The Legend of Count Estruch, Europe’s First Vampire Story

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Ruins of Castle Llers, the castle where Count Estruch was said to live.

The legend of Count Estruch is thought to be one of the first European vampire stories, if not the earliest that we know of. The story takes place in the 12th century, during the time of Muslim rule in southern Spain. King Alfonso II,  the king of Aragon in northeast Spain, was worried that pagans in the region of Emporda might ally themselves with his Muslim enemies. The King decided to send a war hero, a count named Guifredo Estruch, to christianize the region.

After being placed in local Llers Castle, Count Estruch set to work christianizing the pagans. Unfortunately, the Count was a very vicious man, and his method of “converting” consisted of murder, torture, and witch-hunts. The Count went on his blood-spree for quite some time, until he was assassinated by one of his own soldiers in 1173. The man, a captain named Benach, poisoned the Count and his daughter Nuria. Benach had wanted to marry Nuria, so his motivation presumably came from rejection, not any disgust with the Count’s hobby of killing pagans.

Still, others say that the Count died after being cursed by one of the many witches he ordered burnt to death. The day after the witch’s execution, Count Estruch found himself so sick that he couldn’t even get out of bed. He died a short time later, and his body went missing from the castle before it could be buried.

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A picture of “Estruch,” a 1991 novel about the legend of Count Estruch. That note card over the book says, “The first vampire was Spanish, and he “lived” in a castle in the Pyrenees. Before Dracula, the Count Estruch terrorized the Iberians of the 12th century.”

After the Count’s death, dead cows started turning up around the castle, mutilated and drained of all their blood. The castle’s servants reported seeing their old master walking through the halls and rooms again, looking just as he was when he was a young man. Count Estruch had come back from the dead, and he haunted the people of Emporda, drinking their blood and stealing their women.

Whenever these abducted women would return, they’d come back pregnant. Nine months would pass, just like in a normal pregnancy, but their children would always come out as hideous monsters. These babies would never survive long, and most of them were born stillborn. Eventually, depending on who you ask, either an old nun or a Jewish hermit put an end to the Count’s terror by finding his hidden coffin and driving a stake into the vampire’s heart.

While Count Estruch might have died there, his story was passed down for hundreds of years among the people. Peasants warned their children of the Count, and women who delivered stillborn babies were said to have been seduced by him. Count Estruch terrified generations, but we can’t be sure how exactly true the story is. Nobody knows whether the Count was a real person, or whether he was just a legend. Unfortunately, Llers Castle was reduced to ruins during the Spanish Civil War, and all the historical documents about Count Estruch were destroyed or lost.

Some suggest that the story of Count Estruch might have originated with the persecution of the Cathars, a group of Gnostic Christians that were popular in southern France during medieval times. The Cathars were considered heretics, and were even burnt at the stake and massacred. Some of the Cathars fled for Spain, and “Estruch” might have come from the Occitan surname “Astruc.” I suppose we’ll never know for certain, but you’ve got to wonder how this story came from Spain of all places, a country not particularly known for its vampire lore.

 

 

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The Disappearance of David Guerrero Guevara, A Child Artist

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David Guerrero Guevara was a 13-year-old child painter who disappeared after leaving his house in Malaga, Spain in April 1987.

Although only 13-years-old, David Guerrero Guevara was already a particularly skilled painter. He lived in Malaga, Spain with his parents and two brothers. David was a shy and introverted boy; he didn’t like going outside, and only ever went to school and his art academy.  According to his mother Antonia, David had no friends, didn’t like going to places alone, and always rode the bus with his brother to the academy.

On April 3, 1987, David took part in a religious art exhibition at the prestigious La Maison art gallery. David’s painting, a portrait of Jesus entitled “Christ of the Good Death,” attracted a good amount of publicity because of his young age. On April 6, David was scheduled to meet a local radio host for an interview at La Maison after he got out of school. David was very nervous about the interview, and according to a classmate, complained about having stomach pain and a headache. 

At 6:00 PM, David came home from school, changed his clothes, and left for his interview a half-hour later. David’s father José originally planned to drive him to the gallery, but something came up at his job and David was forced to take the bus by himself instead. After the interview was over, David would go to his art academy and then get picked up by his dad. He left home that evening carrying his bus card and a bag of art supplies.

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David and his painting, “Christ of the Good Death.”

Three hours later, at 9 PM, José arrived at the art academy to take David home. David wasn’t at the academy, however, and José discovered at La Maison that his son never showed up for the interview. When José found that David wasn’t at home either, he drove to the police station and reported his son missing.

The police found David’s disappearance baffling. The bus station was only 10-15 minutes away from his house, yet none of the bus drivers in the area picked him up. Queen Sofia, the wife of the then-current Spanish king, was also in Malaga that day for a special visit, so there were tons of people on the street during the time. Yet nobody reported seeing David at the bus station, and the authorities were skeptical that a stranger could have forced the boy into a car unnoticed.

So where did the “Boy Artist,” as the media nicknamed him, go? The police wondered if he might have run away from home, but David’s family was very skeptical of the idea. After all, David was very close to his family, and he had little connections outside of it. Still, investigators pursed the runaway theory, speculating that David might have left for Portugal to become a bohemian artist. Eventually, a pair of Spanish policemen who searched in Lisbon found no trace of David there. Although there were some sightings of David in the country, including by a pair of Spanish teachers, the police believed the eyewitnesses were mistaken.

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One of the last pictures David drew before his disappearance. The police believed it bore a resemblance to a Swiss suspect.

In 1988, more than a year after David’s disappearance, a Malaga hotel maid approached the authorities and claimed to have found a strange clue in one of the hotel rooms she cleaned. Somebody had written David’s full name on a napkin. When the police reviewed the room’s guests, they found that a 70-year-old Swiss citizen had been the man who rented it during the time of David’s disappearance. This man has never been named in the media, but he was wealthy and interested in photography. He had stayed in several different local hotels between March and April 1987, and he also owned an apartment in a near-by beach town.

By the time the authorities began to investigate this man, he was already dead. In 1990, the man’s widow gave the Spanish police permission to search the deceased’s photography studio. They found plenty of pictures taken in Malaga, but none of them contained David. Some have doubted whether this Swiss man had anything to do with David’s disappearance, yet one of the last drawings David had done was of an old man who bore a strong resemblance to the suspect. Over the years, David Guerrero Guevara has been spotted everywhere from Ireland to Morocco. His case is still open, and authorities are keeping a DNA sample from his family in case they can ever match it to any unidentified bodies that are found.

Check out my book “Mexico’s Unsolved Mysteries: True Stories of Ghosts, Monsters, and UFOs from South of the Border” for more interesting mysteries of the Spanish-speaking world.  You can buy the book on Kindle here. 

 

Ochate: Aliens, Epidemics, and a Possible Hoaxer

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The ruins of Ochate.

According to legend, the little Spanish village of Ochate was struck by three different epidemics in a period of only ten years. The village suffered a deadly outbreak of smallpox in 1860, and the population was further devastated after being hit by typhus in 1864. A final attack of cholera in 1870 encouraged the last few survivors to leave Ochate for good. Amazingly, none of the other villages in the area were touched by the epidemics. Only the people of Ochate were affected.

Ochate, a Basque word meaning “secret door,” has sat in ruins ever since. A variety of different paranormal activity is said to haunt the place, from ghostly voices that shout for visitors to leave and “close the door” to mysterious lights and passing UFOs. As infamous as the place is today, it was relatively obscure until the magazine “Unknown World” published a picture of a UFO taken above the village in 1981. The photographer, a bank employee named Prudencio Muguruza,  later wrote a popular article about Ochate and its legends three months later in the same magazine.

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Prudencio Muguruza’s picture on the cover of “Unknown World.” (The article about the story translates to “UFO in Treviño.”)

Nobody’s quite sure about the meaning of Ochate’s name, but some paranormal enthusiasts believe the village is a “door” to another dimension.  In 1868, four years after the typhus epidemic, a local priest named Antonio Villegas vanished without a trace. About a century later, in the early 1970s, a farmer passing through the area also inexplicably disappeared. In August 1978, a man named Angel Resines saw a white light emerge from Ochate and break into three other lights. As he hid in his shed, Resines watched the lights fly into some mountains and disappear.

In 1987, a researcher pursuing the dimension gateway theory committed suicide while conducting a group investigation in Ochate. Why the researcher decided to do it here isn’t particularly clear, but he apparently killed himself in his car by carbon monoxide poisoning. The man’s ghost is now said to haunt the town. Later that year, another investigator named Mikel Colmenero claimed to have seen two human-like beings dressed in black suits and standing at least ten feet tall. Colmenero watched the creatures pass by in his car, so terribly frightened that he couldn’t bring himself to move.

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Another picture of some ruins in Ochate.

Other paranormal researchers who have investigated Ochate have run into nothing out of the ordinary. Some believe there’s nothing supernatural about the town at all. There aren’t any historical records, for example, that can verify the mysterious epidemics that destroyed Ochate in the 19th century. One skeptic, Enrique Echazarra, traced an 80-year-old man who lived in the town before the Spanish Civil War. Echazarra said in an interview with the Spanish newspaper ABC that the man “was very surprised at what was said about his town. He said that there had never been any witches, ghosts, or UFOs.”

It seems that Ochate was only abandoned during the first three or so decades of the 20th century. By the early 1930s, the population had fallen to only four inhabitants. Prudencio Muguruza, the man who popularized Ochate, has been accused of making stories up and faking his UFO picture. In 2014, Muguruza published a book about Ochate in which he claimed that aliens became stranded in the village in the 13th century. Some of the aliens died and were buried in an Ochate cemetery, while the survivors were eventually saved by a UFO that rescued them 34 years later. Alternatively, Muguruza also reported an even stranger second theory, in which the aliens fought the Templars.

Luis Alfonso Gámez, a journalist and blogger, has accused Muguruza of making a living off exploiting believers’ naivety. After popularizing his UFO picture, Muguruza sold the negative and quit his job. He opened a bookstore, made media appearances as a ufologist, and later dabbled in parapsychology. Of course, other people have reported seeing strange things in Ochate, and they haven’t made a living off it. Perhaps these witnesses really do believe they encountered ghosts, lights, and UFOs. Personally, I’d say they misunderstood natural phenomena and tried reapplying local legends to make sense of what they saw. (Muguruza’s picture, for the record, is believed to be a cloud.)

Check out my book “Mexico’s Unsolved Mysteries: True Stories of Ghosts, Monsters, and UFOs from South of the Border” for more interesting mysteries of the Spanish-speaking world.  You can buy the book on Kindle here. 

The Case of Juan Pedro Martinez Gomez, Europe’s Strangest Disappearance

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Juan Gomez was a 10-year-old boy in Spain who disappeared under mysterious circumstances in June 1986.

Europe’s strangest disappearance, as Interpol once put it, all began with an innocent road trip. Andrés Martinez  was a truck driver who lived in the south of Spain in Fuente Alamo, Murcia. He sometimes took his wife Carmen Gomez and their 10-year-old son Juan Pedro on his trips. His latest job was to transport 20,000 liters of sulfuric acid far up north to Bilbao, a city in Spain’s autonomous Basque Country. Since Juan Pedro finished the school year with such good grades, his father promised that he could go along to the trip to Bilbao. Carmen would also go to keep an eye on Juan Pedro.

On June 24, 1986,  the family picked up the truck in the city of Cartagena around 7 PM. By 6 in the morning, the truck had entered Somosierra, a mountain pass to the north of Madrid. Perhaps as a result of broken brakes, Andrés was speeding at this point at 140 km (86 mi) per hour. His driving became reckless in the mountains; without slowing down once, he broke off another driver’s car mirror and then bumped into another car from behind. After the car he rear-ended got out of his way, Andrés crashed head-on with a truck that had come down from the opposite direction. The crash caused his truck to overturn, spilling the sulfuric acid out onto the side of the road and covering the area with a toxic mushroom cloud.

When the authorities arrived, they had to quickly act to neutralize the acid before it leaked into a near-by river. After the area was cleaned up, they found two bodies in the crashed truck, those of Andrés and Carmen. Juan Pedro was missing, however, and it wouldn’t be until later in the day that the police even knew that he had been riding along with his parents.

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Andres Martinez’s crashed truck.

Investigators later searching the truck found a tape of children’s songs and some clothes, but no actual sign of Juan Pedro. They checked beneath the truck and the sand and lime they used to neutralize the acid, yet still were unable to find any remains. Could he have been melted by the sulfuric acid? Chemists dismissed the idea. If Juan Pedro really did fall out of the truck and into the acid, he would have at least left behind some hair or nails on the scene. Instead, there was no evidence that he was in the truck or the area at the time of the crash.

The last anybody saw of the family before the crash was at a bar around 5:30. Andrés and Carmen ordered coffee, and Juan Pedro had some milk and a pastry. There was nothing to indicate that they were upset, and the waiter watched their truck leave from the parking lot. Examining the truck, investigators discovered that there was nothing wrong with Andrés’ brakes. Nobody could say why he was speeding so recklessly, but he was doing it by his own choice. Another strange detail was found in his tachometer; the instrument recorded that Andrés had stopped his truck 12 times as he went up the mountain during a period of 20 minutes. Other truckers said that stopping even once on the mountain pass was unnecessary, let alone a dozen times.

So why did Andrés feel the need to drive so fast and stop so frequently? The most popular theory is that Juan Pedro had been abducted, and that his father was chasing after him. Others suggest that Andrés was trying to run away from somebody. After he crashed, his pursuer might have kidnapped Juan Pedro before the police showed up. (It might seem unlikely that Juan Pedro would have survived the crash, but the driver in the other car did actually live.)

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Picture of Carmen Gomez and Andres Martinez.

Moments before the crash, the man who Andrés rear-ended told police that he pulled off the road and was assisted by a foreign man and blonde-haired woman in a white van. The woman was allegedly a nurse and looked over the man’s injuries. Two shepherds in the area, neither of whom the police were able to trace, were said to have seen a white van pull up to Andrés’ truck after his collision with the other car. A man and blonde-haired woman went into the truck and took something out of it, possibly a package or Juan Pedro.

Some believe that the mysterious couple might have been drug traffickers. In 1987, the media reported that traces of heroin had been found in the trailer where Andres was carrying the sulfuric acid. There were rumors that Andrés had done some drug smuggling before, but his family later disproved this with the help of a private detective. If drugs really were involved, perhaps drug traffickers approached Andrés that day and asked him to transport something for them. If he refused, the traffickers might have kidnapped Juan Pedro as ransom. On the other hand, Andrés could have voluntarily accepted because he didn’t want any trouble.

A second theory speculates that there was no drug smuggling or kidnapping at all. Juan Pedro might have survived the crash and left the truck. While looking for help, he stumbled upon the foreign man and blonde woman. The couple tried to drive him to a hospital, but he died on the way there. Another variation of this theory proposes that Juan Pedro was burned by the acid and tried to go to the river to soothe his burns. Considering the gigantic search for Juan Pedro after it was discovered that he was missing, it seems likely he would have been found had he wandered around the area and collapsed or died somewhere.

Juan Pedro’s family believes that he is still alive. In May 1987, a man in Madrid met a blind old woman and a boy who looked like Juan Pedro. The woman was an Iranian refugee looking for the American embassy. She said that she and her family had been in Spain for only 6 months, yet the boy she was with spoke fluent Spanish with an Andalusian accent. (Juan Pedro came from a part of Spain where the people have a similar accent.) When the man complimented the boy’s strong Spanish, the old woman got nervous and wouldn’t explain how he knew the language so well. Although the man didn’t recognize the boy at the time, he was later certain that it was Juan Pedro.

Check out my book “Mexico’s Unsolved Mysteries: True Stories of Ghosts, Monsters, and UFOs from South of the Border” for more interesting mysteries of the Spanish-speaking world.  You can buy the book on Kindle here.