by Robert A. Waters
On December 2, 1942, bold headlines in the Brownsville Herald read: “Yankee Fleet Wins Another Round in Battle of Guadacanal—Sinks 9” and “Heavy Losses in Tunisia as German Attack is Repelled.” World War II, raging in all its fury, dominated the news even in local newspapers.
But beneath those stories of profound events sweeping the world, another caption caught the attention of some readers. “McAllen Child Missing: Clue is Found,” it announced.
On the previous afternoon, Virginia Espenlaub, twelve-year-old daughter of a “pioneer” McAllen, Texas family, had gone into her family’s orchard to tend to a cow. The slight, pretty girl carried a wooden box to sit on, candy to eat, and magazines to read while the cow grazed. She was seen at about 5:30 p.m. by a newspaper delivery boy as he made his rounds.
McAllen, with a population of about 12,000 residents, was mostly rural. Farmers in the area produced cotton, alfalfa, corn, citrus, grapes, and figs. Harold Espenlaub and his wife owned a small spread on the outskirts of town. In addition to raising cattle and vegetables, Harold worked as a civilian fireman at nearby Moore Field, a training facility for the US Army Air Force.
Somehow, just a hundred feet from her home, the girl vanished. In fact, the Herald reported that “officers say ‘the earth seems to have opened up and swallowed her.’”
A massive search for Virginia began on the night she went missing. Hundreds of police officers, firefighters, military personnel, and civilian volunteers searched the orchard. So that the searchers could see in the darkness, parachute flares from the air base lit the night sky, and shots from flare guns illuminated the surrounding areas.
As morning approached, the Border Patrol brought in an “autogyro” (a slow-moving plane similar to a modern helicopter) to scan the region from the air. On the ground, a six-mile by three-mile area beginning from the Espenlaub residence was laid out in 15 foot strips and methodically searched.
Finally, a possible clue surfaced. The Herald reported that a mile and a half from Virginia’s home, “signs of a struggle were found on the banks of a resaca, and footprints trailed into high mesquite grass and disappeared.” Professional trackers were called in to help after investigators determined that one of the footprints may have belonged to the missing girl. Unfortunately, no other evidence was found.
As 1942 faded away, the hunt for Virginia faltered. Her parents grieved in private, but the real news, that of the world at war, squeezed Virginia’s disappearance from the papers.
Some local residents recalled another still-unsolved case that had happened three years earlier. On the afternoon of May 7, 1939, fifteen-year-old Margaret Lucille Bush left McAllen High School to walk home. Two hours later, neighborhood children found her lying on the ground in a pool of blood. They called to their mother who notified police.
Margaret, who had been stabbed in the lungs and the neck, lay near death. She’d also been “ravished,” as newspapers of the day called rape. She was just two blocks from the school and 100 feet from the nearest occupied residence.
Margaret died a few hours later in a local hospital, unable to explain what happened to her. Her assailant was never found.
On January 7, 1943, a laborer walking home from work discovered Virginia Espenlaub’s body. She was about a half mile from her home, in a “nearly impenetrable jungle of brush” along an irrigation canal. Dr. H. E. Wigham performed an autopsy and determined that the girl had been shot in the head. The weapon used was a .32-caliber rifle.
Local citizens gathered up a reward of $1,532 for apprehension of the slayer. The Texas Rangers, assigned to investigate the Espenlaub case, checked out about a dozen .32-caliber firearms, but none proved to be the gun that killed Virginia.
In 1945, three years after Virginia’s murder, an article in the San Antonio Light revealed that in-fighting among law enforcement agencies had hindered the investigation. Because of the friction between cops, the Light reported, “interest in the case more or less faded away and there it stands today—unsolved.”
For whatever reason, one or more killers got away with two child murders. The cases, long-cold, still beg answers.
Did a serial killer stalk young girls in McAllen, Texas 70 years ago?
We’ll probably never know.