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A Strange Disappearance, a Hit Song, and the Mysterious Deaths of Lela and Raymond Howard

It began as an exciting trip. Every year, the elderly couple Lela, 83, and Raymond Howard, 88, took a drive out from their home in from Salado, Texas, to go to a music festival in the nearby town of Temple. It wasn’t a long way, just about 15 miles, so when Lela’s son begged to let him drive them, they refused, instead opting to take the trip just the two of them as they always had. Although Lela’s son, Hal Copeland, was concerned due to Lela’s signs of early Alzheimer’s disease, as well as the fact that Raymond had suffered a stroke not long before, he grudgingly allowed them to continue with their plans. However, when they drove onto the road on June 29th, 1997 in their Oldsmobile, perhaps no one had any idea that they would never be seen alive again, and that they were about to embark on what the media would call “a trip to nowhere,” which would begin a great unsolved mystery and inspire a hit song.

The couple never returned, and as the day wore on with still no sign of them, their family became concerned. Police were notified, and they soon found an employee at a Walmart in Temple who said he had seen the couple come in there for coffee that afternoon, but that was about it. As the search intensified, some surprising leads would come in. A Sherriff’s deputy in Arkansas would recall pulling the couple over on the evening of July 2 for driving with their headlights off, at a location 500 miles from where they had started and nowhere near Temple or Salado. The deputy claimed that the had couple told them that they were trying to get to Texas, so he gave them directions and let them off with a warning, not realizing that they were officially missing persons. Not long after that they were pulled over again by another officer for having their high beams on, and again they were let off with a warning. On July 3, the couple was seen at a farmer’s market in Arkansas and a massive search was carried out in the region to look for the wayward lovers. It was not known how they had gotten so far without being found, as Texas had had people carefully scouring the roads in and out.

Lela and Raymond Howard

In the meantime, when the couple’s residence was searched there were myriad oddities found. The calendar had been opened to February, despite the fact they had left in June, their hearing aids had been left behind, and there were clothes folded up on the bed presumably for their trip but which had never been actually packed. Their pet cat had also been left with no food or water, and the TV and other appliances were unplugged. It was thought that this was all a sign of their worsening mental deterioration, making it more urgent than ever that they be found. Authorities scoured every back road and wilderness area, every roadhouse and outhouse, helped along by a legion of civilian volunteers and countless missing persons posters, but although there were lots of reported sightings and potential leads, nothing panned out. And then there was tragedy. On July 12th, nearly two weeks after they had gone missing, some hikers were in an area just outside Hot Springs, Arkansas, found the missing Oldsmobile at the bottom of a 25-foot cliff in an area that had already been well-searched by police. Inside the car was the body of Raymond Howard, and 20 feet away was found that of Lela, still clutching her keys and purse, having apparently crawled from the wreckage to die of her injuries. The car was found to have gone hurtling over the edge at a speed of around 50 mph, with no skid marks to show that they had even tried to avert their fate. It was a sad end to the story, still leaving many questions behind, but in a sense it was still not the end.

During the time when there were articles all over the newspapers covering the strange disappearance, these headlines had captured the attention of the Texas-based musician and songwriter Tony Scalzo, who first heard of the case in a headline “Elderly Salado couple missing on a trip to nowhere.” He became absolutely obsessed with this strange tale of two old lovers on a road trip our on their own, crafting it into a hit song called “The Way” for his band “Fastball.” The song was first a smash hit single, and would help propel their 1998 2nd studio album All the Pain Money Can Buy! into the stratosphere, making them superstars overnight. Scalzo would later say of the case of the Howards and how it inspired the song:

I looked in, right away this story sort of struck me. It was sort of an ongoing story. Still no developments in the case of the missing couple. I just started getting these ideas, well maybe they don’t want to be found, maybe they’re just like – they’re sick of being responsible and they just want to go out and have fun. I believe that the song, in particular, it’s a strong song. I think it’s a strong song musically, it’s a strong song in the way it was put together musically and lyrically, I think it’s one of the best things I’ve done. At the same time, I think a lot of its power comes from the story behind it. And I somehow put together this musical piece that was enhanced by the story, and I also believe the story, for the family and the people involved, was enhanced by the song.

Fastball

The song was released one year after the bodies were found, as a sort of memorial to the missing couple, immortalizing the story, although most people at the time had no idea of the background behind the hit. Of course it is a romanticized version, but a version that a lot of people would like to embrace rather that the official prognosis that these were just disillusioned, senile people who got lost and had an unfortunate random accident. There is a certain romantic idea to it, and some form of strength in the idea that maybe they went out on their own terms, and had found some peace on their impromptu road trip. One Reddit user “Frank N. Futter” had a surprisingly profound take on it, saying:

What was going through their heads as their car plunged off the cliff edge? Fear? Confusion? I’d like to think otherwise. Perhaps, in that moment, it wasn’t 1997 anymore. Maybe it was a much earlier time for them. Maybe their damaged psyches spared them from the sad reality. Perhaps in that moment for Lela and Raymond, there were no more medications, no more hearing aids, and no more doctor’s appointments. No aching joints, no glasses, no operations, no pacemakers, no forgetting, and no more confusion. Maybe in that moment, and for their entire trip, Lela and Raymond saw themselves as a newly-wed couple, their young skin perpetually gleaming in the summer sun, Lela in her best white wedding dress and Raymond in his finest black tuxedo. Maybe they envisioned a “JUST MARRIED” sign hanging on the back of their rear window, and empty soupcans tied to their rear bumper. I wonder if they held hands. Maybe when Lela and Raymond Howard drove off that cliff in Arkansas in 1997, they weren’t scared. Maybe they were smiling.

While the song had managed to make sure the couple has never been forgotten, ensuring they did not become nameless faces lost to history, there is still much we do not understand about this strange case. Why did they go off on this adventure far away from their original destination? How could they slip through the massive search going on for them at the time and how exactly did they end up at the bottom of that cliff? Was this just the tragic tale of two senile old people biting off more than they could chew or is there something more to it? It had never been totally solved, and it is sad to think that if it hadn’t been made into a hit song it might have all faded into obscurity forever.