Let’s talk about it: Gary Mathias and his four friends

When I initially wrote up the 1978 disappearance of Gary Dale Mathias and the deaths of his four friends several years ago, the case seemed, although incredibly horrific and tragic, to be pretty self-explanatory:

Five mentally disabled guys get lost while driving around in a blizzard, get their car stuck in the snow in a wilderness area, try to hike to safety but instead wind up dying slowly and horribly of exposure and starvation. Only four bodies are found, but that’s no surprise, given the timeline and the wilderness surroundings.

Sad, but not all that mysterious.

Then a little over a week ago I stumbled across this Washington Post article about the disappearance of Mathias and the deaths of his friends (Jack Madruga, Jackie Huett, Theodore Weiher and William Sterling), and I realized the case was a LOT weirder than I had originally thought.

Let’s break down some of the weirdness here:

  1. At least two of the five men were higher-functioning than I had originally believed. Although they were all enrolled in a day program for mentally handicapped adults, Mathias wasn’t (contrary to what I’d heard) mentally handicapped but instead had schizophrenia. And he was apparently quite high-functioning when he was on his meds. Madruga was considered “slow” but hadn’t been diagnosed as mentally disabled. Both Mathias and Madruga had served in the Army and had driver’s licenses.
  2. The group’s car, although it was stopped in the snow on a mountain road, was NOT truly stuck. The engine worked, the car had gas, it was still on the road, and if the men had tried they could have gotten it going again.
  3. There’s evidence to suggest that whoever was driving that car at the time it was abandoned was not lost and knew what they were doing. All the maps were in the glove compartment — you’d think that if they had been lost they’d have consulted the maps. Furthermore, the article notes, This heavy American car, with a low-hanging muffler and presumably with five full-grown men inside, had wound up a stretch of tortuously bumpy mountain road – apparently in total darkness – without a gouge or dent or thick mudstain to show for it. The driver had either used astonishing care and precision, the investigators figured, or else he knew the road well enough to anticipate every rut. Except this definitely doesn’t apply to Madruga, Mathias or any of the five.
  4. They found Weiher’s body in a forest service trailer nearly twenty miles from where the car was abandoned. He’d died of starvation and exposure. Yet inside or near to the trailer were matches, propane, items that could be used for fuel (books etc.), and enough food to last a year.
  5. Next to Weiher’s body in the trailer was a watch that didn’t belong to any of the five men.
  6. Perhaps strangest of all, there was a witness who may have seen the men on the mountain road the night they disappeared. A guy named Joseph Shones drove up the road at 5:30 p.m. and his car got stuck in the snow, just 50 meters from where Madruga’s car was later found. While he was digging himself out, he keeled over from what turned out to be a mild heart attack. He got inside his car and waited there for several hours, with the lights on and the engine running, and at some point he heard “whistling” noises and saw what he thought were a group of men and a woman with a baby, walking in the light of another vehicle’s headlights. Shones called for help and the lights turned off and the whistling sounds stopped. A few hours later he saw flashlight beams outside his car and called out for help again, but immediately the lights went out. Shones stayed in his car until it ran out of gas, then walked eight miles down to get help, passing Madruga’s car on the way. He didn’t think much about what he’d seen until he heard about the disappearances.

The whole thing has me scratching my head — I don’t understand how these young men could have fallen so badly to pieces that they would have abandoned an operable vehicle in the middle of a blizzard, and then starved and froze for months in a building with food and fuel, then abandon said building when one of their number died. And the business with Joseph Shones’s account throws an even bigger monkey wrench into it.

I wonder if they saw something, or thought they saw something, that night that scared the bejesus out of them and made them behave this way. Perhaps some kind of group psychosis.

There’s no evidence of foul play here and no evidence that Gary Mathias somehow survived. I just wonder what caused all this to happen.

Let’s talk about it.

Let’s talk about it: Bryan Hayes and Mark Degner

I find the disappearance of best friends Mark Anthony Degner and Bryan Andrew Hayes puzzling and troubling. They’ve been missing from Jacksonville, Florida since February 1, 2005 — twelve years, nearly twelve and a half.

At first the circumstances of the boys’ cases look pedestrian enough: they were living in a group home, told friends they were going to run away, and apparently did just that. They were even sighted in Holly Hill, a small town south of Jacksonville on the Florida coast, two months later.

And yet.

The boys, at just twelve (Mark) and thirteen (Bryan), were extremely young to have been gone this long. Bryan had run away before, but never for longer than a day, and Mark had no history of running away. Furthermore, they were developmentally delayed, functioning on the level of seven- to ten-year-old children, and both suffered from bipolar disorder.

How could they have remained off the map this long? Did the boys meet with foul play? If they’re still alive, why haven’t they resurfaced and who’s helping them stay hidden? Were relatives investigated? Were some member or members of the boys’ families unhappy that they were living in a group home? Or is it possible they fell victim to sex trafficking? Due to their disabilities. I should think they would have been extremely vulnerable to any kind of exploitation — even more so than most runaways.

The case reminds me of Clayton Lynn McCarter and Rodney Michael Scott, who ran away from a Bowling Green, Kentucky children’s home three and a half years ago and still haven’t been found. They were almost the same age: fifteen and thirteen. Clayton was developmentally delayed and had psychiatric issues, just like Mark and Bryan, and there’s a good chance Rodney had similar problems though I don’t know that for sure. I’m not suggesting McCarter/Scott disappearances are related to Mark and Bryan’s, though, given the distance in both time and space.

So what do you think happened to Mark Degner and Bryan Hayes? Let’s talk about it.

Let’s talk about it: Mimi Boomhower

This time I’d like us all to discuss one of my oldest cases: Mimi Boomhower, who’s been missing for nearly 70 years. She disappeared from Los Angeles in 1949, at the age of 48, and was never seen again. Her case got a fair amount of attention at the time, probably because her deceased husband had been a wealthy businessman and Mimi herself was quite the socialite. Contemporary press articles often called her “the merry widow.”

Mimi was childless and her closest living relatives were siblings who lived on the East Coast, but she had plenty of friends, and they all swore that it was completely unlike her to just drop out of sight without telling anyone where she was going. Yet I found a seeming contradiction in the news accounts: when she DID drop out of sight, her friends assumed she’d just gone off on a short trip and would be back in her own sweet time, and so she wasn’t reported missing for the better part of a week. I have to wonder if her friends knew more than they disclosed.

The only trace of her they ever found was her purse, which got left in a phone booth with a note saying “We found this on the beach Thursday night.” The police never found out who left it there, but they noted the purse didn’t look like it had been exposed to sand or water. And anyone who’s been anywhere near a beach knows that sand gets into everything.

It’s worth noting that, although she kept up appearances, she was having financial problems and was pawning things and selling other things at a loss and taking out loans and so on. A judge found it necessary to declare her legally dead a whopping eleven days after she was last seen, just in order to allow her attorney access to her accounts so he could keep paying on her home equity loan and the bank wouldn’t foreclose on her house. (The judge subsequently reversed his decision and declared that Mimi was legally alive after all. Seven years later, she was declared dead a second time. Shrug.) Mimi’s furniture and her late husband’s big game trophies were sold off after she disappeared to cover her debts, and I learned that one of the buyers discovered his new elephant head had tusks made of plaster-of-paris rather than ivory — presumably Mimi had sold off the ivory earlier.

Nevertheless, she can’t have been TOO hard-up. She was wearing $25,000 worth of jewelry when she disappeared, after all. That’s $25,000 in 1949 dollars, too. Factor in inflation and that jewelry would be worth over $250,000 today.

Mimi’s friends and associates all said she was neither suicidal nor thinking of eloping. One of her closest friends was quoted as saying, “We’ve ruled out everything but foul play.” Yet they couldn’t think of anyone who had a reason to hurt her, either.

Offhand the only sensible explanation I can think of is this: Mimi had arranged to meet someone, possibly to talk about selling or pawning more of her jewelry or something. Maybe this person was of the sketchy variety and that’s why she didn’t tell her friends about it. And this person, rather than buying whatever Mimi was selling, simply killed her and took it for himself.

But in that case, where’s the body? And can there have really been NO SUSPECTS AT ALL over the years? ‘Tis a puzzlement.

Let’s talk about it.

FINALLY another “Let’s Talk About It”

It’s been awhile since I did my last “Let’s Talk About It” case, but I haven’t given up on them. This week is a double disappearance: Diamond Bynum and her her two-year-old nephew, King Rajan Walker, who disappeared on July 25, 2015.

Diamond was 21 and suffered from Prader-Willi Syndrome, a genetic condition characterized mainly by mental disability and a constant feeling of hunger. If not kept supervised, people with this condition will just eat and eat and eat until they get sick. At 4’10, Diamond weighed well over 200 pounds, and she had the mental capacity of a five- to seven-year-old.

She had recently moved with her parents to Gary, Indiana, and her nephew, King Walker, was visiting. Apparently the two of them slipped out while Grandma was taking a nap. Diamond regularly walked in the neighborhood in the town where she used to live, but that was safer because she’d lived there all her life and the locals knew her and knew she was disabled and looked out for her.

But she wasn’t familiar with Gary, and, well, Gary is an awful place. It’s regularly ranked as one of the ten most dangerous cities in the country and something like one-fifth of the population lives under the poverty line. The city is a swath of urban decay, with all sorts of ramshackle abandoned buildings — it’s really sad.

I think this case would have gotten more media attention if Diamond and King had been white, or more affluent, or at least disappeared from a more affluent area. But I do have to wonder what happened to them.

Foul play seems like an obvious answer…but why? The family seems to be in the clear. An extensive search of the neighborhood, all those abandoned buildings, turned up doodly squat. No one seems to know anything. I can’t think of a kidnapper or a serial killer or a human trafficker who would want BOTH a very overweight, mentally disabled young woman AND a two-year-old boy. It seems like one or the other should have turned up.

So what caused these two to disappear? Let’s talk about it.

Let’s talk about it: Zaylee Fryar

Zaylee Grace Fryar would have turned seven years old in January, assuming she’s still alive. She’s been missing from Millersville, Tennessee since the age of three and a half months.

Late in the evening May 1, 2011, Zaylee’s mom, Shauna Fryar, took her out, supposedly to go to the store, but probably to buy drugs. Shauna can’t have planned to stay out long, because she left everything behind, including Zaylee’s diaper bag — I’m given to understand that’s a kind of essential item when you’re dealing with an infant. In any case, mother and daughter never returned.

(I need to insert a word here about Shauna’s domestic situation: she was married and the mother of eight children, but most of them, including Zaylee, weren’t her husband’s. They both saw other people and were on more of a friendship basis with each other. Shauna’s husband was at the hospital when Zaylee was born, and invited them to crash at his place as they were homeless. Zaylee’s biological father was in jail at the time Shauna and Zaylee disappeared.)

Five days later, Shauna’s body was pulled out of the Cumberland River in Nashville, less than twenty miles south of Millersville. For a very long time the cops had nothing to say about her death, the cause, anything. It wasn’t until 2015 that they finally disclosed she’d been the victim of a homicide and they thought she’d been killed in Millersville and dumped in Nashville. They also said they had suspects. They haven’t said anything more since then.

So what happened to Zaylee? No one appears to know.

Usually, in circumstances like these, the women are killed FOR their babies. Andre Bryant‘s is a good example of that; two women lured his mom away with him, killed her and vanished with the baby. In homicides where the woman just happens to have her baby with her, the killers tend to either leave alive it at the crime scene or abandon it alive somewhere. (I’ve got a couple of cases where women have disappeared and their babies turned up abandoned: Norma Morales, Kimberly Palmer, etc. I tend to assume if that happens there’s a very good chance the woman is dead.) Rarely do they also kill the baby; I mean, it’s not like it would be able to testify against them in court.

Shauna’s drug habit and the circumstances of her disappearance would seem to indicate her murder was probably drug-related, but I have no idea whether there’s any actual evidence to support this because, like I said, the police haven’t said much. It’s possible Shauna was killed for an entirely different reason. But even if it was a drug-related homicide, that doesn’t mean Zaylee isn’t still out there, perhaps having been sold for drugs. I mean, she was adorable, and healthy infants do have some street value.

Sadly, I think it’s also possible she could have been put in the Cumberland River with her mother. Three-month-old girls tend to weigh only 12 to 14 pounds. A body that size would be easy to miss.

So what do you think happened to Zaylee? Is it likely that she’s still alive? Let’s talk about it.

Let’s talk about it: Four patients in the same medical practice

Between 1996 and 1997 four people, all of them in roughly the same age group, disappeared from the Los Angeles area: Robert Vincent Black, 64, on March 12, 1996; Patricia Laxer, 63, on August 11, 1997; Goldie A. Swanger, 75, on August 29, 1997; Richard Dean Davison, 70, on October 29, 1997. Mysteriously, not only were all four of these individuals patients of the same doctor (I never found out anything about him), but they all supposedly disappeared while going either to or from appointments with him.

The first answer that strikes me is “serial killer connected with the medical practice,” but what little I knew about the cases didn’t seem to indicate foul play; in fact the police not only suggested they were alive, but that each “may be a patient in a hospital or nursing home.”

In 2004, I found out Goldie Swanger’s case had been resolved, but I did not learn her fate at the time, whether she’d been found dead, or what. I blogged about this in 2011, and in 2014 a commenter, claiming to be Swanger’s biological son, left a comment on that blog entry. I quote from it below. He, his daughter Andria and another of Goldie’s granddaughters traveled to Los Angeles in 2000 or 2001 and

did a little investigation, got medical records from a doctor that Goldie was seeing before she became missing. That doctor told me that she saw him about once a month and then just never showed up and that he wondered what became of her! We found out where she was last at, alive, during her being “missing”. I believe it was a nursing home or something to that effect. I believe the government department that we today call the SRS had something to hide as they threw roadblocks in our search of Goldie.

I’m not sure what he means by SRS. Google turned up “special retirement supplement” which doesn’t make a lot of sense, and “supported residential services” which does, but supported residential services isn’t an American government department, only a service provided by the state government in Victoria, AUSTRALIA. My guess is he meant something similar to supported residential services that the U.S. or California government provide, but got the acronym wrong. Anyway, on with what Goldie Swanger’s son said:

It seems strange that as soon as my wife and I determined that her last name was Swanger and informed the SRS we knew her last name, the “SRS” had one hissy fit, and we determined that Goldie was still alive! But when we got to California she had passed away! Now that is strange! We found out where she lived previous to this facility and saw the place (apartment) and met and talked with a person who knew Goldie (an apartment neighbor). The administrator of the facility she was last at clammed up when we started to question the circumstance as to why Goldie was at this facility. Andria talked with a person who worked in that facility and knew Goldie as a patient(?). Andria has the info on this place. Goldie’s biological family believe that what we discovered may possibly be something to do with medicare fraud. The other missing persons in that area may just have been admitted to that same facility. We don’t know. We couldn’t find out.

The plot thickens indeed. This is most peculiar. I’d love to learn more about this case — some questions that come to mind are who was this doctor, what was his speciality, is he still practicing, what the MPs were seeing him for, and what were their general states of physical/mental health at the time they went missing? The facility administrator may have “clammed up” because there was something sketchy going on, but it could have been for confidentiality reasons (HIPAA).

I suppose it’s possible the other three could be still alive, particularly if they’re in a reasonably good care facility. (Key words being “possible” and “reasonably good”.) By now Black would be 85, Davis would be 89, and Laxer would be 83. But I wonder if anyone is even looking for them by now. If I was looking to imprison some people in a care facility against their will for the purposes of committing medical assistance fraud, I’d be targeting people with no living relatives, or at least no close relatives, and few ties to their community — people who would be easily missed.

So what happened to these people? Let’s talk about it.

Let’s talk about it: Felicia “Lisa” Weaver

This week’s “let’s talk about it” case is a recent one, Felicia Ann “Lisa” Weaver, who disappeared just a little over two years ago. At the relatively young age of 52 she was in the end stages of COPD, a progressive and incurable breathing condition; she was no longer able to care for herself and her family was considering hospice care. She was living with her ex-husband and three kids at the time of her disappearance, and they were taking care of her.

On the day of Lisa’s disappearance, the house caught fire and burned to the ground, killing the family’s three dogs, but there was no sign of Lisa in the ashes. Last I knew the cause of the fire remained unknown, though I’m sure Lisa’s bottled oxygen was a contributing factor. The police and fire officials don’t think she was at home at the time, but her family said she simply wasn’t physically capable of leaving on her own.

The family’s Facebook page about the case states:

We had every reason to believe that…Lisa Weaver was inside the home at the time of the fire. We still have no reason to believe she left on her own free will. After numerous searches by dozens of firefighters, the State Fire Marshall, as well as cadaver dogs and helicopter it was determined that Lisa was not in the home.

This is quite a peculiar case and I’m not sure a crime occurred, but certainly her family deserves to learn her fate, get her back and bury her decently.