Monday, June 24, 2013

Secrets in the Desert

The dead don’t tell tales
by Robert A. Waters

If murder will out, it will surely out in the desert.” Saying of wild-west cowboys.

On July 4, 1937, an article appeared in the Laredo Times.  Written by Mildred Gordon, it began: “The desert has too many skeletons in its sandy closets for Uncle Sam. When the hot winds kick up dust whirlwinds or the spring floods pound down the canyons, out comes another skeleton. During the last year, more than a score of skeletons have been found in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah alone—skeletons that only hint at tales of hot passions and murder in the last frontier.”

Just a few months earlier, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had begun what would become one of the most unsuccessful investigations ever undertaken by the G-men.  Their mission, to probe more than 50 disappearances and murders in the western deserts, ended in ignominious retreat.

The death of Wallace French, a 24-year-old employee of the Civilian Conservation Corps who left his home in Glendale, Arizona and vanished, was typical of what the Feds faced.  In January, 1935, an Indian hunter discovered a skull in the desert northeast of Scottsdale.  Maricopa County Sheriff’s deputies found more bones nearby, and a note that read: “Will be seeing you, Violet French.”  The note had been written by Wallace’s sister, leading to the identification of his remains.  French had gone for a drive and never returned.  Two weeks after he vanished, a mile away, cowboys discovered his burned-out car. No other clues were found, and G-men never even determined whether he died by accident, suicide, or murder.  To this day, the case remains unsolved.

In almost the exact spot where French was found, cowboys discovered the skeletonized remains of another missing man.  Eugene Morris, traveling from his home in Frankland, Indiana, ended up with a bullet through his skull.  FBI agents told reporters that a “phantom killer” may have been using the Salt River Valley as a hunting ground.

Those murders, however, were overshadowed by a headline-grabbing case, the disappearance of four tourists.  Heading south from their homes in East St. Louis, Illinois, George and Laura Lorius and Albert and Tillie Heberer were driving leisurely toward San Diego.  The last postcard known to be mailed by the friends had been postmarked: “Albuquerque, N. M., 12 p.m., May 22, 1935.”

Press reports described Lorius as a “wealthy coal dealer” and Heberer as the owner of a barbershop.  The well-to-do tourists had decided to make an adventure of their trip, sight-seeing along the way.  The Hoover Dam and the San Diego World’s Fair were planned highlights of their agenda.

On May 21, they spent the night at a hotel in Vaughn, New Mexico.  After breakfast the next day, the friends climbed into their car and once again hit the road.  They were never seen alive again, except by their killers.  Two months later, cowboys riding in the mesas above Albuquerque found clothing, suitcases, and George Lorius’ business card.  The items been set on fire.  Massive searches of the desert, mountains, and lakes in the area turned up no other evidence.

Heberer's car, a 1929 Nash, was missing.  However, a few days after the tourists vanished, the automobile was involved in a minor crash in Socorro, New Mexico.  Witnesses reported that the driver had been a “dark-skinned man with tattoos on his left arm.”  Another distinguishing feature was his “uneven” ears.  As he raced from town to town, the suspect cashed several forged checks belonging to the missing tourists.

Heberer's Nash had been involved in several wrecks before being found abandoned in Dallas, Texas on May 26.  (Many career criminals who spend long stretches in prison are notoriously bad drivers.)  In El Paso, police found luggage belonging to the vanished travelers, but never located the suspect.  The case got lots of local and national publicity, and many searches ensued.  FBI experts checked the odometer of the Nash and calculated that the bodies should have been within a 25 mile radius of Quemado, New Mexico.  The desert, however, had swallowed any remaining evidence and the missing travelers were never found.

Many rumors swirled around the case, including a story that claimed the tourists were approached by a gold miner and murdered when they found buried treasure.  A slightly more credible tale named Oklahoma outlaw Chester Comer as the killer.  No evidence implicated Comer, however, and lawmen later killed the ex-con in a gunfight.

The case of the missing travelers eventually went cold and no one was ever charged.

Murders in the desert are notoriously difficult to solve, as J. Edgar Hoover and his G-men discovered. 

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