A Murder in Terlingua, Texas
Terlingua, Texas, is a magnet for drifters, dropouts, and raft guides—but not murderers. So when a popular bar owner turned up dead after a night of hard drinking, the tiny town found itself facing some very tough questions.
As the world comes to a standstill as we try to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, we encourage all of you to hunker down right now, too. In the meantime, we'll keep publishing news to help you navigate the state of travel today (like whether travel insurance covers the coronavirus), as well as stories about places for you to put on your bucket list once it's safe to get back out there.
The thing to drink at La Kiva, a sprawling, partially subterranean, cavelike bar in the Chihuahuan Desert at the edge of Texas’s Big Bend National Park, was the Mind Eraser. A concoction favored by the owner, a 50-year-old former engineer named Glenn Felts, the Eraser consisted of “hefty portions of vodka and Kahlua topped with club soda,” according to La Kiva’s website. It was to be “inhaled through a straw from the bottom up as fast as possible.” It was a fitting cocktail for Terlingua, a former ghost town turned ramshackle tourist paradise.
The town, which sits at the southernmost tip of one of Texas’s largest and least populated counties, 12 miles from the Rio Grande and the Mexican border, flourishes during the high season from November to March, when most of the park’s 340,000 annual visitors pass through. But Terlingua’s year-round population is well under a thousand—the 2010 Census put it at just 58—a small clutch of raft guides, seekers, and lost souls looking for a new start. They chose a good place for it. Most people don’t ever get to see the Milky Way smeared across the sky; in Terlingua, it greets you almost every night.
La Kiva’s staff rule book included a joking reminder that servers should cut off Felts, their boss, after ten Mind Erasers. Felts had spent several years more or less on the wagon, but in recent months he’d begun drinking regularly again—especially on slow nights, when the tourists were gone. February 3, a cold Monday following the Super Bowl, was such an evening. The half-dozen people clustered around the bar were his friends and employees, and Felts was “fired up,” recalls one friend, who asked not to be named. Felts’s girlfriend, Rachel Manera, an artist living in the nearby town of Alpine, had just agreed to move in to his apartment behind the bar, and he was planning on gathering up her stuff in his pickup truck the next morning.
At some point in the night, Felts started throwing down shots with another of his buddies, a 37-year-old river guide named Tony Flint. The two men were physical opposites: Felts was a slight, wiry man with a wide, elfin grin and a mop of curly blond hair, while the thickly bearded Flint had the kind of build that regularly got him compared to a teddy bear. Felts was a generous host, and his friends often drank for free. According to a witness, a cell-phone video that’s now in police custody shows the two men drinking together that night. According to the person who saw the video, the two men are drunk, loud, affectionate, physical with one another. “I love you, man,” Felts reportedly tells Flint. When the bartender and cook left, not long after midnight, the two men were still at the bar together.
Early the next morning, a La Kiva employee named Jill Jones showed up to start a fire in the barbecue pit and noticed a man sprawled facedown near the bar’s entrance. This didn’t strike her as particularly remarkable; she assumed he was a regular who had gotten too wasted to walk home. Inside the bar, the lights and music were still on, and Felts was nowhere to be found. It wasn’t until she looked for him at his house and noticed that his bed hadn’t been slept in that she realized something was wrong. She went back to check the man in the parking lot. It was Felts. He was shirtless, and his skull was crushed.
A few hours later, the Brewster County sheriff’s office and the Texas Rangers who investigated the incident determined that Felts’s death was a homicide. They arrested Tony Flint and charged him with first-degree murder.
Terlingua was founded as a quicksilver mining town in the 1880s, but by 1942, both the mines and the town were abandoned. The rare, intrepid tourist still sought the place out for its miners graveyard, which features tin-can funeral wreaths and rough wooden crosses.“In a landscape which wind and weather have ravaged and the sun of thousands of years has bleached to the color of pepper, this is a place of roofless adobe houses, abandoned machinery and a cemetery,” one visitor wrote in 1956. “From Terlingua the vast solitude goes on for some hundreds of miles.”
These days the town has two tiny grocery stores, one gas station, and four bars. Few people in town have TVs, cell-phone signals falter, and the nearest Target is 250 miles away. Terlingua isn’t on the way to anywhere, and a partial list of local hazards includes the menacing afternoon sun, inch-long mesquite thorns, tarantulas, scorpions, vinegaroons, camel spiders, rattlesnakes, abandoned mine shafts, alcoholism, poverty, and the border’s potential for sudden violence.
But despite—or perhaps because of—its forbidding aspects, the area has a certain allure. Tourism is the major industry. Visitors come to Big Bend National Park to canoe the Rio Grande, hike in the Chisos Mountains, or just sit around getting acquainted with the constellations. Most people pass through briefly, but some find that they are unwilling or unable to leave.
Terlinguans are daytime drunks, artists, retirees with tricked-out RVs, Vietnam vets, mountain bikers, river guides, amateur geologists, paranoiacs, straw-bale builders, and park rangers. There are probably several hundred actual residents, give or take, depending on the season. (Certainly, no one agrees with the 2010 Census population figure of 58. Census takers, like all government workers, have a tricky time in Terlingua; in 2000, a woman collecting census data was bitten by a resident’s pet javelina and reportedly quit on the spot.)
Without much help or interference from the institutions of mainstream society, Terlinguans have a long tradition of managing—and entertaining—themselves. For fun they host Chihuahua races or build giant volcanoes with propane-fueled lava flows. Most parties are costumed. If you want to be left alone, it’s a good place for that, too: while Unabomber Ted Kaczynski was hiding out in a Montana cabin in the eighties, his brother, David, slept in a hand-dug hole while building a cabin in Terlingua, his own sanctuary from the fallen world.
Despite Terlingua’s outlaw reputation, locals are protective of their home and of each other. I asked Betty Moore, 71, who’s been a Terlingua resident since the early eighties, if Felts’s death had changed her feelings about the town. “This has always been a safe place,” Moore said as we talked in the bookshop of the Terlingua Trading Company, which she manages. “Nobody here locks their doors. I never thought about the possibility of harm coming to me here. That’s one reason people are so heartbroken. It wasn’t supposed to happen here.”
In the late seventies, a handful of people began reoccupying the ghost town’s ruins. One of the early arrivals was Gil Felts, Glenn’s uncle. Gil was a visionary, a former social-studies teacher, and an Army vet who came to Terlingua to build the bar of his dreams in the middle of the desert.
He wore showy hats and walked around town with a scarlet macaw perched on his shoulder. The bar he created was as odd and compelling as he was, with cauldrons of cow bones in the corner and a huge cast-iron pot in place of a urinal. West Texans like to cultivate their eccentrics, so La Kiva quickly became the place to exchange news, have a beer, and scrub the Chihuahuan Desert dust off your skin. For a few years, La Kiva had the only showers in town.
For his famous Halloween parties, Gil would somehow convince his staff to don scandalously small feather costumes. At a going-away gathering for a park ranger known for his dreadlocks and cutoff shorts, everyone showed up with mops on their heads and their jeans shorn at the knee. The only band in town was the Terlingua All Stars, who played an incongruous banjo-infused reggae that people would dance to all night.
When Gil died in 1989, Terlinguans expected La Kiva would be sold. But then Glenn, Gil’s nephew, an electrical engineer from Dallas, stopped by to get a taste of the place. “He saw what a good time we were having, so the family decided to keep it,” explains Paul Wiggins, 65, a silversmith who moved to the area in the 1970s. At first, Terlinguans were skeptical—Gil was an especially hard act to follow, and Glenn sounded like an emissary from the straight world. He had attended MIT, after all. In photographs from those days, his hair is office-job short, and he has the innocent, open face of someone who has no idea what he’s getting into.
But it didn’t take long for Glenn Felts to endear himself to the community. Once the engineering job was behind him, he quickly transitioned to full dropout mode, growing his curly hair long and adapting to the Terlingua lifestyle. “I think he liked it because he could be himself, and because he could do whatever he wanted,” says Manera, his girlfriend. He put his engineering skills to work tinkering with La Kiva.
Aesthetically, Felts kept La Kiva much as his uncle had left it—although “there weren’t as many bones as there used to be,” Moore says. Felts retained his uncle’s beloved Penisaurus erectus, a skeleton of a fictitious creature with a prominent erection. A music fanatic, Felts brought bands from as far as Russia and instituted a popular weekly open mic. His happy hours were a seven-days-a-week tradition for many Terlinguans. “He felt like his mission in life was to provide a space for people to have a good time,” Manera says. That included much more than just running the bar. Felts also hosted events, helped people build their houses, and made regular donations to feed hungry local families—in short, he served as a generally benevolent and consistent presence in an often transient community.
Over the years, the world shrank and more visitors came to Terlingua. Some residents complained that the ghost town was starting to feel like a Looney Tunes version of the Wild West. But La Kiva, a few miles up the road from the Terlingua Ghost Town, the area’s tourist epicenter, remained a refuge for locals. The bar was also an economic hub for the community; nearly everyone I spoke with in the two weeks I spent in Terlingua this winter had worked there at some point, whether for a week or for years.
La Kiva was never a strong moneymaker, but increased tourism meant that Felts’s finances had improved enough in recent years that he could finally treat himself to a vacation last summer. He visited Europe and became smitten with Wimbledon. Back in Terlingua, he made plans to build a tennis court in the desert scrub behind the bar, jokingly soliciting charter members for the La Kiva Country Club. Manera, a fiercely independent artist, finally agreed to move in with him—a major decision, since she hadn’t lived with a romantic partner since the nineties. “When I hooked up with Glenn, my life was catapulting in a different direction than I’d ever experienced,” she says. “I didn’t want to be one foot in, one foot out. I wanted to commit to it.” In photographs from months before his death, Felts sports the blissed-out grin of a guy who is exactly where he wants to be.
When Tony Flint took a seasonal job in 2009 as a river guide at Far Flung Outdoor Center, a well-regarded Terlingua-based outfitter, he quickly became one of La Kiva’s regulars. Friends estimate that he was at the bar at least five nights a week.
Flint grew up in Missouri, where he was famous among friends and neighbors for building elaborate treehouses. Flint attended Missouri State on a football scholarship, but his sports career was derailed by a shoulder injury. He graduated with a degree in geology but was uninterested in a desk job, so he opted for the nomadic life of a professional river guide, spending summers on the Salt in Arizona and winters along the Rio Grande.
Flint was known for his size—friends called him Big Tony or Big T—his giant beard, and his equally large sense of humor. He was recalled fondly by many people who had spent time on boats with him, including a commenter on the Tony Flint Support Group Facebook page named Raiffie Bass, who said he took a four-day raft trip on Colorado’s Green River with Flint in the summer of 2013.
“Hands down the most magnetic, fun loving guide on the trip was Tony Flint,” Bass posted following Flint’s arrest. “Every day when we would pick our rafts, all the kids would fight to get into Tony’s. He was a big kid in his element. He taught them about the river, ecosytem, geology, plants, fish, and wildlife. He taught them about petroglyphs and ancient cultures. He taught them about life. He worked his ass off to make our family trip a memorable experience.”
Like many of his fellow guides, Flint’s home in Terlingua was ad hoc. Officially, he lived in a tent behind Far Flung’s office, but he spent many nights crashing on other people’s couches or staying at a friend’s house in the old mining claim.
River guides’ erratic schedules, peripatetic lifestyles, and occasional brushes with death create a special kind of camaraderie. “Those people are like my family,” says Jenny Schooler, 32, a fellow Terlingua river guide. “Or closer even, because there are things I told them that I’d never say to my family.”
The rafting family’s living room was the bar at La Kiva, where they drank Mind Erasers, told stories, and got rowdy and, occasionally, naked. “That’s just the culture that we were in. Just stupid drunken belligerent dumbness,” Schooler says. “But it was always in good fun. If anyone tried to start trouble, we always had each other’s backs.”
That kind of freedom is seductive, but it can also become its own kind of trap. Poverty-level wages, a hard-drinking culture, and rootless living can start to wear after a while. Last fall, Flint was offered a job as operations manager, which meant that he would serve as a liaison between management and guides. It wasn’t exactly his dream job, but he signed on anyway, even though it meant spending more time in the office than on the river. “He was looking for a different thing in his life,” Schooler says.
On the morning of February 4, word spread quickly through the tight-knit community: Glenn Felts was found dead in front of his bar. Within 15 minutes of the news breaking, more than 300 people vented their shock, horror, and disbelief on La Kiva’s Facebook page. When Flint was arrested and charged with first-degree murder later that day, it was another blow. “I didn’t think this could get any worse. Tony is a friend to many of us who loved Glenn,” an anonymous Terlinguan told Marfa Public Radio that day. “I just keep hoping this is all a bad dream.” La Kiva immediately closed for business and is currently up for sale by Felts’s family.
The details of what happened the night of February 3 are still unclear, and much information will stay under wraps until a grand jury meets to decide whether to indict Flint. That could happen as soon as this month; if Flint is indicted, a trial won’t happen for months. Flint made bail with a $200,000 bond on February 25. According to the conditions of his release, he must wear an ankle monitor and refrain from drugs and alcohol. He is not allowed within 30 miles of the U.S.–Mexico border, which effectively bans him from Terlingua. The Houston Chronicle recently reported that he is working at a ranch near Fort Stockton.
According to a couple of La Kiva staffers who worked the night of Felts’s death, at midnight the two men were happily drinking together. Flint later admitted to deputies that both he and Felts had gotten exceedingly drunk—so much so that he’d had to help Felts out of the bar. According to the probable-cause affidavit, Flint said that both men had fallen down outside La Kiva’s entryway and that Flint had hurt his right hand and the left side of his face. Flint claimed he then drove home, leaving Felts on a rock there.
But according to deputies, there are problems with Flint’s story. The injuries to his face and hand were “consistent with being involved in a fight,” deputy Sean Roach wrote in the affidavit. Flint’s account of what he was wearing that night differed from other witness statements. And the area outside the bar where Flint said Felts fell looked like the “location of an obvious altercation,” according to the affidavit.
In the immediate aftermath of Flint’s arrest, many Terlinguans assumed Felts’s death was an accident. But as rumors circulated about the details of the crime scene, Flint lost sympathy in town. According to court documents, when deputies found Felts his face was smashed, his shirt was missing, and his body had been dragged more than 100 feet through the dirt. Felts’s shirt was found with blood on it at the house where Flint was staying, which prosecutors cited as evidence of an attempted cover-up. Perhaps, several people theorized to me, a too drunk Felts said or did something that triggered a too drunk Flint, causing him to snap.
When I spoke with sheriff Ronny Dodson, he told me that Flint “claimed that he was blackout drunk and had no recollection” of how the night ended. That defense hasn’t won him sympathy with his neighbors. “Half the town is drunker than snot 24 hours a day, and they don’t kill anybody,” said Debra Reynolds, a middle-aged Terlinguan transplant from Kentucky.
Terlinguans tend to be fairly police averse, but shortly after the incident some called up the prosecution and recounted times when Flint’s behavior had been concerning. Others wondered whether they had missed warning signs. “He was a man we had befriended and indulged a little bit,” one Terlinguan, who wishes to remain anonymous, told me. “He had a troubled side, but he always seemed to keep it in check.”
In the weeks after his arrest, more accounts of that troubled side began to emerge. A Marfa resident who attended a raucous bachelor party in Terlingua in 2012 recalls Flint showing up with friends and a jar of homemade blueberry vodka. As the night wore on and everyone got progressively drunker, Flint became aggressive to the point that he was asked to leave. “He was just big and booming, you know?” recalled the Marfan, who also asked to not be named. “He definitely felt threatening.”
Rob Carpenter, 45, a Terlinguan transplant from Kansas City, had an encounter with Flint about a month before Felts’s death. One crowded night at La Kiva, Carpenter was using the urinal when he was shoved from behind. He turned, expecting to see a friend, but instead saw Flint, whom he hardly knew. When Carpenter returned to his table, Flint followed him, pulled up a chair, and stared him down “with a big shit-eating grin on his face,” Carpenter recalls. “I’ve been a bouncer at some of the biggest bars in Kansas City, and I know what bar fights look like. This guy was trying to pick a fight. He had a chip on his shoulder and was just waiting for someone to knock it off.” But before anything could happen, one of Flint’s friends approached. Within minutes the two were engaged in a drunken tussle by the bar.
After Flint’s arrest, Carpenter posted his account on Facebook. “I must say! Tony was NOT a gentle giant! He is a bully!” he wrote. Carpenter says he has since been approached by a few other Terlinguans who had experienced or witnessed minor acts of bullying by Flint—how he got drunk and inappropriate with a woman at the bar, how he smacked someone’s pet puppy. “But they’re all too scared to come out and say anything,” Carpenter says.
Another Terlinguan who asked to remain nameless recalled seeing Flint outside a party: he was kicking a plastic trash can with such force that it crumpled. “To have witnessed such an intense flash of anger against the backdrop of music and laughter was unsettling, but I figured that it was better to strike out at an inanimate object than to butt heads with whoever or whatever had caused this emotional reaction,” she said in an e-mail. “When I heard that Tony had been arrested for the murder of Glenn Felts, it took me back to that moment.”
Of course, the gulf between drunken micro-aggression and murder is a big one. A strong and vocal part of the community, mostly consisting of Flint’s river-running coworkers, continues to support him. Most maintain that Felts’s death must have been an accident. They know Big Tony well and had never seen a hint of malice in his behavior before.
In the days after Flint’s arrest, his friends and family initiated an online campaign to raise money for his defense. The Support Tony Flint Facebook page is full of hundreds of messages from fellow guides, former clients, and elementary-school friends. A typical one calls Flint “a beautiful human being with a good heart who happens to be in a difficult situation.” Flint couldn’t access the Internet from jail, so his sister printed and mailed them. Several of his fellow rafting guides, most of them women, drove up to Alpine a few days after his arrest to visit him in jail. They even lifted their shirts and gave Big Tony a “12-titty salute” to cheer him up.
Two weeks after Felts’s death, the Brewster County district attorney, Rod Ponton, visited Terlingua’s Family Crisis Center for a Far West Texas version of a press conference. A slow-speaking man in a gleaming, dust-free white cowboy hat, Ponton mostly just said that he couldn’t say anything; his investigator, in an equally bright good-guy hat, lingered silently in the doorway.
If Flint does get indicted, he will feature in the biggest murder trial in Brewster County history. Conscious of the power of gossip in a small community, presiding judge Roy Ferguson had already issued a protective order instructing the prosecutors and the defense to keep a tight lid on information relating to the trial. “We’re not here to talk about who did or did not do a particular thing,” the Crisis Center’s director, Mike Drinkard, carefully told attendees. The dozen or so Terlinguans who showed up hoping for answers drifted out of the room. Half an hour later, Ponton was gone and a larger crowd gathered, drawn by rumors of pizza.
The happiest dogs in the world live in Terlingua. As they trotted around us, Drinkard’s son, Clayton, a Crisis Center volunteer and self-described full-time revolutionary, told me that what has happened in his town is a classic example of Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock: “Glenn getting killed, La Kiva getting shut down, a lot of people losing their jobs—it’s an entire restructuring of the community,” he says. No surprise, then, that people are reacting with shock, confusion, and anger.
Mike Drinkard says that, in the past, deaths in the community have brought people together. “The ones that don’t like each other remember they do like each other, and petty differences don’t matter anymore.” But in the weeks after Felts’s death and Flint’s arrest, the community fractured. For some, supporting Flint felt like betraying Felts. Others saw abandoning Flint to the justice system as a betrayal of the community’s ethos of mutual support.
“The desert eats violent people,” Paul Wiggins had said in 1996 to a Texas Monthly reporter inquiring about the Unabomber’s brother. When I asked Wiggins if he still believed that to be the case, he sighed. “This was a hard place to live in 1968. You had to figure out where the other human beings were and how to get along with them,” he said. “Now it’s turned into kind of a scene. The mainstream is getting closer, it’s getting easier to be here, and that’s changing the place, bringing the best and worst of what dense human society has to offer. We’re a little unprepared for that.”
The last night that Rachel Manera spent with Glenn Felts, they took a sunset walk along the edge of La Kiva’s property. Manera spotted an unusual piece of debris blown up against the fence; it turned out to be an old sign dating back to La Kiva’s earliest days. SLOW, it said, in the bar’s signature red wooden letters. It seemed beautifully appropriate, the universe instructing Manera to take time to savor what she’d found in this seemingly inhospitable place. Manera loaded the sign into her truck, along with a few cottonwood stumps and some rock and plaster debris from La Kiva’s former showers; she planned to use them all in an installation. Now they sit in her studio. So far she hasn’t been able to bring herself to touch them.
Manera spent Valentine’s Day at the Brewster County Courthouse in Alpine, listening to the judge spell out the conditions of Flint’s possible release on bond. She knew she might be called to the stand to argue against allowing Flint to return to Terlingua. “I didn’t really want to have anything to do with the hearing,” she says. “But I thought, if the situation were reversed, what would Glenn do? Glenn would go there.”
That day was the first time Manera had seen Flint since Felts’s death. “There was a part of me that wanted to see him eye-to-eye, to be a physical presence of what’s left,” she says. When he entered the courtroom, the shackled, clean-shaven Flint stared straight ahead, making eye contact only with the judge. As Manera listened to the lawyers parse out the case in their oddly formal language, the reality of what had happened hit her: “I just sat there thinking, This isn’t my life—and then remembering, No, it is. You’re here because Glenn was murdered.”
With La Kiva shuttered and no one knowing when or if it will reopen, the bartenders and waitstaff are scrambling to find new ways to make ends meet. Despite the sudden chaos and grief, they’ve managed to keep the community’s vital traditions going. One La Kiva regular has created his own approximation of the bar’s beloved happy hour, hosting private sunset gatherings at the Passing Wind, an open-air speakeasy near the old ghost town that looks like a desert-beached pirate ship. There, as the afternoon sun tints the mountains red, Terlingua’s dogs race in joyful circles and friends of Felts and friends of Flint and friends of both Felts and Flint cautiously come together to discuss things they might have talked about before—bike rides, gossip, plans for future parties.
In late February, La Kiva’s bartenders and staff ducked under the crime-scene tape blocking off the bar’s entrance to clean the place up. It was time for the Terlingua family to throw Glenn Felts one last party. The whole town showed up, as did people who hadn’t been seen in years. Felts’s parents and sister were in town, too. “They are one of those rare things,” Manera says. “A very loving, very functional American family.”
Everyone brought food and did their part to drink up the bar’s remaining alcohol stores. A dozen bands and musicians came and played, and as the sun dipped low the sound of music drifted out across the Chihuahuan Desert. Terlinguans and former Terlinguans and wannabe Terlinguans stood talking under the cottonwood trees that Gil Felts planted when he settled in this hard country 30 years ago. “It was a party—the last hurrah. There were so many people there. It was the last time [La Kiva] would be in a Glenn-spirited fashion,” Manera told me. Then she got quieter. “But it was bittersweet. People getting drunk—it’s too much for me right now.”