Murder in the Mojave: Homicides and Body Dumps in the California Desert
The desert's massive size and inhospitable conditions make it the perfect place to hide a body.
llustration by Lia Kantrowitz
It hits you about an hour and half into the drive from Los Angeles to Las Vegas.
It comes after you've weathered the omnipresent traffic lining the 10 freeway and navigated signs for the 15, the thoroughfare responsible for funneling tourists into the city that never sleeps. After the radio begins to die out, and the time between gas stations increases. After you reach San Bernardino County and pass the San Gabriel Mountains. After you look up, and see that the outstretched desert road suddenly seems eternal.
The Mojave Desert announces itself amid a sea of Joshua trees and roadside billboards for fast food in various desert towns.
It is, in fact, the only place on Earth that the Joshua tree survives. But some aren't so lucky. After all, this is where the bodies get dumped in pretty much every R-rated Las Vegas film. From The Hangover to Casino: The trunk goes up, the body comes out, the trunk goes down, the car drives away.
The culture of crime here traces back to the Wild West, when cowboys and outlaws passed hot days with moonshine, shotguns, and the "last great manhunt" of a young Native American called Willie Boy. In many ways, the communities developed in its harsh, barren landscape haven't put their dukes down since. And so it calls those who don't want to be bothered, or caught. As Deanne Stillman, author of Mojave true crime book Twentynine Palms, emailed me, "Anything goes there—there are few checks or balances, other than your own compass."
Of course, a culture of little intervention is not the same as lawlessness; the majority of the California region of the Mojave is covered by the San Bernardino County Sheriff's office, with the Nevada portion falling under the jurisdiction of Kern County. But with towns on both the Eastern and Western borders experiencing homicide spikes—San Bernardino (43 percent increase from 2015 to 2016) and Las Vegas (36 percent increase from 2015 to 2016)—law enforcement agencies are often spread thin when covering the area.
Out here, violent crime rates are high—at least in the census-designated areas where records are kept: Sperling's 1 (low rate of violent crime) to 100 (high rate of violent crime) scale measures Victorville, California's index at 48.8, Baker's at 69.7, and Barstow, California's at 76.4. For comparison, the national average is 31.1 and Los Angeles clocks in at 43.7. "There is only a certain kind of cop who wants this job." Stillman explained. "If he or she is in trouble, it could take two hours for backup to arrive."
"Law enforcement agencies have a challenge in the desert portions," Robert Fulton, the manager at California State University's Desert Studies Center, echoed in an email. "It would not be hard to get to a place where people seldom go."
The limited pool of park rangers tasked with monitoring Mojave reserve areas—including the 1.6 million acre Mojave National Preserve—face a similarly uphill battle against the desert heat, size, and remoteness, and most often find themselves one step behind the criminals seeking refuge in these spaces.
Take the mystery surrounding 25-year-old Beddie Walraven, who disappeared from Santa Ana in 1946. Her unidentified remains were found tossed into the Mojave Desert near Baker in 1971—but the bones weren't linked to her until 2011. It's believed that the Texas native was killed by her lover's wife, who walked in on her husband in bed with Beddie. Nobody has been held accountable for Beddie's murder—and her's is far from the only case to go cold with more questions than answers. As San Bernardino deputy coroner Bob Hunter told the LA Times in a 2011 article covering Beddie's case, "We are constantly finding bodies in the desert... We've had a lot of unsolved cases that were many, many years old."
The San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department's cold case records, available online back to 1970, tell a grim tale. Consider Sandra Rhodes, a 19-year-old found stabbed to death and partially nude, dumped in Twentynine Palms, California in 1981. Or Carol Simonson, a US Army private found strangled and beaten to death near the 15 freeway in Barstow in 1984. Or Maria Terrasas, dumped in the desert near Phelan, California in 1989. These murders remain unsolved, as do the cases of the three still-unidentified bodies found in San Bernardino County in the 1970s and 1980s: Nipton Jane Doe (1976), found shot and dumped in a mine shaft; San Bernardino County John Doe (1983), a teen found inside a gondola car at the Southern Pacific Railroad yards near Bloomington, California; and San Bernardino County Jane Doe (1987), shot and dumped in Colton, California.
Not to say that law enforcement hasn't been able to track down the culprits behind other homicides committed in the Mojave Desert. Amateur photographer William Bradford was convicted of strangling both Shari Miller (21) and Tracey Campbell (15) in separate incidents during 1984, after using promises of a modeling photo shoot to lure each to a campsite 28 miles east of Lancaster, California. Bradford's conviction came swiftly, but the families of others, including Jacqueline (18) and Malcolm (17) Bradshaw, siblings murdered and dumped next to a dirt road off the 15 freeway south of Barstow in 1978, and Dennis Gibson, found near Calico Ghost Town, California in 1981, have had to wait longer for justice. These cases were solved 26 and 27 years after the bodies were found, respectively.
But as much as art has imitated life, life has imitated art; many believe that the area's reputation as a body dumping ground has only encouraged other criminals to leave remains in this region. "My take is that for many of the more bizarre and recent crimes committed in the Mojave Desert, popular culture has something to do with the decision to site the crime out here," Kim Stringfellow, Creator of location-specific experimental documentary the Mojave Project, said when we spoke over the phone.
They do seem to get increasingly bizarre—and cinematic—with time: In 2000, the body of Colorado man Frank Chaminade Hoebich was found 66 miles west of Las Vegas, rolled up in a carpet taped close on each end. In 2006, a John Doe was found burning on the side of a remote road near Yermo, California. And in 2010, the head of a teenage Barstow Jane Doe was found in a backpack near Barstow. Three more for what Stringfellow calls "myths of the desert."
The most widely covered homicide case to come to the desert is that of the McStay family—Summer, Joseph, and their sons, three-year-old Joseph Jr. and four-year-old Gianni. The family disappeared from their Fallbrook, California, home in 2010, the bodies found three years later near Victorville. Chase Merritt, Joseph's former business partner, was arrested in 2014 in connection with the murders—but a trial date has yet to be set.
From there, records read like episodes of True Detective. Ryan Singleton, a 24-year-old aspiring filmmaker visiting from Atlanta, was last seen alive at a Baker gas station in July 2013. His body was found in the desert a few months later without any organs; his family believes he was murdered. In an email to me, San Bernardino County Sheriff-Coroner's Office public information officer Cindy Bachman noted, "Ryan Singleton's death investigation (not homicide) suggests no foul play involved."
A year later, Erin Corwin—the 19-year-old wife of a Twentynine Palms Marine—was murdered and dumped at the bottom of a mine shaft near Joshua Tree National Park. Corwin had told friends and family she was pregnant shortly before her murder, though her remains were too decomposed to confirm. In 2016, Christopher Lee—a Marine, who claims he was Corwin's lover at the time he committed the murder—confessed to strangling Corwin and dumping her body head-first into the shaft; he was subsequently convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
In 2015, the body of 28-year-old Lindsey Star Roman, the daughter of a legendary Las Vegas guitar maker, was found in a desert area near Needles, California. Bachman noted this as "the most recent homicide body dump" for the San Bernardino County jurisdiction, though remains have continued to turn up. Already this year, a jawbone has been found in Apple Valley, California, which has since been identified as belonging to a man who disappeared in 1988. A human skull was also found in Barstow.
Is a self-fulfilling prophecy at work in this desert? Perhaps reports of bodies abandoned and found have inspired others with misguided criminal romanticism—and as the Mojave Desert's reputation for body dumping has become increasingly solidified both amongst law enforcement and throughout media reporting, criminals may be growing more creative. But there's also inevitability inherent to this landscape that often feel like hell itself. In total, the desert covers almost 50,000 square miles, stretching into four states. Rainfall averages around 5 inches per year; in summer months, temperatures rarely drop below 100 degrees Fahrenheit. It's quiet here. Lonely.
The body of Beddie Walraven was in the Mojave Desert for 25 years before it was discovered. That of Azita Nikooei, whose fiancé was convicted for her murder even without remains, was left undiscovered for 12 years. The family of Kathryn Barrett spent eight years waiting for her remains to be found. There are currently 120 missing persons in San Bernardino County. How many of them might be waiting in the Mojave Desert?
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