A Murder in Tunnel C. Part Four: Tunnel Warz

16 April 2022 by Brian Joseph Davis in Crime

The story previously:

Part One: The DIY culture of Detroit’s underground salt mine city is under threat.

Part Two: Thomas Beauvais, tunnel engineer, awaits trial for the murder of Krista Ortega.

Part Three: A Midnighter comes forward and a cop falls.

When I last saw Thomas Beauvais in a Detroit courtroom, he had just been freed and was looking forward to going back to the Tunnels. Sleeping in jail had been impossible, he said. But four months after murder charges were dropped against him, Beauvais is under indictment again. In his court appearance a judge approved Beauvais’s bail conditions and ordered him to wear a GPS bracelet. As the tracker would not work in the Tunnels he is not allowed to go down into the community he helped build. On advice of his attorney, Beauvais is not speaking with the media.

It is the latest and maybe final turn in a case that wound its way out of the derelict salt mines under Detroit.

Last year, Detective Wayne Kostecki was slapped with a dozen federal charges ranging from obstruction of justice to drug trafficking for digging a drug tunnel to Canada using the Midnighters, a nocturnal gang that had set up a camp in Detroit’s salt mine city. Beauvais was one of the first members of the tunnel squat, an electrical engineer who built a home with others 2,000 feet under the rapidly gentrifying city. When Krista Ortega, a reputed sex worker with ties to Kostecki, was found murdered in the Tunnels, Beauvais was arrested on the basis of a falsified affidavit from a Midnighter. When Beauvais was freed, and Kostecki arrested, it shocked longtime followers of the case that the former cop was not also charged with Ortega’s murder.

The Tunnels had a brief renaissance in the months following Kostecki’s arrest. Beauvais returned underground and funding for infrastructure and cultural events flowed in. Vimeo also purchased my planned documentary on Beauvais.

One woman, however, never forgot Krista Ortega: her former roommate, Laila Yafi.

As I sit in her apartment overlooking a section of People Mover Park, Yafi tells how she helped bring the renewed charges against Beauvais. “I remember thinking when he was let out, okay, you have your hero but what about this girl?” Yafi’s campaign, which used MadAsHell, an app that can automessage state and federal legislature emails, caught the attention of local criminal defense attorney Ron Atkins. The cousin of techno pioneer Juan Atkins, Ron Atkins had come to national prominence in 2020 when he defended Clay William Caldwell. (Atkins won the case, and a large settlement, for the homeless ex-auto executive who was severely beaten by Detroit cops after crossing into the city from Gross Point using a private street.)

While Beauvais supporters unleashed volumes of online invective at Yafi for suggesting the case was not over, Atkins suspected the Kostecki arrest was a profound enough embarrassment for the city that they’d rather let Ortega’s murder go unsolved.

During an appearance on “Ryan Reynolds Live,” Atkins revealed that DNA evidence taken from Ortega’s fingernails had never been tested. In front of 16 million viewers he implored the DA’s office to run the sample against both Kostecki and Beauvais.

What shocked everyone was when Beauvais’s DNA was a match.

The withering effect on the Tunnels was immediate, like gasoline on grass. Underground market days were cancelled. Hip politicians struggled to explain photo ops they took with an uncomfortable looking Beauvais. Then, in January, the lights went dark after the Federal government used eminent domain to seize the tunnels.

Postscript

The buff men and women move through the salt mines wearing night vision goggles and holding oversized weapons of dubious reality. The look is post-apocalyptic Magic Mike — loose loin cloths and tight mesh. A&E is hoping “Tunnel Warz” will be the hit of their new season.

In the several months since Beauvais’s re-arrest, the federally controlled tunnels have been rented out as a set for film and TV production, though they will eventually be converted into a depleted uranium storage facility. Today I’ve been given a press pass to view filming and see the tunnels one last time.

Like all utopias, the tunnel city came to a close. Though the production company has artfully strewn the walls with debris and set dressing, here and there you can see vestiges of an ersatz, potential future: the hulk of a salt-vacuuming robot; a DJ booth made out of salt brick; a faded “Free Beauvais” stencil.

Two-thousand feet above, Beauvais is awaiting his trial date, but down here a producer is showing a tunnel warrior how she wants him to wrestle a competitor. A PA shouts for quiet and there is no quiet like quiet in the tunnels. After a set-wide hush settles in, the tunnels are, for one moment, silent. They will not speak and will not give up their secrets.


BRIAN JOSEPH DAVIS

Sirens columnist Brian Joseph Davis is a screenwriter and former reporter. He is producing a documentary on the Thomas Beauvais case for the Joyland Network.

Illustrations by Kyle McLean.

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