Holes in the Desert

Exploring the Mojave’s strange habit of swallowing bodies

words by Kim Stringfellow
illustrations by
 Jesse Lenz




“A lot of holes in the desert, and a lot of problems are buried in those holes. Except you gotta do it right. I mean, you gotta have the hole already dug before you show up with a package in the trunk. Otherwise, you’re talking about a half-hour or 45 minutes of digging. And who knows who’s gonna be coming along in that time? Before you know it, you gotta dig a few more holes. You could be there all fuckin’ night.”

—Nicky Santoro, played by Joe Pesci in Casino (1995)

It is a moonless night, and the distant sound of rattling train cars is punctuated by the high-pitched grinding of metal as multiple engines begin their push up past the Kelso Depot. 

Centered in the vast, federally designated region known as Mojave National Preserve (MNP) bordered by I-40, I-15, and the Nevada state line, it was here that the familiar lore of the Wild West continued to play out into the 21st century. Nighttime train robberies occurred on a regular basis. And far bleaker criminal acts have transpired along the preserve’s transient periphery or within other publicly administered lands of the Mojave Desert.

In a 1998 article he wrote for the Seattle Times about these Union Pacific train robberies. Phil Garlington laid out vivid details of criminal exploits and those who attempted to thwart them, relating how mile-long, double-stacked freight cars burdened with consumer goods and merchandise fell prey to looters within the remote center of the preserve.

The thieves—mostly homeless, down-and-out types hired by gangs who had stowed away earlier in the day at the Yermo yards—would lie in wait for hours inside car “tubs” until the train began the steep ascent up the 18-mile-long Cima Grade just east of the depot. Those able to escape detection by Union Pacific officials and the assisting park rangers infiltrated and “liberated” the contents of the boxcars using hacksaws, bolt cutters, and other tools of the trade. The slow-moving trains with their potentially lucrative hauls provided easy pickings for the interlopers who were lucky if they did not get seriously injured in the process.

At pre-arranged geographical points, the bandits tossed out the goods where their accomplices waited in rented moving trucks ready to load up the booty—expensive electronics, Nikes, cigarettes, booze, or, if they were particularly unlucky, a boxcar filled with teddy bears. Scattered clothing, empty packaging, and other discarded debris were regularly found strewn along the rail lines. By the late 1990s, the railroad estimated that it was losing more than $1 million a month from Mojave National Preserve lootings.

In another incident (chronicled in a 2008 Los Angeles Times article), “75 flat-screen TVs worth more than $225,000” were been spotted during a 2005 aerial search of the area after MNP law enforcement rangers had run into two men sitting in an empty moving truck near a railroad crossing on a desolate stretch of road. Fumbling under the influence of alcohol, the duo couldn’t explain why they were there or how a bag of suspicious white powder happened to be lying within a few feet of their vehicle. The two were consequently arrested. The powder was determined to be cocaine—possibly a down payment for the botched flat-screen heist?

In the years since, Union Pacific has ramped up its security and managed to crack down and curtail these types of robberies.


An expanse of “nothingness”

Although the majority of visitors passing through the MNP do so without incident, others have sought this “nowhere between two somewheres” as an isolated, out-of-the-way destination to conduct a variety of illicit activities including methamphetamine production, wildlife poaching, theft, vandalism, illegal dumping, and the unlawful collection of animals, plants, and cultural artifacts.

In years past, rangers have discovered detritus and the lingering residues of a methamphetamine “cook” at abandoned ranch and mine structures within the preserve. Empty pseudoephedrine containers (over-the-counter sales of which are now controlled), lye, red phosphorus—all highly toxic chemicals and materials associated with clandestine meth production have been found alongside contaminated meth production equipment.

Makeshift meth labs were discovered in 1998 at Rainbow Wells and in 2001 at the New Trail Mine after two rangers found new locks on formally abandoned outbuildings during a routine patrol. When the rangers returned to the mine on the following day, they encountered four suspicious men driving away in a pickup. A search of their vehicle produced keys for the padlocks. And the ensuing investigation yielded “10 gallons of pure methamphetamine oil, valued at more than $50,000,” that had been waiting to be crystallized. The site cost taxpayers $20,000 to clean up.

Compounding the ecological ramifications of introducing these toxic chemicals into a wilderness environment is the fact that illicit drug manufacturers and their associates are known to be heavily armed and more than often high on their product, making an encounter by a ranger or unsuspecting recreationist extremely dangerous. The limited number of National Park Service (NPS) law enforcement rangers known to patrol the 1.6 million acres of the preserve has made regular monitoring of these types of remote sites difficult.

Fortunately, evidence of this type of methamphetamine production within the preserve has not been observed in recent years, a status largely attributed to the ability of meth cooks to make smaller, cheaper “shake and bake” batches using a two-liter plastic soda bottle rather than the complicated chemistry lab setup of the past.

More than 500,000 vehicles travel through the MNP annually. Many come here specifically for recreation, but others simply use its paved thoroughfares—the Kelbaker and Kelso-Cima roads—as a convenient, uncongested shortcut to Vegas from points farther north or south. While the majority of busts are for speeding over the park’s 55 mph limit, the expanse of perceived “nothingness” seems to encourage other kinds of criminal activity, including toxic-waste dumping along the preserve’s more accessible borders.


Over a four-month period in 1995, Gene and Louis LeFave—a father and son duo with a Las Vegas–based epoxy manufacturing business—dumped 97 drums of hazardous waste across a variety of public and private sites near Nipton Road to avoid paying the $1,000-per-barrel cost to legally dispose the toxic chemicals and adhesives. Barrels split open in washes, mortally trapping animals in a sticky residue. After 17-year-old Louis and an accomplice were caught red-handed on one of their dump runs, the LeFaves were arrested and eventually sentenced, with Gene receiving four years in prison plus $40,000 in fines. This fiasco cost taxpayers $170,000 to clean up the dumpsites.

Other criminal activities occurring here have involved the unlawful collection of plants and animals—the second most lucrative scheme occurring within public lands after illicit drug production and smuggling activities. In the late 1990s, the U.S. Department of the Interior launched “Operation Sweet Success” in an effort to combat the illegal collection of biznaga (or barrel cactus) by “an organized group of Hispanic workers” who sold them to competing production facilities in Los Angeles which, in turn, produced acitrón from its pulp, a jellied confectionery popular in Mexico. 

Officials estimated that collectors removed over 15,000 mature barrel cacti during the 1990s from federally managed lands for this purpose. Other cacti, including rare species belonging to the genera Mammillaria, Echinomastus, or Sclerocactus (commonly known as the delicate fishhook cactus) have been so extensively pilfered as ornamental specimens in some parts of the Mojave that they have nearly disappeared from their native regions entirely.

Wildlife poachers snatch, trap, or hunt a variety of mammals and reptiles throughout desert public lands, including the region’s more uncommon snakes, lizards, and even the federally protected desert tortoise. The perpetrators range from overzealous solitary hobbyists to organized commercial wholesalers who traffic specimens locally for profit or internationally to smuggling rings that trade either live and dead animals parts in black markets worldwide. “Collectors can make $2,000 a night driving the desert highways, picking up reptiles lying on the pavement, then selling the animals to the illicit pet trade.” A 1986 report from California Fish and Game stated that bighorn sheep guides leading illegal hunts were at the time pocketing between $15,000 to $60,000 per hunt for their services.


Hidden in the valley of death

These illicit enterprises are not restricted to the MNP. Over a five-year period during the mid-1980s, Joshua Tree National Park officials located 21 meth labs along the park’s remote eastern border, some housed in abandoned 1950s era “jackrabbit homesteads.” In the 1990s, a lone ranger on foot discovered a large-scale outdoor meth “cook” run by camping outlaw bikers in a secluded box canyon of southern Death Valley National Park. Although the ranger escaped unharmed from his close encounter, in the aftermath, several of the rangers closely involved with the bust were transferred out of the area for protection—one under an assumed name because of vengeful threats posed by the biker gang.

Death Valley will be forever linked to the Manson Family, who occupied both Barker and Myers ranches located in the Panamint Range over two years during the late 1960s. The Family first moved out to these isolated ranch properties in 1968, after Catherine Gillies, one of the Manson “girls,” suggested her grandfather Myers’ ranch as a secluded and inaccessible place for the group to hide out. It has been proposed that Arlene Barker then agreed to let them stay at Barker Ranch after Manson gave her a Beach Boys gold record supposedly stolen from Dennis Wilson’s home.

During 1968 and 1969, the Family intermittently occupied the properties—fleeing there after the Tate-LaBianca murders took place in August 1969—until their tenure ended during a routine two-day police raid in October 1969 for suspected auto theft and arson after a bulldozer was found torched in nearby Racetrack Valley. Consequently, local law enforcement targeted the ragtag group as possible suspects. At the very end of the raid, the 5-foot-2-inch Manson was found cowering in a bathroom cabinet. Manson’s captors were unaware that they had an infamous psychopathic cult leader in their custody, and that he had recently persuaded his followers to commit multiple murders on his behalf. Thirty years later, detectives would return to Barker Ranch to investigate a tip that several undiscovered bodies had been buried there. The consequent investigation yielded no human remains. Barker Ranch fell victim to arson in May 2009, and only the structure’s stone walls and one outbuilding remain standing.

In March of 2000, Death Valley was the scene of a two-day hunt for a heavily armed threesome including a middle-aged man, his son, and his girlfriend who had robbed a Nevada bank and had holed up in a ravine not too far from the Furnace Creek airport. Eventually the suspects surrendered but not after having shot and forced a California Highway Patrol helicopter to crash land during the first day of the ordeal.


Illegal marijuana growing operations sited on publicly managed desert lands now comprise most of the most recent illegal drug production related offenses. Pot growers prefer to use government land not only for its perceived isolation, but also because laws allow the government to seize private property used in drug production—which can be avoided by siting them within public land or park boundaries and living elsewhere.

Recent multi-agency busts such as Operation Mountain Sweep have targeted and successfully destroyed a number of illegal grows in public lands across seven western states in 2012, including one located in Death Valley. These operations take a severe toll on the environment in lieu of the current drought since marijuana cultivation requires profuse amounts of water, pesticides and fertilizers to thrive and produce. Police cleaning up and remediating these sites ends up costing taxpayers of millions of dollars annually.

One of the more mundane but increasingly costly issues facing the BLM is the identification and cleanup of those who illegally dump hazardous or nonhazardous wastes including spent motor oil, paint, unidentified toxic chemicals, tires, dead animals, abandoned vehicles, household trash, and other refuse into the open desert. In 2015, the BLM’s California Desert District’s Hazardous Materials Progam removed over 55 tons of trash throughout the Mojave Desert, which costs around $100,000 annually. Defunct mining operations and other abandoned industrial enterprises continue to litter and pollute the surrounding desert with toxic tailings that can potentially seep and contaminate groundwater resources. Discarded heavy equipment that is “scrapped” illegally often releases fuel and toxic chemicals and leaves the site in a dangerous condition after the pilferers take what they are after and leave unwanted refuse exposed. But dumping in the desert truly takes on a far more sinister twist when it comes to getting rid of human remains.


No one to hear you scream

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Countless cinematic and literary depictions echo Joe Pesci’s infamous Casino voiceover to suggest that casual acts of violence are taking place at any given time in the fictionalized backdrop of the Mojave Desert. But does this imagined culture of violence actually exist?

“On average, we only find one or two per year,” says Sergeant Don Lupear, a homicide detective for San Bernardino County whose jurisdiction covers the largest part of the Mojave Desert policed by any law enforcement agency within its boundaries. He explained that victims and their perpetrators are, in most cases, tied somehow to the location were the body is found. Hikers stumble upon the deceased occasionally, but more often than not bodies are discovered by off-highway vehicle (OHV) enthusiasts near a road of some kind.

Considering that much of the Mojave Desert is within three miles of some type of thoroughfare, it makes sense how one might go about such a repugnant task if deemed necessary. The reason is obvious—the deceased are dead weight, so the quickest to dispose of a “package” is to transport the body to a secluded spot by vehicle. Occasionally, evidence suggests that the deceased are “dispatched” where originally found. In most cases, however, investigators determine that the unfortunate victim was slain elsewhere and transported to the spot with the body bagged, dumped, buried, burned, or disposed of in some combination thereof.

On November 13, 2013, a dirt biker discovered partially unearthed human remains off Quarry Road in an OHV recreation area just northeast of Victorville, California. This grim discovery, a mere stone’s throw from the heavily traveled Interstate-15, was the later confirmed to be the missing McStay family. The couple along with their two young sons had mysteriously vanished without of a trace on February 4, 2010, from their home in Fallbrook, California, some 100 miles south of where they had been hastily buried. Apparently, Chase Merritt, Joseph McStay’s former business partner who is accused and currently awaiting trial for the murders, has ties with the town of Apple Valley, the next town over from the crime scene. Cases like this confirm that the Mojave Desert’s high-speed vehicular corridors bordering the Mojave National Preserve and other publicly managed areas have indeed served as a convenient, out-of-the-way place to get rid of unwanted bodies.

Over the past 15 years, there have been several grisly discoveries near I-15 or I-40 between Barstow and the Nevada State line, including 19-year-old Jodi Brewer, a sex worker who disappeared from Las Vegas in August 2003. Brewer’s torso—found along the preserve’s Cima Road off-ramp entry point a few weeks after she first disappeared—was identified by her tattoos: a hummingbird above her left breast and an “M” with a star on her lower back. No other body parts were recovered. Her murder has since been connected to suspected serial killer Neal Falls, who was shot and killed in July 2015 by another potential victim, this time in West Virginia.

A wayward beagle from Newberry Springs rummaging along the I-40 returned to its owner with a severed human foot with a stub of a leg in September 2012. The sheriff’s search of the highway revealed additional human remains, triggering a murder investigation. The burnt skeletal remains of an unidentified female were found in 2010 off Zzyzx Road, west of I-15 near Baker, California. That same year, the severed head of a Hispanic teenage girl thought to be between 14 and 19 years old was found concealed in a backpack left on Lenwood Road west of I-15 in Barstow, California.

Another unidentified female, referred to as the “Nipton Jane Doe,” was found on May 30, 1976, in an abandoned mine on Clark Mountain near Nipton, California, located at the northeastern edge of the preserve near the Nevada border. The cause of death was a shotgun blast to the back of the victim’s head. Her body had been discarded like a worn ragdoll in a dank mineshaft with the time of her death estimated to be four to six days earlier. The National Unidentified Persons Data System case file noted that she had “reddish-brown hair [and] was found clad only in a blue and white bathing suit.”

Not all unidentified victims have met violent ends. Human remains in various stages of decomposition have been found over the years in out-of-the-way locations and are not necessarily the result of foul play. Ancient sun-bleached bones of long deceased Native Americans turn up often, as do those of recreationists who lacked caution, or a down-on-their-luck undocumented transnational who succumbed to either daytime’s relentless heat or the near-freezing chill of the nighttime desert.

Still, without a doubt the Mojave has witnessed some truly bizarre and senseless acts over the years. Consider the 2012 kidnapping, torture, and attempted extortion of a successful Orange County marijuana dispensary owner and his female housemate, left tied up together at a secluded desert location off California State Route 14. A Kern County deputy found the woman wandering the desert after she managed to escape. The four suspects charged and currently awaiting trial for the crime allegedly beat, burned, and doused the man with bleach in an effort to cover DNA evidence before severing his penis. Somehow, the poor fellow managed to survive. Officials said that the group’s motive revolved around their idea that the targeted gentleman had been “burying piles of cash in the desert,” which they had planned to retrieve—a tired cinematic cliché reworked in many B-rated films, television shows, video games and other paltry fictions.


True crime in the high desert

Los Angeles–based author Deanne Stillman has received numerous accolades and awards for her meticulous location-based nonfiction exposés of true crime in the Mojave and the Great Basin deserts. The extreme arid geographies of the American Southwest take on starring roles with each prominently featured in her three most recent books, including Desert Reckoning: A Town Sheriff, a Mojave Hermit, and the Biggest Manhunt in Modern California History (2012); Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West (2009); and Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines, and the Mojave (2001).

Stillman explores and exposes her characters’ vexing and troubled relationships against the High Desert as backdrop. Often, her careful research reveals that these individuals have been thrust into bleak existential situations through despair, life circumstance, economic downturn, or just plain bad luck. Her protagonists are as vivid as those of a Tom Waits’ song in her precise crafting of their persona and personal histories. She writes, “It’s a terrain of savage dignity, a vast amphitheater of startling wonders that put on a show as the megalopolis burrows northward into the region’s last frontier. Ranchers, cowboys, dreamers, dropouts, bikers, hikers, and felons have settled here—those who have chosen solitude over the trappings of contemporary life or simply have nowhere else to go.”

Donald Kueck, the ticking-time-bomb but resourceful hermit documented in Stillman’s third book, Desert Reckoning, is one such character. Kueck, known by local law enforcement as a solitary meth addict who squatted in a ramshackle trailer on the edge of Llano, California, was sensitive of the desert animals that visited him daily, and he enjoyed building and launching rockets, but he was equally capable of murder. This was confirmed when he shot down well-liked and respected Los Angeles County Deputy Sheriff Steve Sorensen multiple times with a .223 caliber assault rifle on August 2, 2003. Reports stated that Sorensen drew his weapon only after Kueck had shot him. Ominously, the two had a run-in nine years earlier after Sorensen had pulled Kueck over during a routine traffic stop.

Authorities located Kueck nearly a week later hiding out in nearby Lake Los Angeles. Remarkably, he had managed to remain under their radar due to his formidable survivalist skills plus multiple secret caches of food, water, and ammunition hidden across the desert. Although he had admitted to the murder via cell phone, Kueck adamantly refused to surrender, subsequently dying during a violent standoff when the shed he was holed up in burst into flames when a road flare ignited a tear gas canister that law enforcement had tossed into Kueck’s hideout. Sorensen’s widow, who was staying with family and friends nearby, was said to have commented afterward, “I wanted to see [Kueck] burn in hell, but I guess Lake Los Angeles will have to do.”

Stillman’s second book, Twentynine Palms, was the result of 10 years to research and outlines in painstaking detail the vicious rape and murder of Rosalie Ortega, a 20-year-old single mother, along with her friend and 15-year-old baby sitter, Mandi Scott. Coincidentally, the crime took place on the same day that Kueck shot Sorensen—August 2—but in 1991 in Twentynine Palms, California, home to the largest Marine base in the world. The convicted murderer, 29-year-old Valentine Underwood, a Marine lance corporal who had recently returned from the Gulf War, stabbed each woman 33 times “because it was his favorite number.”

Stillman’s on-site research was aided by her close relationship with the victim’s families—especially Mandi’s mother, Debie McMaster, who worked as a bartender in a popular Twentynine Palms bar frequented by local Marines—and ultimately resulted in a portrait of those who dwell in America’s margins.  Stillman recounts the girls’ arrival in the Mojave Desert and their collision course with Underwood, whose history of sexual assaults on women included the rape of a sergeant major’s daughter six weeks before the rape and murder of Mandi and Rosie. The prior assaults were overlooked because he was a star on the Marine basketball team. But, as Stillman notes, it was a Marine investigator who helped break the case, along with San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputies and other witnesses. After a prolonged six-year trial, Underwood was finally convicted with “DNA evidence, bloody handprints, and a serious and fresh cut on his hand” that a trial witness had observed the day after the murders occurred.

Stillman’s notorious characterization of Twentynine Palms divided the town, with some locals concerned that the portrayal would drive business away from a region that depends on the Marine Corps and tourism for its primary sources of income. While Stillman was working on her book, she was the subject of public attacks via newspaper editorials and articles. Among other locals however, Stillman’s book was celebrated and widely circulated. Many felt that someone was finally bearing witness to their stories and understood that Stillman was writing about a side of the desert that generally goes unnoticed.

Today, the town continues its holding pattern, appearing much as it did before the murders transpired—neither better nor worse. To the extent that Stillman’s Twentynine Palms had an impact on the town’s economic growth has yet to be determined.

Unfortunately, crimes committed against women by former or active-duty Marines stationed here have not ended with the Scott/Ortega murders. Former Marine Christopher Brandon Lee, 24, was arrested on August 18, 2014, for allegedly murdering Erin Corwin, 19, his next-door neighbor and wife of a fellow Marine. Lee and Corwin began an affair while the two were living at an apartment building on base at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center north of downtown Twentynine Palms. Two days prior to Lee’s arrest and nearly eight weeks after she had initially disappeared, Corwin’s badly decomposed body was found at the bottom of the 140-foot “Rose of Peru” mine at the eastern edge of Joshua Tree National Park. Several weeks before her body was discovered, law enforcement began searching more than 100 abandoned mineshafts in the area. News reports stated that Corwin might have been several months pregnant at the time of her death.

Corwin’s text messages to a friend on the last day she was known to be alive suggested that she expected a marriage proposal from Lee (who was himself married) during a planned “hunting trip” with him that same day. Her portentous text read: “He said he’s honestly not sure how I’m going to react … Seriously, I don’t know why he would drag me to a very special place … for a big dumb surprise.” Various news outlets commented that Lee had previously bragged to his neighbors repeated times on several occasions “he knew where to hide a body.”

It appears that he did just that.