Thursday, June 24, 2010
New Hope in 75-Year-Old Murder Mystery
By Leslie Linthicum
Journal Staff Writer
Second of Two Parts
You might think that a murder mystery would mellow over three-quarters of a century, that theories would narrow and interest would wane.
Part One: Murder Mystery Lingers June 20
But the Lorius-Heberer disappearance of 1935 is quite alive.
Agent Norman Rhoades of the New Mexico State Police has not officially reopened the kidnapping/murder case because, as an unsolved homicide, it has never been officially closed. But Rhoades, a crime scene investigator, has taken the cold case on as his mission.
Despite the passage of time, he's hard at work trying to locate the remains of four bodies, which are most likely desiccated bones today, and to identify a killer, who is most likely dead.
In Sunday's column, I told you about the intense search back in 1935 for the bodies of George and Laura Lorius and Albert and Tillie Heberer, tourists from Illinois, after they disappeared in New Mexico on a Southwestern road trip.
The search for the two couples and a hunt for their killer captivated people here for months after a trail of forged travelers checks led to Dallas, where the Loriuses' auto, a 1929 Nash, was found wrecked and abandoned.
In 75 years, the case has not been solved. More curiously, the four bodies have never been found.
Identifying the killer is Rhoades' primary concern. Finding the burial site and retrieving the bodies is what drives Barbara and Don Ashcraft to compile thick books of information on the case and make pilgrimage after pilgrimage from their home in Mississippi to New Mexico.
Laura Lorius was Barbara's great-aunt, and the Ashcrafts would like to see this disturbing chapter of family history closed and Laura Lorius' body taken back to Illinois.
Both the Ashcrafts and Rhoades have their theories about what happened and where the bodies are buried. And, considering the icy temperature of this cold case, they are surprisingly circumspect about details.
"Our contention is that the bodies are still in Vaughn, although I'm not at liberty to divulge why at this point," Don Ashcraft told me.
"I've got some theories about where they are," Rhoades said, then refused to elaborate. "The suspect I'm thinking of, he's dead. A long time ago. If the scenario that I'm looking at is true, then that's why the bodies were never found."
Rhoades has combed through volumes of reports in the State Police records division; his timeline of events and interviews stretches 141 pages. A lot of the information came from the FBI, which at one time had files on the case that reached a 6-foot stack.
Two postcards among all that evidence convince Rhoades that the couples left the little town of Vaughn, where they had spent the night at the Vaughn Hotel, early in the morning on May 22 and headed toward Albuquerque. He believes they used what, at the time, was one of the better-used and more direct routes — Route 66 from Santa Rosa, north to near Las Vegas and then to Albuquerque through Santa Fe.
"Came through this place in a.m. No trouble of any kind," was the note jotted on one of the cards, which featured Starvation Peak near Las Vegas and was postmarked from Albuquerque around noon on May 22. "Going to Boulder Dam, then to Los Angeles," it said.
Josephine Ward, a clerk at the Sturges Hotel in Albuquerque, swore to investigators that the couples came to the hotel that afternoon inquiring about renting rooms.
"Then they said, "Let's just rent a room for an hour to take a bath,'" Rhoades said. "It cost them a buck. They said they were going to go on to Gallup, try to make Gallup by nightfall."
Rhoades' theory has them leaving Albuquerque and being waylaid by the killer somewhere west of town.
"I don't think they ever reached Gallup," he says.
Why would four cautious middle-aged travelers on a pleasure trip rush out of Albuquerque to hit a desolate stretch of Route 66 near nightfall?
Maybe they misjudged the distance or maybe they needed to make up some time. Rhoades doesn't have a good theory.
The trail the Ashcrafts follow begins and ends in Vaughn.
In their scenario, the couples arrived in Vaughn on the third day of their trip (they had mailed postcards home from Miami and Sayre, Okla., on the first and second nights on the road). The postcard from Vaughn said, "Well, here we are in New Mexico, where we will probably spend the night."
They had an early breakfast in the hotel's cafe the next morning, May 22. An eyewitness put them at the cafe about 6 a.m. On the Loriuses' agenda for the trip was to visit a nurse who had once cared for him while he was ill, and who had moved to Vaughn. The Ashcrafts assume the couples met with the nurse that morning.
Barbara Ashcraft's late great-uncle, Albuquerque real estate agent Walter Duke, who spent his life investigating the case and compiling a thick file of his own, believed the couples met their killer and their end in Vaughn.
When I press Don for details, he tells me that in 1963 Duke received a letter from a women who identified herself as a waitress in Belen who said she worked in Vaughn in 1935 and witnessed the murders.
"She said she was present when the people were taken into the basement of a cafe and were murdered," Don Ashcraft said. "Said they poured some concrete on top of them and left them there."
Neither the Vaughn Hotel nor that cafe exists anymore. The Ashcrafts believe the search for bodies needs to focus on concrete slabs in Vaughn.
But how did the couples' belongings get to Albuquerque, where they were found burned near where Nob Hill sits today? And what about the postcards mailed from Albuquerque?
The Ashcrafts posit that the couples were killed during a robbery and that there was more than one crook. They believe one headed to Albuquerque to mail the postcard found, pre-written, in the car and to dump the belongings to throw off the police. The other crook headed south in the Nash.
Here's a chilling piece of information to bolster that theory: On May 22, before she knew anything was amiss on her sister's vacation, Laura Lorius' sister woke up with a fright in Illinois and told her husband that her sister had come to her in a dream and said, "I've been murdered and buried under the floor of an old building. You'll have trouble finding me."
So the Ashcrafts center their search on Vaughn, while Rhoades is focused on points west of Albuquerque.
Who's on the right trail? Maybe you know.
If you have any information that might help the police or concerned relatives end this mystery, give me a call and I'll pass it along.
We don't want to have to revisit this cold case on its 100th anniversary.
UpFront is a daily front-page opinion column. Leslie Linthicum can be reached at 823-3914 or firstname.lastname@example.org.