denver airport horse
Photo by Theo Stroomer for Thrillist
Photo by Theo Stroomer for Thrillist

How the Denver Airport Became an Icon of the Illuminati

Freemasons, aliens, and secret tunnels.

The horrors. The horror.

Denver International Airport, long an epicenter of conspiracy theories, has been wrestling with a series of new spooky sights of late: hours-long security lines. Boo! Construction as far as the eye can see. Shriek! Car thefts, unbearable traffic on the only road in-and-out, and broken-down trains. Oh my!

And, to top it all off, the third-busiest airport in the world as of 2022 has an overhaul agenda that won’t wrap up until 2026 (when more construction will begin).

All of that waiting next to boarded-up, fenced-off property lets the mind wander anew: Just what the hell is going on in this peculiar place? And why has wild speculation about the Denver airport persisted for more than 25 years?

Denver International Airport interior
Photo courtesy of Denver International Airport

Ever since DIA opened to the public on February 28, 1995, after numerous delays and nearly $2 billion over budget, the airport has been a hub not only for United and Frontier, but also for our nation's most salacious airport-themed conspiracy theories. The demonic horse greeting visitors, the apocalyptic murals, the involvement of the Freemasons, and the many other oddities relating to the airport and its construction have provided endless fodder for DIA truthers, hysteria-mongers, late-night television hosts, and even The New York Times.

I first reported on this story in 2017. At the time, former media relations chief Heath Montgomery told me that he'd talked more about these seemingly implausible conspiracy theories than any other topic. Not a lot has changed since then. In 2023, public information officer Stephanie Figueroa says, "I’m pretty good at these interviews now. There have been a lot of conspiracy inquiries. I wish I could blame broken-down trains on aliens.” She goes on, “We have leaned into the marketing of it all. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”

Montgomery, for his part, has pointed to a 2010 episode of Conspiracy Theory With Jesse Ventura as a huge factor in the rumors going mainstream. "You can fight it and fight it and it doesn't change anything. But if you embrace it, it becomes an opportunity to talk about the airport."

In all of the years I’ve been flying in and out of my hometown airport, a curiosity persists. But I've long been looking for answers that I'm not certain an official spokesman, no matter how forthright or knowledgeable, would be able to provide.

So it's time to dive into the dystopian world of Denver International Airport conspiracy theories, a quest that will ultimately bring me into contact with some of the people responsible for sparking these mysteries, send me to the library to scroll through microfiche as if I'm in a John Grisham movie circa 1993, and lead me to make some tough conclusions about what's really going on at my deeply strange local airfield.

denver airport time capsule
The Freemasonry symbol on the capstone | Photo by Theo Stroomer for Thrillist

The Freemasons

In Jeppesen Terminal—a capacious main hall famed for its vaulted white tent roof that mimics the Rocky Mountains to the west—Montgomery leads me to an object of much speculation: the capstone laid over a sealed time capsule at a dedication ceremony on March 19, 1994. Etched into the stone, underneath an inscription bequeathing the time capsule's contents to the "people of Colorado in 2094," are the Square and Compasses symbol of Freemasonry and the names of two Grand Masters, as well as a mysterious group called New World Airport Commission.

"The capstone was part of the pre-opening festivities," Montgomery reports. "It's a time capsule that's sealed with two pieces of granite that the Masons made. Unfortunately, people connect the Freemasons with the Illuminati and secret societies and all of that stuff. We do have two Masonic symbols on here because the Masons actually made this for us. It's not uncommon to have the Masons to be a part of large public facility openings, like an airport."

He continues. "The other thing that doesn't help us is that the inscription on the stone says 'New World Airport Commission.' And people rightly say that that doesn't exist. Well, that's because it doesn't exist. But it did exist in 1994. It was a group that was celebrating the opening of the airport. It's written a little wonky. It's supposed to read 'The New comma World Airport Commission.' It doesn't help because it says 'New World' right there."

He's right. It doesn't help. Montgomery points to a braille tablet that rises up from the stone and features one of the two Masonic symbols. "My favorite conspiracy I've ever heard of is, if you touch it the right way, it's a kind of keypad that's connected with aliens or the release of toxic gas," he says.

Later, as I flip through newspaper microfilm at the main branch of the Denver Public Library, I find mention of the ceremony among articles about the construction of Coors Field, the death of local altruist "Daddy" Bruce Randolph, and the fallout of the Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding incident. In the March 20, 1994 article, J.R. Moehringer, the correspondent on the scene for The Rocky Mountain News, groused about the two-hour length of the commemoration and the Masonic rituals involved. (I wonder what J.R. would think of the now-interminable security lines?) He also threw this red meat at would-be conspiracists: "Some of the hundreds of Masons on hand seemed surprised to learn that Mayor Wellington Webb is Brother Webb," a reference to the then-mayor's membership in the organization. "Yet there he stood in his white apron, traditional garb of the Grand Lodge of Free Masons," wrote Moehringer.

Webb, who now helms a political consulting firm in Denver, did not reply to a request for a comment. His sneakers—made famous during his first campaign—are preserved inside the time capsule, along with a ball from the first Colorado Rockies game, a viewer's guide to Beavis and Butthead, a flight book from Denver's previous airport, and other mid-'90s ephemera. But Scot M. Autry, Grand Secretary of the MW Grand Lodge of Colorado, did respond. "The Freemasons had nothing to do with building the Denver International Airport," he writes. "The only involvement was the ceremony that was performed for the dedication capstone that was done on March 19, 1994."

When I ask him for a mission statement, he sends me a reply that could inspire another Simpsons Stonecutters episode, with references to former members Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, and vague catch-alls like "family values," "moral standards," and "community involvement." It's not clear if the Masons enjoy the conspiracies surrounding them but they sure seem to encourage them through their own obfuscation, not to mention with their funny necklaces.

"With the sort of pomp that might have been befitting the completion of one of the great pyramids, a time capsule was lowered beneath the floor of Denver International Airport yesterday and topped with a ceremonial capstone," wrote Robert Kowalski in The Denver Post, also on the day after the event. Kowalski slyly poked fun at the oft-delayed and costly project with his remarks, before going on to refer to the New World Airport Commission, writing it just so, without the comma Montgomery mentioned. Kowalski's article did, however, quote Charles Ansbacher, the New World Airport Commission's chairman.

In 2007, three years before his death, Ansbacher attempted to explain the commission's moniker in an interview with local alt-weekly Westword. He couldn't remember exactly why it was named something that, for many, conjures images of an authoritarian elitist takeover, but he suspected it was a dual reference, both to DIA being the newest airport in the world and to Dvořák's Symphony No. 9, popularly known as the "New World Symphony."

"The idea that there is anything secretive about this," said Ansbacher, who was a conductor, "is totally preposterous."

The Gargoyles
The baggage-area gargoyle | Photo by Theo Stroomer for Thrillist

The gargoyles

As part of our walk around the airport, Montgomery stops in baggage claim and looks upward toward a gargoyle that's sitting in a suitcase. "To some of the conspiracy theorists, this is a harbinger of something evil or nefarious," Montgomery says. "But it's not. It's a fun piece of art."

I look on the plaque below the grotesque and discover that the artist is Terry Allen. A few days later, I reach him at his home in Santa Fe. "I was invited to make a proposal. This was when Stapleton was still open, the old airport," Allen says with a twang that harkens back to his hometown of Lubbock, Texas. It's a familiar sound to those who have heard his music, most notably the cult classic outlaw concept albums, Juarez and Lubbock (On Everything). "We all met there and I remember there was a committee that included airport people, art people and even a nun. Right off there was a religious aspect to it."

He says that he started thinking about what airports and baggage claims actually were. "And it might have been that nun that made me think, These are like cathedrals," Allen says, as we touch on the massive failure that was DIA's state-of-the-art baggage system, which frequently misplaced luggage (if you were lucky) or shredded it (if you weren't). "The cathedral thing made me start thinking about gargoyles. The idea was to put the gargoyles in a suitcase and have them looming over the baggage claim as protectors, just like they were used in churches. I did one for domestic and then I did one for international, which was pretty much lifted right off an image from Notre-Dame. And that sealed the title for me: Notre Denver."

Allen installed the pieces in a completed-yet-empty DIA—aside from an operational Burger King for security staff—that was "like walking around at the end of the world." Almost immediately, "moronic" church groups and others started to read into his gargoyles, which were in storage for a while during the new terminal overhaul, but are back on their perches now. "They would reach up into the suitcases and put cards that said things like 'effigies of Satan' or 'you're going to hell' and they'd put bibles with stuff marked in them and all of these bizarre religious fanatic remarks about the gargoyles."

When I ask him if he intended anything to be evil, he swiftly denies it. "It's actually the opposite," he says. "They're protectors. Gargoyles are good demons. They face out from the church to keep the bad demons out. If I was being malicious, I could've been a lot more malicious than I was."

Horse at Denver International Airport
Photo courtesy of Denver International Airport

The demonic horse

The nun who may have inspired Allen's creation is Lydia Peña, a Sister of Loretto whose long career teaching art history eventually led her to gigs like serving on the architectural design committee for the airport. "It was one of the most exciting chapters in my life," Peña tells me from her office.

She proudly defends artists and their right to create, whether the results are controversial or not. "I got to know Luis Jiménez. He had a great personality," says Peña of the sculptor behind Blue Mustang, the 32-foot horse with vibrant, gleaming red-orange eyes that greets travelers and causes some to have on-the-ground panic attacks usually reserved for DIA's notorious turbulence. "As you know, the sculpture fell on him in the process of creation and, ultimately, he died."

That's right, folks: The piece was commissioned by Peña's committee in the mid-'90s but Jiménez was still working on it on June 13, 2006, when a piece of the sculpture fell and severed an artery in his leg. The horse that killed its maker was finished by his estate and unveiled on February 11, 2008.

Because of its intense glare and imposing stature, the horse is a favorite target of crackpot theories, including the idea that it will provide transportation for one of the four horseman of the apocalypse. It's widely called "Blucifer" by fans and foes alike.

Stephanie Figueroa is squarely in the friend camp. “He drew a lot of inspiration from the low rider culture of the West,” she tells me. “The eyes, which many say are ‘demonic,’ are actually an ode to his dad who worked at a neon sign shop.

"I think it’s sad that people think he’s evil,” she says of the horse. “We think of him as the opposite, as our fearless, blue protector of the airport.”

The Murals
The Murals | Photo by Theo Stroomer for Thrillist

The murals

Tin foil hat alert: Leo Tanguma’s bizarre murals, that typically adorn two walls in the main terminal, are—gasp—in storage. But why? “We do plan on bringing them back as construction is completed,” Figueroa tells me. Oh. Their imminent return and the wild speculation they’ve produced make them worthy of review here.

"I knew Leo Tanguma—in fact, I promoted him for the murals," Peña says of a pair of diptychs that have been linked to the apocalypse, fascism, and just about every other evil under the Colorado sun. "Because I had directed the Beaumont Art Gallery, I knew contemporary artists in the city and he was one of them. I knew his work and I knew it was about peace and justice and those issues are very important to me as a Sister of Loretto. And, of course, anyone who has worked on issues of justice knows that they can be very controversial. So, this is exactly what happened with Leo Tanguma's murals," Peña surmises. "For me, they are great expressions of justice and promotions of justice."

Montgomery agrees with Peña's sentiments, pointing out the plaques beside "In Peace and Harmony With Nature" and "Children of the World Dream of Peace." The one for "Children of the World" reads, candidly, that it is "a powerful mural expressing the artist's desire to abolish violence in society."

"Nobody ever looks at the artist statement," says Montgomery. "The conspiracy people will look at these and say, 'It's showing fire and destruction and the New World Order and the collapse of society and civilization. It's such a far stretch to make."

When I ask Peña if the commission dictated what the artist's produced she denies it, saying, "Artists need to be free to create not to be told exactly what to do." Montgomery concurs, "The city doesn't dictate what a final piece looks like. They dictate what the type of the concept is. So, we selected a muralist and this is what he came up with."

"Children of the World" has proven to be the most contentious and, well, startling. It features a soldier that looks a whole lot like a Nazi wearing a gas mask, and many wonder just what that's doing in a busy American airport and what it might signify. "The children are living in a world that does have war and violence and a lot of bad things, but they're dreaming of a world where that doesn't exist and the world is cohesive and peaceful," explains Montgomery, echoing Tanguma's own words as well as Peña's. (Tanguma doesn't like to talk about the murals anymore and my own attempts to communicate came up dry.) Still, he admits, "In today's environment would we have a soldier on a mural? It might not be selected today but it was selected in the early 1990s."

Throw in a letter from a child who died at Auschwitz, painted into the lower right corner of one of the panels, and you're in conspiracy nirvana.

the murals
Photo by Theo Stroomer for Thrillist

One person who sees Tanguma's murals from a more wicked angle is Dr. Leonard Horowitz. A former dentist who now dedicates his life to the dangers of drugs and their implications for population control (or, as he puts it, a "Harvard-trained public health expert and media persuasion analyst"), Dr. Horowitz and I email several times about the Tanguma murals. He isn't forthcoming, at first, and asks me more questions than I propose to him. Eventually he opens up, joking of the murals, "Are we flying the 'friendly skies' here?" 

Things get really intriguing when Horowitz sends me excerpts from said published material, Death in the Air. In it, he discusses the murals as depicting genocide that particularly affects Black and Hispanic people and dedicated by "largely secret" Masons. "The Nazi-alien symbolizes the Nazi-fascist links between contemporary population controllers and the military-petrochemical industrialists accountable for Hitler's rise to power," Horowitz writes. (The capitalization, punctuation and emphases are his.) "Elite global industrialists, including the Rockefeller family in America and the Royal Family of England, were primarily responsible for 'eugenics,' the first 'racial hygiene' experiments pioneered in America."

Via our emails, I ask if the funky artwork at DIA could just be coincidental. "If it smells like a skunk, and looks like a skunk, it's not a gopher," he writes in an email. "The elements here reflect the circumstances in current geopolitics. The images here make it pretty certain there is a commercial enterprise that relishes these images. Too many 'coincidences' to not give a reasonable intelligent investigator probable cause to conclude something more than 'coincidence.' Tanguma is not a suspect. He is a witness. His art is evidence. Who paid for it, and what was their motivation for commissioning this precise PATTERN of images that tell a very clear story."

This time, he doesn't end his sentence with a question mark.

The Secret Tunnels
The Secret Tunnels | Photo by Theo Stroomer for Thrillist

The secret tunnels

If a Masonic tablet or gargoyles or the demonic horse or Tanguma's murals do indicate the workings of a secret society or signal the coming of an apocalyptic event, then what of it? Why pepper DIA with them? Many believe that the building itself is a gathering place for governmental officials and the global elite in case of nuclear Armageddon, widespread biological warfare or, well, any cataclysmic reckoning. Horowitz claims to have seen secret underground tunnels adorned with artwork, presumably for the purposes of giving the rich something pretty to look at while the rest of decompose.

"Did you read or hear anywhere that I was there on day three of the airport's opening, when the luggage operations and trams were not working?" he asks me. No, I did not hear that.

"Passengers were directed through tunnels containing some of the finest gold leaf mosaic artistry I have ever seen—artwork that makes Tanguma's beautiful murals pale by comparison. Thereafter, when the trams began operating, those 'alternate' passageways were closed. Why do you believe airport financiers would spend vast fortunes commissioning art that travelers would nevermore see?"

When I ask Peña if she knows of any secret, underground shelters or shafts, she says, "No, I don't."

Figueroa does her best to put an end to this whopper, at least. “I am down there every day; there are thousands of people who work down here,” she says. “If we were really hiding something, don’t you think someone would say something?” She goes on to invite me on a tour of underground shafts whenever I’d like, something that was forbidden according to Montgomery six years ago. Hmmm…

denver airport
Theo Stroomer/Thrillist

I get in touch with the man responsible for the structure itself, Curtis Fentress, the CEO and principal in charge of design for Fentress Architects. His firm took over the building of DIA with its groundbreaking fabric roof design, which not only became a symbol for the airport but also, by his estimates, chopped months off construction by way of cutting 200,000 pounds of steel and 200,000 cubic yards of concrete from the previous plan. (Peña recalls that the primary plan her group eventually rejected called for something resembling an ancient Mexican pyramid. If there are a lot of conspiracy theories now, imagine what a Mayan temple design would've sparked.) I ask him, bluntly, if there are any underground tunnels or secret bomb shelters, and I receive an astonishing reply. "Well, I really can't speak to it," Fentress tells me over the phone. "I'm sworn to secrecy."

He either has a sense of humor as dry as the Denver air, or he's not kidding, even a little bit.

Unprompted, Fentress goes further. "I understand that they're going to be creating a tour of some of the underground facilities in the future, at DIA," says Fentress, who has worked on many airports besides Denver International. Then, he makes an unexpected comparison. "When you go to Moscow, you can go down in the area where they were poised to launch a missile strike against America. And they have this big underground bomb shelter about 100 feet down in the ground. Could be similar to that kind of thing with tours to the underground of DIA."

Is this bomb shelter remark a bombshell? Did the architect behind DIA just admit to the kinds of secret shelters and passageways that many have theorized? Not explicitly, but he certainly didn't deny their existence, either. Finally, Fentress hints that there could be more answers, but that we might have to wait until 2094. "There's a time capsule there with a lot of interesting things in it," he says. "Some plans, drawings from the airport."

The Future
The Future | Photo by Theo Stroomer for Thrillist

I was born and raised in Denver. I've spent more time at DIA than I have with many of my relatives. My father, a journalist, flew on the opening day from Miami back to Denver and reported, live on-the-air, for the local NBC affiliate. (His bags were the last on his flight to come through baggage claim. They were not shredded.) I've heard almost all of the rumors and theories before. There are more of them than can be covered in any one article—like the internet, itself, they seemingly know no bounds.

There's a tunnel to Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station. (Montgomery: "Do you know what a tunnel from here to NORAD would cost?") The runways are swastika-shaped. (Montgomery: "Kind of a pinwheel-ish but you have to make a giant leap to get to something negative.") Aliens or lizard people live underneath airport. There are buried buildings. There were the mysterious airplane windshield crackings of '07. Certainly the removal of the Au-Ag symbols on the terminal flooring (that some argue may augur a wipeout from Australia antigen; the official word is they are a reference to Colorado mining) during construction means something insidious. Right? Right? A lot of these theories took a big blow when the Mayan apocalypse of 2012 didn't hit, and many more will continue to be debunked as the years go on.

But the question still bothering me is: If something confidential or even malevolent were being shrouded, why would the architects, artists and designers—all with the government's stamp of approval—be so flamboyant? In other words: If you were trying to hide something, would you really adorn the joint's walls with Leo Tanguma's loud murals and then guard it with a giant killer horse? Why not just send secret "Meet at the pinwheel-shaped runways" invitations for your end-of-the-world bash? Remember: This is supposed to be clandestine, after all.

Does the government and its billionaire friends know how it's all gonna go down? Unlikely. Is it possible there are bunkers and tunnels across this country that a precious few know about? Absolutely. Would it make sense to place some of those away from the coasts and beneath an easily accessible high-tech airport that sits on almost 34,000 acres? Definitely. Is it possible there are protected shelters underneath the Colorado plains and is it also possible that those who know about them want to keep them classified so, you know, they don't become a target? I'd say it's even probable.

And I'm not so sure there's anything wrong with that. Whether you feel the same way depends on your outlook. Me, I'll just be waiting for my invitation to that party. They know where I live.

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Colin St. John writes for Rolling Stone, Esquire, and other outlets. He lives in Denver.