(This article was originally published on November 19, 2013)
The secluded landscape of juniper and piñon near Chilili is at the heart of an astonishing bamboozle worthy of a star-studded Hollywood thriller.
Photos: NM Movie Scandal
There’s only one way to describe the tale of what happened here in the Manzano Mountains: Bizarre.
The cast of characters include a strong-willed New Mexico activist, film extras posing as Taliban fighters, box-office movie stars and Chilili property owner Patrick Elwell.
“It’s land that my grandfather owned and his father owned” Elwell told KRQE News 13. “It’s been in the family probably over 80 years.
“It was a shock. It was like, ‘How in the hell did all this happen?'”
Patrick lives in Albuquerque and checks on his remote mountain property once a year. In May, he logged onto Google for a bird’s-eye view. He expected to see his forested foothills but instead saw something else.
“I saw a town,” he said. “There were curtains in the windows. It was well-traveled. We could still see parts of it were under construction, but nobody was around.
“I says, ‘There’s no way that could be my property.'”
It happened when Patrick wasn’t looking. A Hollywood movie company moved in for a two-week extravaganza.
They brought in 150 crew members, 20 semi trailers, eight vans, three generators and a mobile kitchen. And then they transformed Patrick’s quiet New Mexico paradise into war-torn Afghanistan.
They built a replica of an Afghani village and then bombarded it with simulated grenades and gunfire. There were explosions, helicopters and firefights. It was all part of the star-studded action drama “Lone Survivor.”
Hollywood has been using New Mexico as a backdrop since the early days of silent-movie cowboy Tom Mix, but this set was different. In fact, it may go down as one of the biggest blunders in the state’s 100-year history of movie making.
And it caught the attention of Nick Maniatis, who heads up the New Mexico Film Office.
“I alerted the production that we may have a problem here,” Maniatis said.
A year ago the movie makers built a 28-room Afghan village, brought in Hollywood actors, scores of extras and shot a multimillion-dollar motion picture on Patrick Elwell’s land. The problem? No one bothered asking Patrick Elwell.
In fact, by the time Patrick found out a movie had been made on his property, the cast and crew were long gone. In New Mexico “Lone Survivor” takes on a new reality. You see, these Hollywood actors are not just playing Navy SEALS, they’re squatters, trespassers.
How could this happen? Did the film company get duped?
“Uh, yes,” Maniatis said. “The production thought they were dealing with an owner that actually turns out I guess is not, so there’s the rub.
“It’s just one of those bad situations for everyone.”
Asked if it was a big deal that a movie production company came into the state and built an Afghan village on Elwell’s land, Maniatis replied, “I think, you know, it’s an interesting issue.”
Jonathon Slator was “Lone Survivor’s” location scout. Slator chose this spot near Chilili because it looks a lot like Afghanistan. But one thing Slator didn’t do is verify property ownership.
A local named Juan Sanchez told Slater he controls all the property in this area. If you want to shoot a movie here, you deal with Juan. So “Lone Survivor” struck a deal.
In real life Juan is chair of the New Mexico Land Grant Council and president of the Chilili Land Grant. But as it relates to this property, Juan Sanchez is an imposter.
Yet the money the production company paid the Chilili Land Grant was quite real.
“Thirty thousand dollars,” Sanchez said.
To understand what’s happened here you have to go back to 1841 when the 40,000-acre Chilili Land Grant was created by the Mexican government. Through the years much of the original grant property was sold off.
Sanchez, however, as Chilili president claims those sales were illegal, and as a result the land grant does not recognize any private land ownership here.
“It was fraud,” Sanchez said. “Those individuals that were selling those properties within the grant had no right to do that. Anyone that has a deed within the Chilili Land Grant doesn’t have the ownership of the land.”
In Patrick Elwell’s case, his ancestors were among the first settlers here. His great-grandfather farmed the land some 80 years ago. His grandparents deeded the property to Patrick in 1987.
“I own it,” Elwell said. “The land grant doesn’t own this land. It sits within the land grant, but this property is not the land grant’s property.”
Still, Sanchez maintains Elwell’s deed is worthless.
“Correct,” he told KRQE News 13. “If he has a deed to the land from his grandfather, then his grandfather gave him a deed. Anybody can give a deed for anything. I could give you a deed to the moon, you record it in the clerk’s office, and that’s going to be your piece of property.”
Even though the issue of private property ownership within Chilili was settled by the New Mexico Supreme Court years ago, Sanchez remains defiant. He does not respect the court ruling, he said, “Because we feel it violated our rights.”
Bernalillo County Attorney Randy Autio said he is not aware of anything confirming the Chilili Land Grant owns the property.
“With this particular piece of property I have not seen any evidence of any claims to ownership other than by Mr. Elwell,” he said.
The Hollywood Kiss-Off
Shortly after Elwell started asking questions, the “Lone Survivor” movie set disappeared. The only evidence of the trespass today is a few pieces of lumber and acres of bulldozed vegetation.
“You can see, they’ve taken down shrubs, trees, I mean they just leveled it,” Elwell said surveying the damage. “It’s pretty sad. It really is that somebody from out of town would come in and do this and have no respect for the property or the people who own it.”
Elwell called the “Lone Survivor” production company about the trespass. Ron Lynch, the executive in charge, told him to buzz off. Lynch said the film company did everything it was supposed to do and that he had no further clarification.
“The one discussion I had with the man in Connecticut felt that I was just trying to shake him down for money and that basically for me to just go fly a kite,” Elwell said.
The Film Office also got involved, but Maniatis said his last correspondence from the company suggests it’s not interested in resolving the issue.
“It bothers me that they cleared my land of all the vegetation without my permission,” Elwell continued. “It bothers me that somebody else can come along and say, ‘I own this piece of property. Pay me.’
“It bothers me that nobody, state government, county government, will not stand up for the right landowner and say, ‘Wait a minute. Something’s been done wrong.'”
“Lone Survivor” is not the only film production to contract with Juan Sanchez. In 2011 “The Avengers” shot two scenes on private property within the land grant.
“They shot a scene of when Thor and Captain America and Iron Man were in a battle,” Sanchez said.
Moments after our interview with Elwell, Sanchez dropped by to order us off Chilili Land Grant property.
“I’m telling you you are trespassing, and I’ll go call the cops now,” he threatened.
He then got into this exchange with Elwell:
Sanchez: “My property as the land grant is 10 miles that way, 10 miles that way, six miles that way, and four miles that way. That’s my land. I do not see anywhere it says that it’s his land.
Elwell: “Go down to the county assessor. Go look at who has been paying the property tax on here for the last 80 years. Go down there, and it’s been proven that this is my property.”
Sanchez: “There is no proof.”
Elwell: “The hell there isn’t.”
Sanchez: “Show me a piece of paper.”
Elwell: “Show me yours.”
Sanchez: “I will.”
Elwell has now presented the “Lone Survivor” production company with an invoice for the use of his property and for the damage done to the native vegetation. And the New Mexico Film Office can hold up payment of the company’s film tax rebate until the Elwell property-use issue is resolved.
“Lone Survivors” opens in theaters in December.