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Who was behind Utah’s monolith? A monthslong investigation into an unsolved mystery

Utah’s most famous and shortest lived landmark remains a mystery. The Deseret News searched for answers

SHARE Who was behind Utah’s monolith? A monthslong investigation into an unsolved mystery

Zoë Petersen, Deseret News

“Whoa, whoa, turn around!” 

The crew from the Utah Department of Public Safety swept low over Canyonlands National Park in a small utility helicopter. A biologist in the chopper looked for bighorn sheep in the red crevasses but spotted the reflection of a mysterious metallic object instead. 

He hollered at the crew to volte-face. 

Within minutes they were on the ground investigating the otherworldly obelisk planted in stone and hidden deep in the remote wilderness of Utah. Half joking, they decided if one of them went missing, the others should run for it. The structure stood 3 meters tall and was built out of stainless steel plating riveted to an internal frame. When the crew cautiously knocked on the sides it produced a dampened thud.

We now know from satellite analysis that the famous monolith sat unnoticed for years in the labyrinthian canyons between Arches and Canyonlands national parks. When the Bureau of Land Management first announced the find, six months into pandemic lockdowns, it triggered a frenzied public response.

Bret Hutchings, the helicopter pilot, made the first guess at the statue’s origin in an interview with the Deseret News’ media partner KSL. “Is this something NASA stuck up there?” he mused. “Are they bouncing satellites off it or something?” Many other guesses would soon follow: Shrapnel from a covert weapons project? A left over movie prop? Or, perhaps, something left intentionally by an extraterrestrial visitor? 

The Bureau of Land Management discouraged anyone from trying to visit the site, as “there (was) a significant possibility they may become stranded and require rescue.” But soon tourists flocked to the remote canyon in order to glimpse the alien creation, reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

Last year, I began an investigation into the sculpture — dubbed the “Utah monolith” by the public, and “an illegal installation” by the government — that captured the attention of the world. It was a cold case with zero evidence and zero obvious leads. The hunt would lead me through the streets of San Francisco and shores of Lake Powell, in an attempt to understand the vision behind Utah’s most mysterious landmark.

Also sprach Zarathustra

In person, the monolith was underwhelming. It was dusty, hollow and had visible seams. Silicone caulk sealed the base, which had been secured in the stone by a series of crude cuts from a concrete saw. It was unlike other famous western art installations such as Nancy Holt’s “Sun Tunnels” or Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty” in both scope and polish. But the discovery occurred at a time when the public’s imagination was particularly interested in any distraction from the pandemic. 

Only nine days after the monolith’s discovery, the photographer Ross Bernards spotted four men tipping it over and carting it away in a wheelbarrow. They kept the conspicuous object in their backyard for a month, but after receiving death threats the men would eventually turn it into the Bureau of Land Management. A source tells me it is likely stored in one of the Bureau’s numerous climate controlled warehouses that hold sensitive artifacts discovered on public land.

After the Utah monolith was removed, other monoliths appeared around the world. Romania, Italy, Russia, Spain and beyond. Interested parties tracked each sighting, attempting to verify each claim. As it stands today, 244 have been reported. Many were created as publicity stunts, riding the wave of interest. Out of these hundreds, only three were “well made, with zero explanations of appearance.” The Utah monolith is one of them.

BLM Special Agent Rich Lloyd, a former chief ranger in the Moab area, has been investigating the original monolith since its appearance two years ago. The Bureau declined my requests for additional information about the construction materials. And although Lloyd could not make an official statement about the monolith, he told me the person(s) responsible for the “illegal installation” could face a federal Class A misdemeanor charge. But Lloyd didn’t comment on whether the statute of limitations had run out — it’s estimated the monolith was installed in 2016 — or whether the Bureau of Land Management is even interested in pressing charges.

Nearly everyone with whom I spoke requested anonymity to speak candidly about a matter that remains an active federal investigation, and some names and minor details in the story have been changed as a consequence.  

Brady gets a haircut

Brady slouched in a leather chair, making it difficult to receive a quality haircut. The barber was used to his bad posture, but grew a little disturbed by the turns their conversation was taking. Usually the statements were mundane. Brady loved his kids, and would talk about their newest food invention. “My lil buddy put pepperonis on a hotdog!” Brady would say. But other times, Brady spoke with intense authority about mysterious structures in the desert and confidential energy projects. 

Brady, by his own account, had a mercurial career history. He’d been forced out of his last business by the other founding partners, he claimed. And then there was the strange job he did a few years back. “You know that monolith they found out there in the desert?” Brady brought up unprovoked, “I know who built it.” 

Brady’s barber reached out to me last year, relaying what he’d heard over the course of multiple appointments. Why would someone claim that, he asked, if he wasn’t somehow involved. Brady was a ghost online, but his wife was not, and she spoke to me about the clandestine projects he was allegedly part of. “Brady even had to sign (nondisclosure agreements),” she said, before passing along his phone number. But Brady seemed less eager to talk. 

“Busy day apologies, 3 kids,” he would text, or “Sorry bro emergency tooth surgery can’t talk for days.” Brady, however, wasn’t the only lead. 

Door to door in San Francisco

When initial interest in the monolith was at its peak, Dan posted a compelling claim on a Reddit forum — he knew the artist responsible for the monolith installation — but refused to answer any further questioning.

“It’s not my story to tell,” he wrote. 

Since there had been enough time between the disappearance of the monolith and my investigation, Dan responded to a private message I sent. “I suppose I would want to know who you are in my hair asking,” Dan said, before quickly apologizing for a typo. “Fail. Why you are asking. I’m not annoyed. I didn’t mean to say anything about you being in my hair.”

Dan is completely bald, and he offered to help. 

“I could maybe pass along a request to my friend,” he told me, “but I can’t guarantee delivery.” Like Brady, Dan agreed to a phone call, but stopped responding to my messages.

This time however, I caught a break. Dan had been extremely active on his Reddit account for at least a decade, so when I arrived in the SoMa neighborhood of San Francisco, I had put enough clues together to know which doors to knock on.

It was a rainy Saturday, and the block was quiet. A mile away, a street festival echoed off the skyscrapers downtown. I had tried two other houses, but was only met with suspicion and ignorance from their tenants. I stood on the porch of the last potential house and knocked. After a long wait the door swung open, and I was greeted with shiny scalp skin and the flash of a reflective tank top. Dan, the man who shared too much, stood before me.

He ushered me inside. In the moment, any suspicion he harbored toward me was overridden by his hospitable instinct. He paced the living room, dancing over his cat and around the beeswax coated dance pole he uses for exercise, before settling in to tell me his story.

The Bay Area has a very exclusive rave scene, he explained. One weekend, Dan guessed around 2016, he got wind of a private festival, taking place on Big Ernie’s property (a major music organizer). Maybe 50 people showed up to the estate, nestled among the towering redwood trees somewhere between Daly City and Santa Cruz. “I have a photo of myself from that event somewhere,’’ he said. 

Dan told me of a curious conversation, by the light of a bonfire, with a fellow raver who said he’s part of a group that meets every five years or so. They’d gather in locations around the world, meditate and play music, before parting ways. He slipped his phone out and swiped through pictures of a metallic sculpture — the very same one found in the desert years later. 

“The next one is in Laos,” the man told him, “you should definitely come.”

Dan, unburdened of his secrets and now eager to be relieved of my presence, texted his friend Lindsey. She is the mystery raver’s gatekeeper, the mutual friend who knows him best.

But Lindsey didn’t text back, and I was ushered out into the rain.

Flying too close to the sun

On a chilly Friday morning I text Brady, the haircut guy. “You free to talk today?” To my surprise, he is. On the phone, I ask him point blank whether he built the monolith. “I wasn’t one of the original pieces of the puzzle so to speak,” he says. In 2019, Brady started working with a discrete group of powerful businessmen, who he claims built the monolith as a viral marketing experiment. These men have a 99-year lease on the BLM property where the original monolith was found. It was them who worked with artists to design and install the structure. He claims they’re now working on a project to power entire towns off of futuristic renewable energy structures. 

After we hang up, I set about fact-checking his monolith claims, searching public databases for the leases he spoke of. They didn’t exist. The town he claimed was four miles away from the canyon, was more like 100 miles away. And the pictures of the energy prototype he sent me in what appeared to be a remote desert, were actually taken less than 50 feet from a popular highway near Lake Powell. 

I reached out to the names of the businessmen he gave me, with no success. I asked for phone numbers, but Brady was under strict orders to keep them private. “I get like, 5 minutes a week with these guys,” he told me, and he did not want to use more of that time talking about the monolith.

I asked him why he was even speaking to me, why his powerful business partners agreed to let him speak with me. “I’m an honest person,” he said. “You asked about the monolith and I’m telling you.”

Around this same time, Dan had gotten back in touch with me. He had found his picture — hugging a tree, slumbering in the California morning sun. But it was dated June, 2011. “Maybe my memory is wrong somehow,” he said “I sincerely believe I met the artist. Were they showing me a prototype, were there multiples done?”

He forwarded me the text from his friend Lindsey: “I messaged them, and they like leaving it a mystery.” Dan told me he was sorry, but this is a dead end. He won’t share anymore information, due to, in his words, “strong morals stretching back to my punk rock days.”

More theories, fewer answers

Brady and Dan weren’t the only potential links to the mysterious creators of the monolith worth investigating. There are many West Coast artists active in the remote desert, like Petecia Le Fawnhawk for example. But most have publicly denied any involvement in the monolith. Minimalist John McCracken had previously expressed a desire to build something profound and hidden, but he died in 2011 and his sculptures are far more, well, artistic than the one found in 2020. Others have claimed responsibility, but failed to produce convincing evidence. For example, Matty Mo, a Los Angeles-based marketing professional, claimed his artist collective was behind the monolith, and started selling replicas for $45,000. And then there are some YouTube influencers from Australia who similarly claimed ownership seemingly to promote a Netflix show. 

I also looked into a claim that the monolith was left over from the filming of an early season of the sci-fi show “Westworld.” The president of the Motion Picture Association of Utah, Jeff Johnson, assured me this couldn’t be the case. “I highly doubt any show like that would ever leave anything like that,” he said. “They have location people that would never let them do that.”

Time travel and telepathy

Corona Heights Park is a small prominence allowing for unmatched views of California’s Bay Area. One particular night, a fine rain sprinkled the highest point of the park. The peak is almost vacant, barring a young tech worker named Jeffery, who sat on a nearby stone, meditating to the glow of a foggy San Francisco skyline.

Civilization spread out before us, outlining the inky black gulf to the west, and the inland bay to the east. On this spot two years previous, a large triangular obelisk stood proudly drawing the attention of hikers nearby. Some called it a miracle. Local reporters flocked to the scene to broadcast its presence and later disappearance.

Many viewed the Corona Heights Monolith as a promise, that the world was mysterious and strange and waiting patiently for normality to return, real life to be discovered once more. This copycat was an especially wholesome gift to the ritzy neighborhood — it was discovered on Christmas, and was made of gingerbread.

The original commands more serious consideration.

Why was it installed? For what purpose? Did the internet fame add to or detract from the meaning behind the art? Is the mystery a piece of performance art in its own right? Was it an artist at all?

Jeff Warner, a photographer from Colorado, has also been looking for the artist ever since he took a picture of the monolith. “I feel it’s the art story of the decade” he told me. He’s been waiting for a chance to give the artist a print of his photo, to show his appreciation for the moment of distraction during a tough few years. 

“In this day and age of immediate satisfaction and social media,” Warner said, “it’s simply astounding to me that this person has remained quiet.”

Curiously, everyone searching for this mysterious group of people refer to them as artists, myself included. How do we know they are artists? We don’t know anything about them, yet it is widely understood that some kind of “art” happened in the interactions between the world and this metal object. 

But we know more than any artist could have imagined when they cut that stone and erected the steel column, wiping off fingerprints and leaving the canyon for the last time. When it was discovered, the monolith changed into something more mystical than a space telephone or an alien grave.

The true mystery rebuffs investigation. Unbridled by time, a simple object and a silent artist spoke to the world, and the world listened.