Shortly after the 1998 death of "A Separate Reality" guru Carlos Castaneda, whose peyote-fueled sorceric journeys into the Mexican desert captured the imagination of a generation in the 1970s, five of his closest disciples made out their wills, disconnected their telephones, and disappeared into thin air.
Some believed the five women, three of whom were known as "the witches," might have "burned from within," or vaporized into balls of light that joined with the eternal universe as Castaneda had promised to do but failed. Last week, positive identification of a set of human remains found in a remote area of Death Valley National Park revealed that at least one of them had, like Castaneda, died an ordinary human death.
Although the remains were actually found some three years ago by a pair of hikers in the Panamint Dunes region of the national park, the bones were so desiccated that extracting a DNA sample proved impossible at the time. However, according to Inyo County Sheriff's investigator Marston Mottweiler, the development of new forensic technology recently produced a workable specimen.
Mottweiler said the sheriff's office had long suspected that the remains were those of Patricia Partin, also known as Nury Alexander, the adopted daughter of Carlos Castaneda and one of his closest disciples. The newly recovered specimen, when compared to DNA samples taken from Partin's mother and three sisters, proved Mottweiler's theory to be true.
Officially, the cause of Partin/Alexander's death is undetermined. Only 70 percent of her skeleton was recovered, along with a few scraps of a pair of pink jogging pants. The skull was never found, but in a land populated by hungry coyotes, this is not unusual. After five years under a brutal desert sun, any secrets the bones might have revealed were long ago worn away.
But most who knew Partin/Alexander suspect that she took her own life. Gaby Geuter, a retired Los Angeles travel agent who had known Alexander for six years, said she believed there were many compelling reasons Alexander might have chosen suicide; disappointment over Castaneda's ordinary death from liver cancer, disappointment over not having been transported into the infinite universe with her master, and an inability to contemplate the future without her sole source of financial and emotional support.
In his popular books, Castaneda had described how his Yaqui teacher left the world in 1973 by "burning from within," or dispersing his physical form into a ball of light that joined with the universe. Castaneda's followers believed he would leave the world the same way, and that he might even take his closest followers with him.
"The way Carlos died was a great disappointment," Geuter said. Castaneda had woven a web - a sort of separate reality - around the women he supported in his secluded Los Angeles home and, Geuter said, they believed in him so strongly that his ordinary death from a lingering form of liver cancer may have shattered their confidence in the life they'd been living for decades.
For Geuter, who began studying with Castaneda in small, private workshops in the early 1990s, the news of the identification of Alexander's bones was sad, but not unexpected. Though she called Alexander's death tragic, Geuter suspects the four other women probably made the same choice.
During the last two years of his life, Geuter followed Castaneda in secret, filming and documenting his movements in order to learn whether the private man truly lived the life he preached to his students. The results of her quest were published in a book called "Filming Castaneda; the Hunt for Magic and Reason."
Geuter first met Alexander at movement workshops given by Castaneda in 1992. The master introduced Alexander as his daughter and called her Blue Scout. The sorcerer/philosopher sometimes told a tale of having retrieved Alexander from another dimension when she was only seven years old, and that she had been educated in a Mexican orphanage. He often held her up to his followers as a spirit being, a model of perfection, and he legally adopted her in the mid-1990s, making her an heir in his will.
In reality, Alexander had a more prosaic past. Born Patricia Lee Partin in Pasadena, Calif., in 1957, she grew up in a middle class home, the fourth of five sisters. Partin dropped out of high school in the 1970s just as Carlos Castaneda's books, "A Separate Reality" and "Tales of Power" were causing a cultural phenomenon in the United States. Castaneda's claim to have met a Yaqui Indian sorcerer in the Mexican desert and to have learned from him the secrets of controlling one's own reality appealed to a disillusioned generation searching for something to believe in.
Castaneda became an instant guru, though he led a secluded and very private existence, forbidding photographs of himself.
Partin met Castaneda in the late 1970s, soon changed her name to Nury (or Nuri) Alexander, a name with spiritual significance for her, and moved in with some of Castaneda's female disciples. In his nearly 30-year career, Castaneda's disciples tended to be attractive women and the teacher/student relationship was also a sexual one, according to many of the women who studied with him.
One of these was Amy Wallace, daughter of celebrated author Irving Wallace. Her recently released book "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" detailed her life as Castaneda's lover and student, and his voracious appetite for physical/spiritual relationships with women.
These relationships were often very intense, with his closest disciples depending upon Castanada as an emotional center as well as for their financial support, according to Geuter. Among the women Alexander, the Blue Scout, occupied a special place of prominence. She was described by those who knew her as temperamental, ethereal and driven by whim - as likely to take her friends on a shopping spree or a trip to Disneyland as to reject or insult them, according to a chronology of her life published by another former Castaneda student named Corey Donovan.
"She was very thin and fragile looking, childlike almost," said Geuter, "but strong willed. She was convinced of herself because she was Carlos' favorite and was allowed to do things no one else would have dared to do, like coming in late for workshops."
Alexander looked out of her thin, fragile body with a pair of commanding, steely eyes that Castaneda often made much of. But as to her temperament, Castaneda once said, "her humanness is paper thin."
In keeping with Castaneda's insistence that his disciples sever all ties with their families of origin, Alexander stopped communicating with the Partin family in the late 1970s and they never saw her again. An attempt to contact her in the 1990s reportedly ended badly when Alexander rebuffed her family in particularly vicious terms.
But when investigators contacted members of the Partin family asking for DNA samples to help identify the bones, Alexander's mother and three of her sisters readily contributed in an effort to finally put the mystery of their missing sister to rest.
Alexander's disappearance was often lumped together with that of the four other women who vanished, but Geuter said she believes Alexander left at least several days later. "We saw her driving around town after the others were gone," Geuter said, "and it surprised us." And, Geuter added, if the women had gone together, Alexander's 1991 Ford Escort would not have been the vehicle of choice when there were other newer, larger vehicles available.
Alexander drove to Death Valley's remote Panamint Dunes probably around the first or second of May, where the parked Escort was spotted by park rangers. They kept the vehicle under surveillance for nearly a week, said Inyo County's Mottweiler, and then had it impounded as abandoned. A notice was sent to the address listed on the car registration, but no response was received. A basic search of missing person databases revealed no matches. Some time later, the car was sold at a mechanic's auction and no one in Inyo County paid the matter any further attention until nearly five years later, when the remains were discovered in the dunes some two and a half miles from where the car was found.
In the pocket of the jogging pants recovered with the remains was a knife, too small and flimsy to have been an implement of self-destruction, but unusual and familiar enough to convince Geuter that the remains were those of Alexander. But for Mottweiler, even though all the clues pointed in the direction of Nury Alexander, conclusive evidence was lacking until last week.
Now the mystery of at least one of Castaneda's missing disciples is solved, and for the Partin family the saga has come to an end. Mottweiler said the remains would be released to the family, though he did not know whether they had plans to conduct a memorial.
Whether Partin/Alexander actually killed herself or succumbed to the Death Valley elements as so many before her have done is impossible to say, said Mottweiler, though there is currently no suspicion of foul play.
Why she chose Death Valley also remains a mystery, though Geuter had a theory. "The Castaneda story starts in the desert," Geuter said, "and at least for this woman it also ends in the desert."
The case remains officially open while the Inyo County Coroner conducts final tests, but it seems likely that Nury Alexander took her secrets with her, leaving only Patricia Partin's scattered bones behind.