Sprawled out over a large swath of Eastern California, in the United States is a vast expanse of arid desert wasteland covering around 3,000 sq mi (7,800 km2), known rather fittingly as Death Valley, located mostly within Inyo County, California. This is an unforgiving, desolate land, which is a stranger to rain and known as one of the hottest places in the world, with some the highest temperature ever recorded on earth, at 134 °F (56.7 °C), recorded on July 10, 1913. It is as deadly, inhospitable a place as you are likely to find, that may as well be the surface of some scorching, barren alien planet, yet it has drawn more than its fair share of visitors who flock here to see the bleak, sun blazed vistas or merely out of pure curiosity. Yet for as many people that come here to visit, there are also those who never return, and this is a deadly, ominous place that has earned a rather sinister reputation for mysterious vanishings and deaths.
One of the earlier unexplained disappearances of Death Valley happened in 1958, when 26-year-old Army pilot First Lieut. Paul Byron Whipkey vanished under strange circumstances from Fort Ord, California. On July 10, 1958, Lieutenant Whipkey casually told his fellow officers that he was heading out to get a quick drink in the nearby town, and he would bizarrely be next seen a few hours later and hundreds of miles away in Mojave, California, where he allegedly checked into a motel for no known reason. The next day, he purportedly bought 14 gallons of gasoline and then proceeded to vanish off the face of the earth. The only clue would come 5 weeks later, when Whipkey’s abandoned vehicle was found by California fish and game officers in a remote, forbidding region of Death Valley, 15 miles away from the main road and 400 miles from where he had begun his odd journey in Fort Ord. Whipkey’s dog tags, suitcase, and other personal belongings were found within, but there was no sign of where he had gone.
The Army was quick to dismiss this all as a case of simple desertion, and would later claim that he had died after wandering away into the desert from his car, but there is no evidence at all of what really happened, and Whipkey’s brother, Carl Whipkey, would be deeply skeptical of this assertion, saying that right off the bat the government was being suspicious about it all. He would claim that from the day after his brother’s disappearance the Army had said they were packing up his belongings, of which Carl would say, “Superhyper Superquick. When you catch them packing up your brother’s clothes one day after he disappeared, you get super-hyper superquick.” Whipkey’s family has never accepted the Army’s official explanation, and feel that there is something more going on here, perhaps even a cover-up, which is especially believable considering that when Carl Whipkey requested information from the Federal Bureau of Investigation under the Freedom of Information Act, he was told that all of the files had been destroyed in 1977 for reasons unknown. Carl has said of the strange case:
The Government knows what happened to my brother. There are so many questions still unanswered. I would be satisfied even if the Army would say they can’t tell us for security reasons. But until then, we can’t rule anything out.
In the meantime all sorts of theories have popped up, with ideas such as that he was really a secret agent who saw something he was not supposed to or was silenced, that he was a test subject for some military experiment, a victim of nerve gas or atomic tests who was covertly swept under the carpet, or even abducted by aliens. Interestingly, it has been found that shortly before his strange disappearance, Whipkey had developed inexplicable black moles and warts all over his body and had frequently complained of not feeling well, as well as displaying personality changes, appearing “nervous and uptight.” He also apparently had had many of his teeth pulled out and replaced with dentures. What does any of this mean, if anything? What happened to Paul Byron Whipkey? Whatever the answer to that may be is lost to us, as no sign of him has ever been found and all records on the case seemingly lost.
Probably the most well-publicized vanishings connected to Death Valley occurred in July of 1996, when four tourists from Dresden, Germany journeyed here to take in the sights. Cornelia Meyer, 27, her 4-year-old son Max, boyfriend Egbert Rimkus, 34, and his 10-year-old son, Georg Weber, were touring Las Vegas and the surrounding region in a rented Plymouth van. It was probably not the best time to be visiting, as at the time Death Valley was in the midst of a scorching, record-breaking heat wave which saw the already relentlessly, oppressively hot temperatures here soar up to 120 degrees and up. Regardless, they set out from their hotel in Las Vegas on July 22, and headed to Death Valley, where they stopped at a visitor’s center to purchase a book on the valley and a map before heading out to explore the heat blasted landscape. This would be the last time anyone would ever see them again.
On July 29, the family failed to board their scheduled flight home, and when a preliminary investigation was launched there was found to be an odd entry written in a guestbook perched on a metal pole at an abandoned mining ghost town in Warm Springs Canyon, which held the cryptic words “We are going through the pass,” written in German and signed “Conny Egbert Georg Max.” Although it was unclear just what they meant by “the pass,” authorities surmised that they must have meant Mengel Pass, a rather rugged and remote, poorly maintained dirt road that passed through a lifeless barren moonscape on the park’s southwestern border.
No other sign of the missing group of tourists was turned up until months later, when on October 23, the abandoned mini-van was discovered by a drug surveillance plane, in an isolated sandy ravine far from any road and well off the beaten path for tourists. The doors of the dust encrusted vehicle were found to be locked, and inside were found to be photo film, empty water bottles, sleeping bags, an information booklet, and a carefully folded American flag most likely bought as a souvenir, as well as a single child’s shoe. Other personal belongings such as wallets, passports, keys, or purses were not found, and oddly no tracks were found around the van either. It was as if they had just vanished into thin air. A beer bottle was found lying on the ground not far away, but it was unclear if this had belonged to the missing group or not.
In the wake of this baffling discovery, over 200 law enforcement officers from both Nevada and California methodically scoured the area on foot, horseback, and from the air, but no further clues were found. For decades the fate of these tourists remained a complete mystery, and theories swirled as to what had happened to them, such as that they had run across nefarious drug dealers and been killed or kidnapped, as well as the ideas that they had staged their own vanishing or that they had simply wandered off into the wilderness and fallen victim to the scathing, inhospitable conditions, but no one knew for sure and there was not a single trace of them or clue to their fate.
In 2009, two hikers were traversing the perilous, bleak terrain of a remote area of Mojave Desert park when they came across the gruesome discovery of human bones mired in the sand and brush. The remains, which turned out to be of an adult male and female, were speculated to likely be those of the missing tourists, especially since Cornelia Meyer’s identification was reportedly found lying nearby, but this is not known for sure and the bones were too damaged by the sun for a successful DNA analysis. Despite this gruesome discovery, the remains have not been positively identified, it still remains a mystery as to what happened to them, and the remains of the two children have never been found.
The case has remained perplexing and widely discussed to this day. What happened to these people? Did they meet with foul play? Were they killed or kidnapped, and if so by who and for what reason? Or did they just succumb to the elements in their foolhardy adventure? Why did they drive their vehicle off road out in the middle of nowhere in the middle of a merciless heat wave, with no provisions and a woefully inadequate water supply? Were they just very adventurous, foolish, or is there some other inscrutable reason? Were those remains of the missing adults, and even if they are what happened to the kids? These are questions for which it seems the answers have remained evasive.
While the case of the missing Germans is by far the most widely circulated and oft-debated disappearance to have occurred in Death Valley, it is certainly not the only one and is not even the weirdest. Just 2 years later, in the Spring of 1998, five women vanished without a trace in the Los Angeles area, laid against a backdrop of assorted other bizarreness. The women were most notable for being part of a sort of New Age cult headed by the enigmatic Peruvian born New Age writer and philosopher Carlos Castaneda, a graduate student in anthropology at UCLA who had gathered quite a reputation for his outlandish esoteric theories and eccentric lifestyle. He was an extremely successful non-fiction writer of New Age books on supposed ancient, mystical knowledge of Native Americans in the 1970s and early 80s, selling millions of copies of his books with titles like The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, A Separate Reality, Journey to Ixtlan, and Tales of Power, which continue to sell well even now despite having received a good amount of scathing skepticism and criticism over the years.
Almost as well known as his books was his reclusive ways and the cult-like movement he formed in 1973, which was based on supposed shamanic secrets he called Tensegrity, which actually proved to be quite popular, spawning countless workshops, seminars, and instructional videos. One of the strangest aspects of the movement was an extremely secretive group of women Castaneda kept close by, a harem of sorts, which were referred to as “the witches.” Very little was known about the witches, what exactly their purpose was, or even how many of them there were, and they typically used aliases and absolutely refused to be photographed, all of which just added to Castaneda’s mystique. It is known that they were frequent users of peyote and engaged in all manner of shamanic mysticism and metaphysics, such as vision quests, speaking with animals, and various rituals.
Shortly after Castaneda wasted away and died of liver cancer in 1998, five of these witches, Florinda Donner-Grau, Taisha Abelar, Amalia Marquez, Kylie Lundahl, and Patricia Lee Partin, all completely vanished in quick succession. The only clue found at the time was Partin’s vehicle, which had been abandoned at Death Valley’s Panamint Dunes. In 2003, some hikers would find a desiccated corpse half-buried in sand out in the desert wearing shredded clothes. When the remains were finally properly analyzed they were found to be those of Patricia Lee Partin, although the cause of death nor why she had been out in such a remote area of Death Valley could not be determined. One former follower of Castaneda has come forward with his own theory on the matter, saying:
Castaneda once told her (Partin), if you ever need to rise to infinity, take your little red car and drive it as fast as you can into the desert and you will ascend. And that’s exactly what she did: She took her little red car, drove it into the desert, didn’t ascend, got out, wandered around and fainted from dehydration.
None of the remains of the other women, nor any trace of them at all, have ever been found. It is widely thought that they likely committed suicide, which is a theory bolstered by Castaneda’s alleged frequent extolling of the virtues of suicide, which he deemed to be a noble way of gaining transcendence. Some of the witches had even been allegedly tasked with scouting locations in Death Valley such as caves and abandoned mines, one of which was spookily located not far from where Partin was found, that could be used as suitable suicide sites. One former follower has said of this:
He used to talk about suicide all the time, even for minor things. He regularly told us he was our only hope. We were all supposed to go together, ‘make the leap,’ whatever that meant. I didn’t know fully. He’d describe it in different ways. So would the witches. It seemed to be what they were living for, something we were being promised.
Did all of these women commit suicide out in the wastelands of Death Valley, or are the others still alive out there, as some have suggested? No one knows, and it remains an intriguing mystery. A quite macabre and recent disappearance and death in Death Valley happened in July of 2103, when Ryan Singleton, a 24-year-old former model and aspiring actor from Atlanta, Georgia, went out for a short vacation to Los Angeles. While he was there, he decided to rent a car and drive out to Las Vegas. On July 9, Singleton left Las Vegas to return back to Los Angeles, taking a route that passed right through the unforgiving Mojave Desert. At some point, his car broke down near the small town of Baker, after which he got out and began trudging towards the town along the dusty highway. A highway patrolman supposedly picked him up and offered to give him a ride into town, after which Singleton made a call to his friend from a gas station. He then sat down in the heavy heat to wait for his friend to come pick him up, and at some point disappeared off the face of the earth, being nowhere to be seen when the friend finally arrived.
Searches for the missing man turned up not a single shred of evidence as to what had become of him, and it would not be until 74 days later that his body would be found sprawled out in the desert just 2 miles from the gas station, in an area that had already been extensively searched. Spookily, the body was found to be missing nearly all of its internal organs, a very strange detail that authorities would be quick to dismiss as the work of scavengers, even though the rest of the body, including common targets of scavengers such as the eyes, tongue, and other soft tissue, had been relatively intact. The cause of death itself could not be determined and was listed as unknown. Making things even more mysterious is the fact that authorities have been very slow and unable or unwilling to provide further details or information, even to Singleton’s family, with his mother, Iris Flowers, saying:
I’m waiting for answers. I’m in a holding pattern right now. I don’t know anything other than that my son was found with no organs in his body.
There has been much speculation that Singleton met up with foul play of some sort, especially since he was not only African American, but also openly gay, but why would they kill him and take his organs? Indeed, there has been much attention placed on the state of the body, with its missing organs, and suspicion over the official statement that it was scavengers as well. The missing organs have rather been blamed on perhaps illegal organ thieves, or that it was the MO of some sadistic serial killer, but the real reason remains murky. It remains a rather bizarre detail that hasn’t been satisfactorily explained.
In fact, nothing about the case has really been explained to any meaningful degree, and it is shrouded in secrecy and unanswered questions. Chief among these is why would he wander away from the safety of the gas station when he knew his friend was on his way to pick him up, and even then how could he have gotten so totally lost and died just 2 miles away? If he was targeted by nefarious individuals then what was their motive and why would they drag him 2 miles out into the desert instead of just killing him right there at the gas station? And what about those missing organs? Was that done intentionally for some reason or was it the work of scavengers, as authorities seem to think or at least want us to think? What in the world happened to Ryan Singleton? It will likely continue to be another enigma of Death Valley.
These cases have proven hard to come to a conclusion on. After all, this is one of the most formidable, ruthless places on the planet, with a deadly, scorched landscape that makes it one of the most extreme places on the planet. It seems only natural that it should live up to its title of Death Valley. Yet these cases hold so many elements of the weird and strange details that they seem to go beyond merely people being overcome by an aggressive environment that shuns humans, and indeed life in general. Here we have curious clues, baffling evidence, and questions hopelessly without answers. Death Valley is a seemingly forsaken place that not only lives up to its namesake, but manages to hold about itself mysteries which we may never penetrate.