The mystery of La Contessa - Page 6

A galleon destroyed by fire. A priceless missing statue. Welcome to one of the great mysteries of the San Francisco underground.

There were people doing security who Cheffins says "were overzealous and got very rude."

Some thought the Contessa crew members were elitists for excluding some people from the limited-capacity vessel and for making others remove their blinky lights while onboard.

There were minor violations that first year because, as Jones said, "we didn't have time to read the rules for art cars." And there were stories that La Contessa's crew insists never happened or were blown way out of proportion. But it was enough to convince Burning Man officials to tell the crew at the end of the 2003 event that it wasn't welcome to return.

"They thought we were fucking terrorists," Cheffins said.

Goodell insists that the organization's problems with La Contessa have also been blown out of proportion. "I don't think we consider our relationship to be tumultuous," she said. "They were banned because they broke the rules on driving privileges.... Following driving rules can be a life or death situation out there."

La Contessa remained at Grant Ranch during the 2004 event, which the Extra Action Marching Band skipped to tour Europe. Snook negotiated with Burning Man officials to allow La Contessa to return in 2005 as long as he retained control and did not let Cheffins, Jones, or their cohorts drive.

The fact that there were inexperienced drivers at the wheel was likely a factor in what happened the Tuesday night of Burning Man 2005.

The crew had made arrangements to take a cruise outside the event's perimeter and within 15 minutes crashed into a dune that had formed around some object, tearing a big gash in the hull and bending a wheel. The crew was instructed by Burning Man officials to leave it until the following day, and when its members returned, the sound system, tools, a telescope, and other items had been stolen.

It was a dispiriting blow for Extra Action and the rest of the La Contessa crew, one that played a role in the decision not to try to bring La Contessa back to the event last year.

"[Last year] we didn't take her out because of a lack of enthusiasm on our parts," Jones said.

Yet they checked on La Contessa on their way to Burning Man and discovered that it had been looted again and the figurehead was gone.


As mad as she was about the theft of the figurehead and as sad as she was about the fire, Maduro said she feels a sort of gratitude toward the thief. "Assuming we get it back and it wasn't the person who burned the ship down, then I actually owe this person a debt of gratitude."

Particularly since the fire, Maduro just wants the figurehead back, no questions asked. At her request the Guardian has agreed to serve as a neutral site where someone can drop it off without fear of prosecution; we will return the figurehead to its owners.

"I was really sad, and it surprised me how sad I was because it doesn't belong to me personally," Maduro said. "I just always thought we would have her."

The mystery surrounding the figurehead grew after Burning Man employee Dave Pedroli, a.k.a. Super Dave, found a photo of it in someone's living room on — before he knew about the fire and the theft.

"Right after the fire was reported, within a day, I put two and two together and talked with Snook," Pedroli told the Guardian, referring to his realization that the photo depicted the stolen figurehead. "Right after that I started to look for it."

But it was gone and hasn't been seen since.

"I couldn't imagine someone walked into that space looking at all the time and attention that went into every detail and wanting to defile it," Maduro said.

But in the world of Burning Man, where most art is temporal and eventually consumed by fire, it wasn't the fact that La Contessa burned that bugs its creators and fans.