Sunday, June 20, 2010
Murder Mystery Lingers
By Leslie Linthicum
Journal Staff Writer
Two middle-age couples were on a summer vacation, driving from Illinois to California in a 1929 Nash. It was 1935, when a driving trip through the Southwest was still a big adventure.
George Lorius, a coal and ice company executive from East St. Louis, his wife, Laura, and the couple's friends Albert and Tillie Heberer, arrived in Vaughn on May 21 and spent the night at the Vaughn Hotel.
They got up early the next morning to eat breakfast in the hotel's cafe.
"And," says one of their relatives who is searching for answers 75 years later, "they were never seen again."
The mystery of the vanished tourists from Illinois quickly turned into a murder mystery. Some of their belongings were found in a smoldering pile on Albuquerque's east mesa; more luggage was found dumped in El Paso. The Nash, with evidence it had been in a couple of wrecks, was discovered abandoned in Dallas.
A string of traveler's checks, cashed with George Lorius' forged signature, followed the same general path.
The Lorius-Heberer search was huge, with teams of cops and G-men on the case. Stories about it were published in newspapers from Oregon to Pennsylvania.
Missing from this New Mexico murder mystery — and still missing 75 years later — were the bodies of the tourists and an arrest of their killer.
Don Ashcraft and his wife, Barbara, have a fat three-ring binder filled with tips and news clippings about the case. Laura Lorius, 54 when she disappeared, was Barbara's great-aunt. Barbara and Don, who live in Mississippi but were married in Albuquerque and have relatives here, have conducted their own investigation of the case on every one of their New Mexico vacations over the decades.
They would like to see an end to this whodunit, even though they realize the murderer is probably no longer alive.
It's not that the New Mexico State Police and the FBI haven't tried to crack the case. The search for the couples and their killer went in a dizzying number of directions and down a number of bizarre blind alleys. It was, by many accounts, the largest manhunt in New Mexico history.
The decades-old front pages of the Albuquerque Journal tell the story of excited leads and mounting disappointment as a hot 1935 summer wore on.
Every single State Police officer — all 27 of them at the time — along with 15 National Guardsmen, 20 members of the 111th Cavalry and 100-plus volunteering Albuquerqueans scoured the east mesas and Tijeras Canyon. A dragnet of vehicles and walkers six miles long combed the miles from Albuquerque to Willard. The search centered on Socorro. The search turned to Carrizozo. To San Marcial. To Gallup. To Quemado. To the Rio Puerco. To the Rio Grande.
A high-profile case attracts lots of junior detectives: Someone reported blood on a bush. Another a bloodstained bedspread. A woman in Madrid remembered two men borrowing a shovel at 2 a.m. and thought that might have been suspicious.
A pair of shorts turned up on the street in Gallup, and the search swung out there; that lead cooled when a transient claimed the shorts as his own.
Some 300 suspects were detained and questioned as police looked for a man fitting the description of the probable killer: a dark youth with a tattooed left arm and mismatched ears.
The Lorius-Heberer case came well before "America's Most Wanted" and 24-hour cable coverage that drops us into the middle of creepy crimes all over the country. Back then, four tourists swept up in fatal foul play and a killer on the loose was so unusual that the state's governor, Clyde Tingley, decamped from his office in Santa Fe to a suite at the Franciscan Hotel in Albuquerque to head up the search.
"They were guests of New Mexico; we intend to find their bodies and bring their killer to justice," he told United Press International.
And then the leads started to dry up. A heat wave settled in and the story fell off the front page. "Search For Missing Tourists at a Standstill" was the July 4 headline on a story that reported the governor had checked out of the Franciscan and returned to Santa Fe.
Seventy-five years later, theories about how the murder happened, who did it and where the bodies of the couples can be found are still swirling and contradicting each other.
And there's a new cop on the case.
In Thursday's column, we'll look at intriguing postcards, an anonymous eyewitness and the modern-day quest to solve the mystery.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Reach Leslie at 823-3914 or firstname.lastname@example.org.