Photography by Ryan David Brown; illustrations by Cam Floyd
How a meteorite hunter’s obsession took him from the mountains of Colorado, to the Bundy Ranch, and eventually landed him in jail
For eight seconds, an eerie orange glow lit up the mesas and canyons of western Colorado with the intensity of the full Moon. Locals reported a bluish orb in the sky that burst into a yellow ball of flames and dissipated over the Gunnison Gorge, located 10 miles east of the city of Montrose. Moments later, they heard a crackling followed by a low rumble.
One observer was standing on a ridge when he felt his entire body reverberate, as if from the blast of a powerful speaker. Another man was driving west when he saw the flash in his rear-view mirror. He veered off the road, popped open his car door, and craned his neck to the horizon. “There was a bright light that just hung in the same spot with sparklers trailing off,” he recounted shortly afterward. Some residents called 911, believing they had witnessed a plane or helicopter crash.
That fireball in the sky on Thanksgiving Day 2002 turned out to be a rock from space. A video camera on the roof of Montrose High School, part of a state-wide astronomical network, captured images of the extraterrestrial object as it pierced the atmosphere at a speed of 36,000 miles per hour. The hunk of rock was about the size of a mini fridge, and when it flared up 60 miles over the Rocky Mountains, it did so with the force of 2.4 tons of TNT.
Montrose (population 19,132) isn’t the kind of place where you’d expect a lot of amateur astronomers. Founded in the late 1800s as a hub for mining and ranching, it had become just another windblown town in the West, filled with empty storefronts, mobile homes, and veterans cashing Social Security checks. But after Montrosians caught a glimpse of that shooting star, they kept looking up. An even brighter meteor burst over Main Street in May 2004. Four years later, another big one streaked across the sky to the northwest.
When a space rock passes through the atmosphere and lands on the ground, it’s called a meteorite. Finding one is a little like picking up a winning lottery ticket. Some of them may be worth just a few cents per gram. Others can sell for thousands of dollars. Meteorite hunters naturally started searching the hillsides above Montrose for debris, but most left empty-handed.
Then, one afternoon in 2010, a meteorite salesman named Blaine Reed swung by Mr. Detector, a roadside prospecting supply store stocked with gold panning kits, rock hammers, and metal detectors. When customers came in with puzzling rocks they had found, the owner, a genial Seventh-day Adventist named Dave Lehmann, stashed them behind the counter for Reed to appraise.
Reed, who is 54, mostly evaluated these rocks as a public service. But as one of the preeminent meteorite dealers in the country, he was always on the lookout for something valuable to come in over the transom. “You never know,” he says. Reed is a tall, anxious man with thinning hair, whose darting eyes are hidden behind a set of tinted bifocals. He speaks in a frenetic, nasal drone, like a robot with a deviated septum.
Reed made a name for himself in 1998 when he marketed the first “affordable” moon rocks to private collectors: one-tenth of a gram of lunar breccia from Libya went for $2,600. With only a bachelor’s degree in geology, Reed is not academically trained to study meteorites. But decades of experience have given him the gift of identifying specimens at a glance with the certainty of any credentialed scientist.
Lehmann passed Reed a nugget about the size of a prune with a wrinkled, silvery appearance. Reed furrowed his brow and ran his fingers along its ridges before tossing it back on the counter like a wad of chewing gum.
Lehmann said that a Montrose man named Steven Duane Curry had brought it in along with a glossy postcard he had printed, hoping to sell it on consignment. The card said that it was a remnant of the Thanksgiving Day “bolide” from 2002. “Only 75lbs, or 35kgs, of the estimated 200lb meteoroid, have been recovered,” the card stated. “This meteorite will be recognized as the first of its type to be recovered on US soil.”
Reed let out a howl. The fact is that most people who think they have a winning lottery ticket probably don’t. Curry’s specimen was what veterans in the business like to call a “meteorwrong.” It looked like a melted piece of man-made steel. Reed advised Lehmann to send Curry on his way.
Reed figured that Curry would just blow away like so much cosmic dust. Instead, Reed’s rejection of Curry’s treasure would become the opening move in a twisted game that transformed Curry in ways neither of them could have imagined. Over the next eight years, Curry went from a passionate rockhound with a corny sense of humor to a disturbed man trapped inside a distorted universe of his own making. He rejected not only the standards of scientific evidence but also the most fundamental principles of our legal system. This unlikely trajectory would ultimately leave Reed in desperate fear for his safety and Curry sitting in a jail cell in the desert, facing the rest of his life locked up.
The first video showed up on YouTube in May 2011. It begins with a view of firewood stacked in front of a stove, and then it sweeps over to a table covered in rocks. The camera tilts up to reveal a man with glasses and a white push-broom mustache. He picks up a rock and mugs for the camera. “Good morning, folks. I’m Steve Curry. I’m a meteoriticist here in western Colorado,” he says with the drawl of a High Plains cowboy.
Today, he’s going to show his viewers how a wet chemistry kit from the internet can identify the presence of nickel in a rock — a sign that it could be from outer space. After rubbing a rock with a vinegar-soaked Q-tip, he touches it to a second Q-tip with dimethylglyoxime. “What we shall see is a nice rosy pink-red right there. You can see it,” he says, though, in fact, you can’t see it all. “We’ve had it rosier,” he admits, “but still, we’re getting pink in there.”
Those test results were a turning point, a moment when Curry could see something that the rest of the world couldn’t. Never mind that Curry had quite possibly contaminated his rudimentary test by double-dipping his Q-tips. He and his wife, Sandra Lee Tyler, were both caught up in the excitement, imagining how they might capitalize on their meteorite bounty.
The couple, both in their late 60s, were living out their golden years in a green ranch-style home on Dave Wood Road in the hills southwest of Montrose, surrounded by federally owned land. To the south were the snow-capped peaks of the San Juans. To the east was the Black Canyon, which would soon be designated a National Park. To the west, the Uncompahgre National Forest billowed out toward the red rock canyons of Utah.
Curry, the third of seven children, grew up nearby in the farming community of Paonia. His father was a high school teacher and basketball coach, and his mother was a homemaker. Compared to his brothers, who were All-Conference basketball stars, Steve was an ordinary lump of a man, an Earth rock who found his own way to stand out through his creativity and good humor. After serving two tours in Vietnam, he got an art degree, worked gigs as a coal miner and truck driver, and sold oil paintings of the American West, signing them with the pseudonym Charles Wesley Heileg.
In the early 1990s, Curry and his brothers started a company to produce a board game called I.N.I.T.I.A.L. Response, which was based on a game they played as boys. Games magazine picked it as one of its top 100 games two years in a row, but the company fizzled. Curry, however, wasn’t one to give up. He designed more than 40 games in all, including Hawaiian Glyphs, Stack Gammon, and Wild Cod(“The only card game played Just for the Halibut”), which he sold under the company name C.W. Heileg. None of them made much money. Once Curry met Tyler in 2001, she says that they largely lived off savings from her work as a dietician.
After Curry and Tyler bought their Montrose home in 2006, Curry, who had no formal training in geology, found rocks that he suspected came from space. In a letter he sent me, he explained that he was rekindling an interest he had developed from his grandfather, a “Rockhound-Extraordinaire,” who had a lapidary shop in his basement. To suss out iron meteorites, Curry would dangle a rare-earth magnet from a lanyard as he tromped through the woods around his home. His finds would be washed of their rust, polished in a rock tumbler, or sawed in half to expose their cross section.
Scientists classify meteorites based on their make-up. About 94 percent are stony meteorites, which are composed of the same stuff that’s in beach sand and microchips — silicate minerals like quartz and feldspar. The remaining 6 percent are iron-nickel meteorites, which are thought be derived from the molten cores of aborted planets that end up breaking apart. When Earth formed 4.5 billion years ago, these same metals sank to its core, where they remain trapped 1,800 miles below the rocky crust. That’s why naturally occurring iron-nickel alloys on the Earth’s surface are pretty much guaranteed to be meteorites.
The commercial meteorite trade caters mostly to a small but fervid group of hobbyist collectors who will pay extraordinary prices to get a piece of the latest finds. In recent years, demand for space stones has come from wealthy Chinese collectors, who seem to want the largest showpiece they can get their hands on, and from tech bros, who pine for the rarest ones.
Meteorite collecting took off during the space race of the late 1950s and peaked in the 1980s when rock star dealers like Robert Haag established networks of “meteorite hunters” to scout for rocks. This mostly meant getting the word out to Midwestern farmers to send them specimens they plowed up in their fields. But it also produced the likes of Michael Farmer, a Tucson-based meteorite hunter who has chased shooting stars in 80 countries and once spent two months in a prison in Oman for illegal mining. (He raced up to Montrose within days of the Thanksgiving Day fireball.) More recently, nomads in the Sahara Desert have become a prized source of new material. The International Meteorite Collectors Association lists 455 members on its website, but the modest size of the market means that only a few dozen or so dealers around the world are making a full-time living off of meteorites alone.
The more Steve Curry studied meteorites, the less he could understand how scientists and dealers could claim that they were uncommon. He found them everywhere he looked: in streambeds, on hilltops, even at the Sunset Mesa disc golf course south of town. He bought a copy of the 1973 book Find a Falling Star by Harvey H. Nininger, a self-taught scientist who founded the American Meteorite Museum in Tucson. Curry came to believe he was carrying on Nininger’s legacy. “It is an amazing science, and I’m enjoying being involved in it,” he wrote in an email to Randy Korotev, a meteorite researcher at Washington University in St. Louis. “Perhaps you will agree, that there’s nothing quite like a new discovery, even if the discovery involves nothing more than learning a bit more about ourselves.”
Scientists, collectors, and dealers in the meteorite community can have a fraught relationship with one another. Though some scientists resent the idea of potential research material being locked away by private owners, the meteorite trade has also surfaced new scientifically valuable material. Korotev doubted Curry’s finds, telling him they lacked the hallmark features of meteorites. Some appeared to be basalts, which are volcanic in origin. Others were likely breccia, a rock conglomerate that exists on both the Earth and the Moon. “If it’s driving down the highway and it has 4 tires, 2 headlights, and a trunk, then it’s probably an automobile, not an alien spacecraft,” Korotev wrote Curry.
Curry brushed off the skepticism. He saw it as a dispute among gentlemen — one man’s learned opinion against another’s. He shopped around for an expert who would vindicate him, but in the end, he found none. Nevertheless, Curry listed purported meteorites he collected in Colorado, Utah, and Texas on eBay. One pound of moon rock was listed for $601,500. A piece of Mars was going for $1,414,000. Those prices would have been astronomical even if the rocks had, in fact, been astronomical.
But in Montrose at least, Curry counted as an expert. He developed a following, delivering standing room-only talks to adults and schoolchildren at the Montrose library and in churches and museums. During presentations, he would sometimes sport a black leather vest and bolo tie, channeling a banker from a John Wayne Western. He peppered his lectures with technical words like “regmaglypt,” the thumbprint impression caused when hot atmospheric gases scour the surface of a meteorite.
“He was extremely knowledgeable,” says Robert Stollsteimer, who became what he calls “a groupie.” An elderly woman in Olathe, the next town over, became convinced her yard was jam-packed with meteorites, and she donated $15,000 to Curry so he could buy meteorite-testing gear. Channel 8 news in nearby Grand Junction ran a story about Curry discovering the first moon rocks in North America. It was startling, to say the least. “He’s found outlines of crustaceans, snails and sea worms inside his meteors,” the report said. “Proof of alien life.”
Though Curry had yet to make any considerable proceeds off of meteorite sales, he began to picture himself as a captain of industry, a railroad tycoon of yore who could give back to his frontier town. He established the Osirius Foundation with plans to funnel proceeds from his meteorites to charity. He handed out meteorites to people he met like they were party favors. He also donated five specimens to the Montrose County Historical Society, which, according to the receipt he scribbled out, were worth $58,994,500.
During a meeting of the Montrose City Council, Curry gave a presentation about his vision for the town’s future. “I would like to present to the Council, an economic stimulus proposal involving an abundance of natural resources found here,” he wrote in a handout he distributed that day. He spoke of building a meteorite museum in town and creating a fenced-in park atop Sunset Mesa, where visitors could observe meteorites in situ. “With your assistance, support, and cooperation,” he declared, “I would like to market Montrose, and Montrose County, as the new ‘Meteorite Capital of the World.’”
The rabbits scattered as Blaine Reed and his twin brother Blake rumbled onto the gravel drive of their shared property about 15 miles north of Montrose. Their treeless lot looks like an outpost on Mars, with a series of tan, prefab habitations that are the same color as the powdery soil underfoot. Between their homes — decked out with solar panels, satellite dishes, and a ham radio antenna — sits a dirt runway for their ultralight airplane.
The twins had just returned from an exhausting week at the September 2011 Denver Gem and Mineral Show, but there was no time to rest. As a member of the International Meteorite Collectors Association, Reed adhered to a strict code of ethics, vowing to uphold a high bar of professionalism in the identification and verification of meteorites. “The membership maintains this high standard by monitoring each other’s activities for accuracy,” the code states. “One of the hardest things is to get people to believe the meteorites you’re selling are real,” Reed says. Those who break the code need to be reprimanded.
Reed and his colleagues had gotten Curry kicked off of eBay multiple times for his faux meteorites, and, each time, Curry lashed out with increasing vitriol. His purported meteorites, or “Curry-ites,” were now popping up in shops in Montrose, Telluride, Glenwood Springs, and Grand Junction. The last straw for Reed came during the Denver gem show in the form of an email titled “High Noon Challenge” that Curry blasted to the meteorite community:
Hi Boys & Girls; You’ve all had a wonderful time, over the past couple of years, in trying to denounce my research, attacking my integrity, defaming my character, and, most importantly, making absolute fools of yourselves! I’ve allowed this, and I’ve exhibited a great deal of tolerance for your highly unprofessional, and grossly unethical behavior, but, I will not tolerate your abuse of my family, friends, and business colleagues. YOU HAVE CROSSED THE LINE FOR THE LAST TIME!!
Curry proposed that Reed meet him at the Montrose Library after the Denver gem show for a “duel.” Reed was one of the country’s only dealers at the time who owned an X-ray fluorescence analyzer (XRF), a $40,000 device that looks like a raygun and can identify the chemical elements in a geologic sample within seconds. “Mr. Blaine Reed must show up at this lecture, armed with his new toy, as in his XRF hand-held analyzer,” Curry wrote. “I, too, will show up with our XRF hand-held analyzer, which will be operated by an experienced geologist from Western Colorado.” The two men were to compare one of Curry’s purported North American moon rocks with a verified moon rock from Morocco, and the results would be judged by a jury made up of the people of Montrose. If vindicated, Curry wrote, Reed must abandon the meteorite business forever.
Reed was flabbergasted by the gall of this guy.Who did Curry think he was challenging his authority, his livelihood? Reed was no wheeler-dealer. He was a man of science and integrity. He’d had a passion for meteorites since the night he sat in the back seat of his parent’s car suffering from strep throat and caught sight of a falling star. He was the only one who saw it. It was his and his alone, an incandescent umbilicus connecting this seven-year-old boy to the firmament. In the sixth grade, Reed finally got his hands on his first meteorite, a flake that crumbled off a planetarium specimen. “Boy, I held tight to that,” he says. It didn’t look like much. Most meteorites don’t. What captivated Reed, both then and now, was its origin. “It’s something from another world,” he says.
Reed was willing, in principle, to accept Curry’s challenge. But he had a better idea. To put it into action, though, he knew he would have to enlist his twin brother. Blake, who is three minutes older than Blaine, has a few more strands of gray hair and wears his owlish glasses perched on the tip of his nose. While Blaine is the Luddite, who had only recently graduated from a typewriter to a Windows laptop, Blake is the electronics whiz, who carries his soldering iron around like a security blanket.
The twins got to work on their plan. First, they published “wanted” ads in the Montrose Daily Press and papered the area with flyers offering $10 for Curry-ites they could analyze. A half-dozen specimens were dropped off at Mr. Detector, and they zapped them with the XRF, lending hard numbers to back up Reed’s trained eyes. They were Earth rocks, plain and simple. Still, those results wouldn’t be enough. They needed to send a powerful message to Curry to make him stop hawking his fakes. “Play time is over and I mean business!” Reed wrote Curry in an email.
On the morning of October 1st, Blake looked down at his wrist and pressed “record” on his old-school spy watch with a video camera hidden in its analog face. Blaine, Blake, and Blaine’s wife, Linda Sakurai, strutted into Main Street Minerals & Beads in downtown Grand Junction. As a jazzy tune played over a boombox, they passed a few amethyst geodes and approached a large glass case displaying rocks with magnets affixed to them. “Montrose Iron/Nickel Meteorites” read the label. On a lower shelf sat a cheesy-looking certificate of authenticity signed by Curry.
“I wanted to look at the Montrose iron meteorites,” Blaine said to an employee at the counter. “I was here last week, and my wife says she’ll give me one as a present.”
One of the shop workers opened the case, and Reed picked up the smallest specimen he could find, a 6-gram Curry-ite about the size of a postage stamp. “This has been documented,” she assured him, having taken Curry at his word. “It’s a plessitic octahedrite, which I don’t know a whole lot about. But apparently, it’s super, super rare.” She handed him a printout purporting to show that it didn’t just contain nickel but also precious metals like gold and platinum. Plessitic octahedrites, Reed knew, were among the least-common iron-nickel meteorites, unique in having needle-like structures in them. The price for this small nugget was $645.90.
“This is a lot of money,” Reed exhaled theatrically. Still, his wife pulled out her Visa card, and they hurried out of the store with their purchase.
A few weeks later, Ryan Piotrowski, an officer with the Grand Junction Police Department, heard his sergeant joking about a little black rock that had landed on his desk. It was the classic crap case that none of the veterans on the force wanted to touch: inscrutable paperwork and witnesses spewing gibberish. But Piotrowski, a young, clean-cut transplant from Wisconsin, had just started watching the television series Meteorite Men and was intrigued. This Reed character, who claimed he had been defrauded, actually seemed to know what he was talking about.
Not only had Reed’s XRF machine shown that the Curry-ite had no nickel, but Reed went one step further: he had sent shavings to a professional lab where analysts used a machine that heats up materials with a 10,000-degree plasma torch. Using a process called inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry, the device then identifies the shaving’s atomic makeup by the light it emits, like a tiny, dying supernova. The lab confirmed Reed’s findings: the 6-gram nugget Curry was trying to sell as precious metal from outer space was just some carbon steel with a vanishing trace of nickel in it. Reed shared those results with Officer Piotrowski.
On January 26th, 2012, Piotrowski invited Curry to meet him at the station for a voluntary interview. Curry schlepped along a couple of doorstop-sized rocks and a binder full of Wikipedia printouts that he opened on the table between them. “Thanks for coming in,” Piotrowski said.
“I could probably spend more time on meteorites than you want to spend,” Curry joked.
But Piotrowski wasn’t in the mood for one of Curry’s lectures. “I hope you’re picking up the fact that I’m pretty educated on meteorites,” he said as he took back control of the conversation. He wanted to focus on the question of how much nickel should be in a plessitic octahedrite. According to The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Meteorites, they should contain 13 to 16 percent nickel. The Curry-ites, however, had 10,000 times less than that. “You’re a smart man, do you really count 0.0008 percent nickel as nickel?” Piotrowski asked.
“What we are experiencing here is a new science,” Curry said, “and I am part of the wave that is giving these scientists new information to go back and correct the things they have said.”
“What’s the minimum percent that’s acceptable?” Piotrowski asked.
“Zero,” Curry replied. “If you don’t have to have nickel in a stony meteorite, then you don’t have to have nickel in an iron meteorite.”
“Says you!” Piotrowski said. “What’s going to stop someone from picking up iron ore and saying it’s a meteorite?”
“Your moral ground,” Curry shot back.
Curry kept changing his story and couldn’t even say which analyses pertained to the suspect rock. “Both of them!” he would offer, invoking a quantum logic. Worst of all, he evidently believed his own falsehoods. When Piotrowski felt he had pinned down Curry as best he could, he whipped out a summons, charging him with misdemeanor theft and fraud for selling the bogus meteorite to Reed. Then, he looked Curry in the eye and delivered a stern warning. “You need to understand what you may think is right, may not be right anymore.”
Curry went to trial on October 18th, 2012, and the judge sentenced him to 500 hours community service and ordered him to pay a $1,500 fine along with restitution to Reed for defrauding him. Separately, the Colorado Attorney General enjoined him from advertising or selling any purported meteorites.
The ruling devastated Curry. “He felt that his honor was at stake,” his younger sister, Sharon Smallwood, says. “No one is going to call me a fraud,” he told her. He refused to abide by the terms of his sentence and studied the law in order to launch his own appeal.
Curry also filed a 55-page lawsuit against Reed, alleging an international meteorite conspiracy that prevented new material from depressing prices. “‘Blaine Reed Meteorites,’like all other meteorite dealers, cloak themselves under the banner of ‘SCIENCE,’ as if meteorites are so incredibly rare, and are, somehow, “Scientifically Valuable,” he wrote. “The “Number #1 Priority’ for all ‘Meteorite Research Scientists,’ is to produce revenue for themselves, their research centers, and their home universities.”
As Curry’s filings were repeatedly rejected by the courts, he sensed that the injustice he faced reached far beyond meteorites and implicated the larger legal and political system that the country operates on. “He started doing a lot of internet researching and decided the government wasn’t really the government,” his wife says.
Like many rural Westerners, Curry always harbored suspicions about the powers that be. In the early 1990s, he had drawn political cartoons for a Libertarian newsletter called Common Sense. The cartoons showed taxpayers in gallows, beheaded by judges, or boiled up in “liberty stew.” Now, Curry began devouring the writings of a woman in Alaska named Anna Von Reitz, who believed in an alternative legal system that dates back to the mid-19th century. Every individual, Curry came to believe, was a sovereign citizen and had the right to create their own courts and juries following common law.
On December 8th, 2013, 14 people showed up for another talk Curry was giving at the Montrose library. This time, the topic was not meteorites. Curry was recruiting volunteers for a common law grand jury in Montrose County. He stood at the front of the room in a black vest and tie, next to an artist’s easel with a large pad of notes on it. Judges, he told the audience, were beholden to the people. “A breach of the trust and faith of the people,” Curry explained. “You can indict them for that.”
An old man raised his hand. “Steve?” he said. Curry turned toward him and placed his hand on his chin. “A breach of that oath can also be treason?” the man suggested.
HE THEN CLENCHED HIS HAND INTO A FIST AS THOUGH HE WAS HOLDING A NOOSE
“Absolutely,” Curry said.
“What’s the punishment for treason?” he asked.
“Treason is hanging,” Curry replied. “We’re going to have a lot of indictments on treason, I can guarantee you that.” He then clenched his hand into a fist as though he was holding a noose. He hoisted it above his head and rolled his eyes back.
It was just one more instance of Curry’s defiance of the law. For months he had refused to serve his community service or pay his fines. Montrose county Sheriff Rick Dunlap decided he needed to act. Two weeks after the meeting, as snow blanketed the ground, Dunlap sent his SWAT team out to Dave Wood Road to arrest Curry. The sheriff figured a night in jail might knock some sense into the man. But when Curry got out, he was livid. “The WAR has begun,” he wrote a friend. “It could be a good time to call in the Militia!”
Steve Curry stood in front of a hay bale with a jeweler’s loupe hanging from his neck and a combat veteran cap on his head. Five months had passed since his arrest, and a woman was interviewing him for a YouTube broadcast of a sovereign citizens group known as the Citizens Action Network. “Steve is a gentleman who has been fighting some of the corruption — a lot of corruption — for quite some time,” she said. “We’re going to have Steve tell you a little bit about why he’s here.”
“Here” happened to be the Bundy Ranch in Bunkerville, Nevada. The ranch’s owner, a cattleman named Cliven Bundy, had been grazing his herd on federal lands for more than 20 years, amassing over $1 million in unpaid permit fees. Bundy didn’t believe the federal government held sway over this property, or any land in Nevada. When the US Bureau of Land Management began rounding up his cattle on April 5th, 2014, Bundy’s ranch became a magnet for anti-government protesters and armed militia members.
“GUESS WHAT THE BUNDYS HAVE HERE? A METEORITIC OR ASTEROIDAL DEPOSIT OF A PARTICULAR ELEMENT.”
Curry had become a sort of traveling preacher, delivering seminars to scruffy white men with rifles hanging from their shoulders. He had a peculiar idea about why the government was coming down hard on the Bundys. “Every mining concern around the globe is centered around a meteoritic or asteroidal deposit,” he told his interviewer. “Guess what the Bundys have here? A meteoritic or asteroidal deposit of a particular element, and it’s called magnesium dolomite … which is the metallic igniter for jet fuel, rocket fuel.” Curry pulled out a small white box, opening it to reveal a metallic rock. “Oh yeah, this is an iron meteorite I discovered in western Colorado,” he said. “This is what that cabal came after me for.”
Sometime in May or early June, Curry moved on to Montana, where he stayed with Ryan Payne, a sovereign he had crossed paths with at the Bundy Ranch who led a militia called the Oath Keepers. Curry believed that Payne, too, had meteorites around his residence. Authorities began to take note of Curry’s new acquaintances. The cops in Colorado warned Curry’s family that he could return home with an armed posse.
“I will defend and protect my wife, my home, my property, my colleagues, and my friends, to the last breath!” Curry wrote in a letter to the judge who had presided over the meteorite case. In an email he sent to the Montrose Daily Press, he warned of “multiple fatalities” if his conviction wasn’t overturned. As for Reed, Curry threatened, he would soon be arrested for treason, and Curry had already made clear what the punishment for treason was. Reed promptly filed for a restraining order, and he, Blake, and Linda applied for concealed handgun permits. Officials told them there was nothing they could do but wait for Curry to act.
With sovereign citizens, it isn’t easy to determine whether someone has the intent to inflict physical harm or if they just have a bad case of verbal diarrhea. They have been known to move unpredictably from so-called “paper terrorism” to real violence. The movement has its spiritual roots in the Posse Comitatus, a racist, anti-tax group that formed in 1969 and petered out in 1983 when a Posse member killed two US Marshals.
A 2014 survey of law enforcement officials ranked sovereigns as the number one terrorist threat, above jihadis and neo-Nazis. In 2014, a Las Vegas couple declared a “revolution” inside a Cicis Pizza restaurant and shot two police officers. Terry Nichols, the co-conspirator of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, is a member of the sovereign movement; so is Jared Fogle, “the Subway Guy,” who was convicted of child molestation.
J.J. MacNab, a research fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, says that the sovereign movement is like a cult or religion, though it has no single leader or doctrine. “You either believe or you don’t believe,” she says. It is made up of a people who don’t want to pay their taxes or have some festering grievance with the government, an employer, a bank, or some entity in a position of power. In addition to gumming up the legal system with nonsensical filings, they register liens against property owned by public officials, potentially harming their victims’ credit and tripping them up if they try to sell their land. “They believe that if they just go through this series of steps, they can force the nation back to what it was like 200 years ago,” MacNab says. By her estimate, there may be 100,000 hardcore sovereigns in the country, with another 200,000 who have tried out their schemes in courts. Curry, she says, “is a true believer.”
THERE WAS THE STEVE CURRY WHO WAS NAMED IN LEGAL PAPERS, AND THEN THERE WAS THE REAL STEVE CURRY
Curry, an avowed atheist, considered himself a rational man. But as his strange new faith evolved, he embraced the idea that there were two parallel universes. There were the courts and the cops and the science that most of us believe in. Then, there was Curry’s mirror reality, which revolved around its own axis and could cast off debris that sometimes collided with the real world and lead to peculiar contradictions. He denied the legitimacy of our courts, yet he insisted on filing documents with them. He refused to recognize the federal government, yet he also claimed to be a federally protected witness. There were also, naturally, two Steve Currys. There was the Steve Curry who was named in legal papers, and then there was the real Steve Curry, the “natural, living, breathing, feeling, and merciful, human being,” as he put it. For Curry, that distinction was critical: it meant that our system had no jurisdiction over him unless he consented to it.
After several months on the road, Curry returned to Montrose in the summer of 2014. He soon became one of the most influential sovereigns in Colorado, with a savant-like recall of legal precedents. His writing, even at its most menacing, could be playful and oddly persuasive. He appointed himself a Superior Judge of Colorado and participated in a weekly conference call where derelict taxpayers, small-time criminals, and cantankerous old men discussed plans to create an armed group of “Continental United States Marshals” to carry out their work.
Curry spent his days typing out liens and criminal complaints against the sovereign movement’s enemies across the state, stamping them with a red thumbprint — proof-positive that he was a real man. Sovereigns in Denver manufactured cop badges for themselves. “The overarching thing in the group is fighting the corruption of our state government,” says Steve Keno, a sovereign and a sheepherder who doesn’t like the City of Aspen Springs telling him he can’t run his animals on the city’s property.
Sheriff Dunlap received Curry’s missives almost daily and knew he had trouble on his hands. “We watched Dave Wood Road,” he says. “We watched it constantly.” One day, a call came into the station that Curry had barricaded himself in his home. “Steven has talked about committing suicide but would not do it himself,” the tipster reported. “He wanted law enforcement to kill him.” Over the summer, Dunlap’s deputies had noticed a poster appear under two antlers on a wooden signboard at the end of Curry’s driveway:
BE IT KNOWN TO ALL MEN;
(PRIVATE, CORPORATE, CIVILIAN, GOVERNMENT, LAW ENFORCEMENT & MILITARY)
THIS LAND HAS BEEN RECLAIMED & RESTORED, NOT AS BANK PROPERTY, GOVERNMENT PROPERTY, OR AS FOREIGN OWNED, BUT AS;
PRIVATELY PATENTED, NATURAL, INHABITED LAND, PURSUANT TO THE GUADALUPE HIDALGO TREATY OF 1848
The poster went on to say that the property was “debt-free, un-encumbered, non-taxable.” Trespassers will be shot. “Survivors will be shot again.”
Curry and Tyler had quit paying their mortgage and property taxes. When the bank foreclosed on their home and put it up for auction, the Continental Marshals arrived with plans for a Bundy-style standoff. Bruce Doucette, another pretend judge who owned a computer store in Denver and hadn’t paid his taxes for many years, made several pilgrimages to Curry’s place, crashing in the guest room. At one point, one of Curry’s disciples stood in downtown Montrose waving a flag with the words “Fuck the Cops” on it. But the revolt lost momentum when Sheriff Dunlap arrested Curry one November afternoon when he was letting Tyler out the front gate.
This time, Curry would spend seven months in a jail cell in Grand Junction, defending his homestead with court filings penned in longhand. In January, Doucette headed up to Oregon to join Ryan Payne and two of Bundy’s sons during the 41-day armed standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, which left one militia member dead.
In the end, none of Curry’s schemes to protect his home worked. In late May, Tyler and her three cats were evicted from Dave Wood Road. Their possessions were cleared out and piled up at the end of the driveway.
As the sun was setting on a Friday afternoon in September 2017, David Hunter, an investigator with the Otero County District Attorney’s Office and David Sanchez, a Sheriff’s deputy, arrived at the Oak Grove R.V. Park in the forested mountains of southeast New Mexico. Hunter and Sanchez were looking for a man who had recently tried to purchase a log cabin with a bogus financial document and had a felony arrest warrant in Colorado. The name on the warrant was Steven Curry.
After Curry got out of jail in 2016, he and Tyler bought a 30-foot travel trailer that they towed behind his silver Dodge pickup, which still had a weathered sign on it that read “C.W. Heileg, The Gamemeister.” In January, he stumbled on an epic find out in Blythe, California, a town on the Arizona border. “A huge rubble-pile asteroid strewn field,” Curry put it in a letter to me. “There was an estimated 500k ton of heavy iron that landed 125-150 years ago!” He put some smaller meteorites up for sale at a shop in Quartzsite, Arizona. The shop’s owner, a man named Phil Bates, says he made it out to Curry’s crater a couple times. It was in a beautiful, remote area. “We had two people going out there and hauling a couple thousand pounds,” he says.
Then, on March 30th, law enforcement arrested Doucette and seven other sovereigns. The 40-count indictment included charges for extortion, retaliation against a judge, and criminal impersonation. It enumerated nearly 50 public officials that the group had allegedly terrorized. The would-be revolutionaries were nicknamed the “Colorado Eight,” and Curry’s name was added to the indictment shortly thereafter.
HUNTER LEANED OVER AND SAW THE GLINT OF A STAINLESS STEEL 0.44 MAGNUM REVOLVER
After arriving at the RV park, Hunter and Sanchez proceeded toward the campsite where a green Subaru with a “No Trespassing” sign was parked. As they approached, they saw Tyler’s white bob of hair scurrying in one direction while the man they believed to be Curry boomeranged back to the RV. Sanchez shouted for Curry to stop, but he vanished into the RV. The two could hear him rustling around ominously. Hunter took cover behind the front fender of his vehicle. They waited.
When Curry poked his head back out of the doorway, he kept his body and hands hidden. During his time on the lam, he’d shaved off his mustache, and he looked wild-eyed and skeletal with liver-spotted skin and neck tendons taut as rubber bands. Hunter leaned over and saw the glint of a stainless steel 0.44 magnum revolver. It was a Ruger Redhawk, a handgun powerful enough to take down a grizzly. Curry told them he was willing to use it.
Over the next hour, Hunter tiptoed out to a tree and tried to reason with Curry, but Curry insisted that their laws did not apply. “I’m a living man,” he said, “I’m not the person on your paper.” Curry stepped down from the vehicle and told them they were just slaves to a secret corporation that had a financial stake in every US citizen. Sanchez stifled a nervous laugh.
As the sky darkened, Curry’s edge dulled. His voice quavered. “I’m tired,” he told the officers. He set his revolver on the ground, but still within reach. “It’s been an exhausting day,” he said. “I’ve been filing papers left and right in the Federal District Courts today. I have not stopped filing papers. I do it every day. I do it for everyone. I would file a paper for you, if you asked me to do that. I have rescued thousands of people in this country from false imprisonment.”
He went on.
“Can I talk you out of a bottle of water?” Hunter interrupted. Curry reached for a 12-pack on the table next to him. Hunter saw his opening and sprinted forward, shutting the RV’s door and cutting Curry off from his revolver. Sanchez, meanwhile, raced in to subdue Curry, who pawed for a second firearm, a 0.38 special he had hidden in his waistband. The two men wrestled, and then Curry went for Sanchez’s own holster. “No, no no. Don’t you dare grab my gun,” Sanchez said.
Hunter yanked Curry’s hand away from Sanchez’s firearm, but he was octopus-like, slippery. “You are sons of bitches,” Curry growled, “May you burn and rot in hell.”
A third officer on the scene pressed a taser against Curry’s chest and shoulder, but pulling the trigger would also send 1,000 volts arcing through Sanchez and Hunter. They were locked in a Mexican standoff. The action slowed. Curry panted and cursed under his breath. He flexed his arms, preventing a fourth officer from cuffing him.
“I’D RATHER GO OUT IN A BODY BAG,” CURRY SAID. HE HAD SHIT HIS PANTS
“I’m losing one hand,” Hunter cried. The scene exploded into chaos. Sanchez wrapped an arm around Curry’s neck and cinched it into a chokehold. The Montrose meteorite man let out a snort and, at last, went limp. They cuffed him and rolled him onto his stomach on the cold, bare Earth. “You are assholes,” he muttered.
“We just saved your life,” Sanchez replied.
“I’d rather go out in a body bag,” Curry said. He had shit his pants.
The cops delivered Curry to the jail in Alamogordo, New Mexico. He now faced charges in two states. In January, Curry’s brother Dave flew down to check on him. They conversed over a telephone for 45 minutes with a pane of glass between them. Dave mostly just listened to his brother — or at least the flesh-and-blood person who used to be his brother — argue that the charges against him weren’t valid. It was heartbreaking. “I knew that nothing I said was going to change his mind,” he says. “I just wanted to show him that I love him.”
While members of Curry’s posse have racked up prison sentences as long as 38 years, Curry appears bound for a different fate. A court-ordered psychological evaluation concluded that he has delusional disorder, a psychosis afflicting 20 to 30 out of every 100,000 people. People with the disorder develop profound, sometimes bizarre, convictions that they cling to with extraordinary tenacity. These convictions can lead them to develop a grandiose view of themselves and a sense that they are being persecuted. Some people may be genetically predisposed to it, causing an imbalance of the chemical signals in their brain, but it can be triggered by stress or an intense event. Insofar as the scientific literature is concerned, no evidence has ever linked delusion disorder with an extraterrestrial impact, but most everyone who knows Curry agrees that something in him changed the moment he got wrapped up in meteorites.
Earlier this month, a judge ruled that Curry is not fit to stand trial. An upcoming hearing will determine whether he is a menace to society and must remain locked up in a mental health facility, potentially for the rest of his life. Tyler, who suffers from bipolar disorder, refuses to accept Curry’s diagnosis and says it is just another way that the powers that be have muzzled her husband. “They found him incompetent because he doesn’t believe in what they believe in,” she says. His supporters in the sovereign community say that whatever happens to him, his name will live on. “He is a hero in my book,” says Robert Intlekofer in Louisville, Colorado. “He’ll be thought of more highly than George Washington.”
The only time Blaine Reed ever met Curry in the flesh was during the trial in Grand Junction. He was standing at a urinal in the courthouse bathroom, and he looked over and saw a man with a white mustache in the next stall. He didn’t realize it was Curry until the trial began, and for the next five years, the Reeds lived in fear that the man with the white mustache would show up at their home unannounced. Blake installed a driveway alarm, a license plate reader, and several surveillance cameras on their property.
“When I go into Montrose, I still carry a gun,” Blaine said on a recent afternoon. The Reeds have an armory that would make the NRA proud. In addition to a mini-revolver and a couple varmint rifles, Blaine keeps a 10-gauge shotgun over their front door. Blake has a semi-automatic shotgun that looks like it could stop a squad of stormtroopers.
Even with Curry locked up, the good people of Montrose still want to believe they’re living in the Meteorite Capital. Locals guard their Curry-ites like family heirlooms. Duane Renfrow, a disabled veteran, called the Sheriff’s office when a photographer borrowed his specimen for a little longer than he was comfortable with. And Robert Stollsteimer still takes walks up to Sunset Mesa, where Curry wanted to establish a meteorite park. He likes to imagine an alt-universe where that vision came to fruition. Some of these people will tell you that Curry was “railroaded” by the courts, by the meteorite cartel, by Reed.
It’s as though the whole town has been sucked into an orbit around a mad man, infected by a collective delusion that allows them to set aside science and the weight of expert opinion. Some claim ignorance of the facts, others simply refuse to abandon their past beliefs. Although Curry lost his battle against the meteorite community, he still won the war of public opinion.
“I’ve designed the board game,” he had written a friend once, “where they are the only losers.” He prevailed by playing upon doubt and mistrust that is still so pervasive in Montrose, and beyond. Curry capitalized on a flaw that is all too common: we are willing to hang on to certain irrational beliefs in the face of all evidence to the contrary. If a notion feels so good to us, we reason, then it must be right.
Being an objectivity crusader in a world like this can be a thankless job, as Reed has learned. Some of his colleagues thought he should have just kept his head down, and he ultimately resigned from the International Meteorite Collectors Association for fear of entangling them in his legal tussle. “I just did what had to be done,” he says. “It’s a relief to be back focusing on the business.”
A couple years after the meteorite trial, Reed made the rounds at Mr. Detector, and Dave Lehmann handed him a half-pound rock with a fusion crust on it. A man named Eldon Surbeck was out hunting fossils when he found it on a talus slope east of Montrose. When Reed scratched the edge of the rock on a piece of white paper, it left a line like a pencil. Pencil lead, or graphite, only forms in an oxygen-free environment — that is, in space.
Reed bought the rock and sent a sample to the Institute of Meteoritics at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. Researchers there determined that it was a urelite, the first specimen of its kind recovered in Colorado and the fourth from the US. Christened the Sawtooth Mountain Meteorite, Reed felt vindicated to confirm what he’d already suspected: this meteorite was real. He put it on display at the next gem show and made a few thousand dollars off it.
Correction, 6/26/2018: This article has been updated to clarify that XRF stands for “X-ray fluorescence analyzer,” not “X-ray frequency analyzer.” In addition, although Terry Nichols was convicted of state charges related to his participation in the Oklahoma City Bombing in 2004, the bombing itself took place in 1995.