Rattlesnake Acres: A tale of deceit, misrepresentation in the New Mexico desert

Larry Barker

It’s a vast weed-choked chunk of real estate larger in area than Albuquerque, Rio Rancho, and Las Cruces combined. The area, rural Valencia and Socorro Counties, where thousands of land purchasers were bilked and taxpayers lost millions. Welcome to ground zero to one of the largest land swindles in New Mexico history. 

It’s not Paradise, It’s an Arroyo

To understand what happened there you need to go back some 50 years when the Tucson based Horizon Corporation bought up more than 200,000 acres of desolate grazing land between the Rio Grande and the Manzano Mountains. The property stretches from Los Lunas, south 24 miles into Socorro County. 

On paper, Horizon carved the desolate landscape into neat quarter acre and half acre residential parcels and peddled them as investment opportunities. The promotional materials showed planned streets, schools, and parks. There were subdivisions with alluring names like Rio Del Oro and Rio Grande Estates. Horizon touted its New Mexico holdings as the biggest land bargain in the nation. The government, however, called it something else.

“They were marketing these (lots) at fancy dinner parties or any way that they could market them around the country,” says former Attorney General Toney Anaya. “(Horizon was) making it appear like this was the next gold rush, land rush in the Southwest. (They were) making horrible misrepresentations as to what they were actually selling,” Anaya said.

If you lived in New Mexico during the 70’s you would have known the development potential of this land. However, Horizon marketed its holdings to out of state consumers living in places like New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Consider a quarter acre parcel on a fictitious street Horizon called ‘Lepanto Court.’  If the out of state purchaser of that lot planned to move to Lepanto Court in Rio Del Oro to build their dream home they’d be out of luck. You see, that lot isn’t in paradise, it’s in an arroyo.

News 13 asked Valencia County Treasurer Deseri Sichler about the reality today of owning a lot in one of the Valencia County subdivisions Horizon peddled a half-century ago. “You own some sagebrush. Maybe a couple of rattlesnakes, cottontails, scorpions. There are (some) pretty good sized tarantulas out there,” Sichler said.

“Most of (the Horizon lots) was barren land. It was pasture, rangeland. There was nothing there,” former A.G. Anaya said.

In 1976, the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office slapped Horizon with a civil lawsuit. “We alleged fraud on their part. Deceit. Misrepresentation,” the former Attorney General says. 

In 1979, the Federal Trade Commission found Horizon had deceived its customers by touting millions of dollars of “worthless desert land” as bonafide investments. Horizon was ordered to repay its customers more than $14,000,000. That was almost 40 years ago.

The Havoc Continues

Today, the Horizon Corporation is long gone. However, its legacy of misrepresentation continues to wreak havoc in Valencia and Socorro Counties.

Valencia County Assessor Michelle Milam tells KRQE News 13, “One gentleman I spoke with some time back from New Jersey was so excited to own a piece of land. (It was) the first time he’d ever owned anything in his life. When he came to the office he was crying when he found out what he had bought because he knew he couldn’t build his dream home there,” Milam said.

Tens of thousands of Horizon property buyers were duped in the early 70’s. With no roads, no water, no electricity and no resale value, many buyers stopped paying property taxes and essentially abandoned their property. At just one subdivision, Rio Del Oro, some 36,000 landowners owe Valencia County $6,900,000 in unpaid property taxes, penalties, and interest.

Valencia County Treasurer Deseri Sichler does not think the delinquent property taxes are collectible.  Every year thousands of county tax notices are returned as ‘undeliverable’ because the out of state landowners have either died or moved away. 

For example, among the stacks of recently returned tax notices are 250 notices for Horizon lots owned by a defunct Arizona business. For lots in the name of a deceased California owner, 780 tax notices came back to Valencia County as ‘return to sender.’  And, 380 tax bills for lots owned by somebody on the island of Brunei off the coast of Indonesia also were undeliverable.

With more than 100,000 unimproved Horizon lots scattered across the Valencia County and Socorro County landscape, today they have little resale value.

“I can put it on the market but it will not sell,” says Valencia County real estate broker Mike Milam. “There hasn’t been any sales in Rio Del Oro except for one in the last eight years,” Mike Milam said.

Under state law, if property taxes go unpaid for more than three years, the parcel reverts to the New Mexico Taxation and Revenue Department where the property can be auctioned off for back taxes, penalties, and interest. The tax department holds some 53,000 Valencia County lots that are delinquent on property taxes. However, in the past seven years, the state has only been able to auction off 48 of those parcels.

“There’s $2,000,000 that could be raised for the people of Valencia County. (But) there’s not a cost-effective way to collect on that $2,000,000,” says Taxation Cabinet Secretary John Monforte.

Buyer Beware, Again

The lack of marketability hasn’t stopped some promoters from picking up where Horizon left off. Consider Land Ho, a New Jersey-based wholesaler that acquired more than 3,000 Horizon parcels and now peddles them on weekly web auctions. Even though Land Ho’s Valencia County holdings are mostly stark desert land, you wouldn’t know it by looking at their ads.

For example, consider Land Ho’s Lot 4 in the Canyon Del Rio subdivision. If you look at the photograph used to depict Lot 4 you will see it isn’t in Valencia County. It’s not even New Mexico. Land Ho lifted a shot of the Colorado Rocky Mountains from the Internet and used it to show desolate Valencia County rangeland.

Land Ho used an image of Shiprock to depict an undeveloped lot 185 miles away in Valencia County. And judging by an image of the Chama Valley in Northern New Mexico, you would think a pristine river runs through Land Ho’s Lot 18. In fact, Lot 18 is a parched quarter acre of scrub and sage.

Land Ho describes it’s Lot 11 as “beautiful views right near Facebook.” The photo, however, shows Taos Mountain 140 miles away.

Land Ho uses a tranquil Colorado mountain scene to depict its desolate, weed-choked Lot 40. And the New Jersey land sales company describes Lot 33 as “an unbeatable location in Valencia, New Mexico. The photo of that lot Land Ho is selling shows the Dragoon Mountains in Arizona.

Land Ho peddles its Lot 42 east of Los Lunas with a photo of the Organ Mountains east of Las Cruces. In its ad copy, the land sales company claims “you can walk from Lot 42 to the Manzano Mountain State Park.” Better get out your hiking boots. You see, the state park is on the other side of the mountain.

Judging by the photo Land Ho uses to promote the sale of Lot 5, the New Jersey firm would like you to believe you could sit on Lot 5 with a view of the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta. Nice try Land Ho. The ballooning event in the photo isn’t in Albuquerque, it’s in Thailand.

A News 13 investigation finds Land Ho misrepresented Valencia County land in dozens of ads. A spokesman for the New Jersey firm says Land Ho will remove all deceptive photos from its land sales advertisements.

In its heyday, the Horizon Corporation sold almost 139,000 individual lots to consumers across the world. Today, taxpayers are owed almost $11,000,000 in delinquent property taxes.

“It’s a problem older than I am,” says New Mexico’s Taxation Cabinet Secretary John Monforte, “It’s a unique problem.”

Photo Courtesy

Interactive Map of Online Auction Land Parcels

2010 Report: Homebuilders left without refunds

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