A Murder In Tunnel C. Part One: The Dead Drop

10 March 2022 by Brian Joseph Davis in Crime

Illustrated by Goodloe Byron

Thomas Beauvais wants only one thing: to go back to the Tunnels. He’s worried about the air pumps and electrical lines he spent years cobbling together from scrapyards and installing in the three miles of salt tunnels 1,000 feet underneath Detroit. “If they’re not being cleaned every month the corrosion starts.” It’s an odd concern for someone sitting in Wayne County Jail, awaiting trial for the alleged murder of Krista Ortega, but Beauvais is quick to point out that the Tunnels gave him, like many others pushed out of gentrified Detroit, a second chance.

When the Koch Caverns in River Rouge were formed by an industrial accident in 2018, resulting in an open pit that connected with Tunnel C of the salt mines, the EPA shut down all mining operations and the property was claimed by the Bureau of Waste Management. As the last of the 30 workers harvesting road salt left the mines, no one knew that the Tunnels would become host to a growing city of makers, squatters, and criminals.

The three-story tall tunnels were carved over 100 years of mining and are unique. No operation like this exists under any other large city.

Throughout the years owners always downplayed the risk of collapse, describing the salt as harder than diamond. Tunnels A and B became the largest, connecting directly with the mine shaft that breaks surface on a seven-acre grass lot off of Oakwood. Tunnel C is the farthest flung and the one that connects with Koch Caverns.

Tourists and spelunkers may visit the front end of the caverns but know to avoid the end that leads to the mines via a 1,000-foot deep depression called the Dead Drop. When I ask Beauvais about the drop, and the urban legend of a squishy mass of dead parkour enthusiasts at the bottom, he grins. “That isn’t true. It’s just the water table at the bottom.”

The mine shaft, with several elevators and stairs, is still the main entrance for the Tunnels, but the hole at the Dead Drop creates perfect conditions for the strange meeting of geology and sociology. It allows a fresh flow of air into the Tunnels.

At the same time as the Tunnels were forming, rents were doubling and tripling in the historical neighborhoods of Detroit. State money was taken out of social programs and given to developers to create the Cass Entertainment District, displacing dozens of art galleries and small industry shops that opened during the first wave of revitalization in 2015. When the air came, the Tunnels were first used for renegade art parties. When the evictions started, people began setting up their shops and studios underground permanently.

Beauvais was one of the first down there. His degree in electrical engineering came in handy to get power lines and air pumps working again. Just in case, he also installed oxygen sensors. From the look in his eyes it’s clear that Beauvais is still enamored by the early, wild days in the Tunnels. The heat then was still tropical, and before it was cleaned up, the loose salt would mix with sweat to create a crust on the skin. The square footage, however, could not be argued with.

Down there a project seemed to present itself. The point was not to make art but to make things that could make a world. 3D printers hummed in the darkness, extruding sewage pump parts. Robot shops made industrial-heavy vacuum bots to clean up the granular salt from the pathways. Engineers built mezzanines, and used chainsaws to carve directly into the mine walls for structure.

Most of these people didn’t live in the Tunnels then. They had apartments where the rent hadn’t been raised yet. Things changed two years in when the Tunnels started hosting a weekend market to raise money for the project. The Tunnels had always attracted the curious but the weekend market brought in hundreds at a time. It brought suburban adventurers, it brought rich teenagers, and it brought TV hosts, including Anthony Bourdain, who had to be escorted out when told that smoking in the Tunnels could earn someone a lifetime ban. For Gabe Meyers, the turning point was the market.

“As soon as we let silk screeners in, that was when I knew the old tunnel culture was gone.”

Meyers, an industrial designer, was one of the original makers in the Tunnels and headed the council that governs the underground city of 600 using catch-as-you-can anarchism.

The people who do live in the Tunnels are in A and B and leave at least once during the day — either for paid work or sunlight. (Everyone you talk to is chewing Vitamin D tablets like crazy.) The structures are clean; the workshops always buzzing. The vacuum bots resemble oversized aphids as they glide through the Tunnels. But a different culture started forming too. The new residents tended to come from what Meyers called “vulnerable populations.” They were addicts, ex-cons, and people hardened by street life in Midwestern winters. They brought in building supplies, no questions asked, and bartered for space. They kept to themselves in the still-dilapidated Tunnel C. Volunteers from the main community kept a schedule, checking on them. Beauvais, whose 6’7” stature belies his gentle nature, visited Tunnel C more often than most.

“It’s cold back there, man,” he says. “There’s groundwater everywhere and contamination. The least I could do is keep the lights on for them.” Despite his dedication to the Tunnels’ most desperate residents, Beauvais is the first to admit that paranoia ruled Tunnel C. “Sometimes it wasn’t fun going back there.”

When the Tunnel C people stopped leaving altogether, they earned the designation “Midnighters.” The Midnighters seemed to lose their melanin. Eyes went pale and were constantly dilated. The salt wrinkled their skin prematurely. As much as the others attempted to keep them involved in mainstream tunnel life, the pejorative “naked mole rats” was tagged at the entrance to Tunnel C more than once.

Crime in Tunnel C also started to flourish, including drugs, protection rackets, and prostitution. Detroit police claim it was the last business that brought Krista Ortega down to the Tunnels, and to her death.

Part Two: Screaming Like Vampires


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 Goodloe Byron.

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