A coffin was found on Wednesday in a wash behind the Aztec Speedway, in Aztec.
A coffin was found on Wednesday in a wash behind the Aztec Speedway, in Aztec. (Jon Austria/The Daily Times)

AZTEC — A rusty casket washed up in an arroyo near Aztec Speedway during the recent flooding.

The casket's appearance mystified Aztec Well Servicing employees, who spotted it on Wednesday. An employee opened it and saw what he thought were bones underneath torn bedding inside, said Jason Sandel, the company's executive vice president.

Employees called police, and Aztec Police Chief Mike Heal and Sgt. Joseph Gonzalez responded. But they didn't find bones or body parts.

"It had trash in it," Gonzalez said. "It was open, and I checked it and it had towels and junk in it."

No body and no crime, police said. The suspected bones turned out to be insulation that morphed into knuckle-like fragments.

But the Aztec Well employees still had questions. Where did it come from? What if human remains had spilled out farther up the wash?

"I'd hate to go walking in the wash and find a corpse wrapped around a tree," said Matt Costen, the field safety and operational leader for Aztec Well Family. "People will call this Dead Man's Wash."

The owner of a home two miles south of Aztec Speedway solved most of the mystery.

Carl Bannowsky, who lives on four acres on County Road 2596, keeps hundreds of old vehicles, many of which no longer run, next to his home. His collection has a reputation among car restorers, and he occasionally lets people rummage through his acreage looking for parts.

Vehicles aren't the only thing Bannowsky collects.

He also had three caskets -- until one of them washed away during a recent monsoon rain. His description of the missing casket matches the one that still sat in the arroyo late last week.

Bannowsky said he bought the casket at an auction in the 1980s.

"Some lady bid on it, and I didn't think she bid high enough, so I bid on it and she didn't bid again, and I ended up with it," he said. "I had no purpose in mind. I just got stuck with it because I opened my mouth at an auction. I have no idea how many people have been in it."

The Daily Times tracked a receipt found inside the casket back to Cope Memorial Chapel in Farmington, which sold it in 1982. Cope was not able to track the casket to its original owner on Friday.

Now that Bannowsky, who recently ran for public office, knows where the casket ended up, he said he may reclaim it.

Bannowsky's foray into politics was spurred by a San Juan County ordinance limiting the number of junked vehicles residents can keep on their property and talk of adopting land-use codes.

He ran for a county commission seat on an anti-zoning platform in 2012.

Bannowsky explained his philosophy this way: "It's all my property. I can sell it, give it away or piss on it until it rusts."

He collected 20 percent of the vote in a race against Scott Eckstein and two other candidates. Eckstein won the election and now is the commission chairman.

Bannowsky's caskets also have captured the public's imagination -- becoming part of the local folklore long before one floated down "Dead Man's Wash."

A while back, he obtained a hearse and put a casket inside.

When asked about it, Bannowsky told a story about an old man who upset his family members before he died. After his funeral, the family was on the way to the cemetery when the hearse broke down.

"They said 'We're not paying for a second ride,'" Bannowsky said. "I bought it off them right there on the side of the road."

Bannowsky tells people he hauled the hearse back to his property, where it stayed.

"I told that as a story and said I didn't know if he was still in there," he said. "Nobody would go look."

Bannowsky admits the story is apocryphal.

"I bought it at an auction," he said. "I like going to auctions."

Ryan Boetel covers crime for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4644 and rboetel@daily-times.com. Follow him on Twitter @rboetel on Twitter.