey, Ed.”