MP of the week: Willie Johnson

Hello, all. This week’s featured missing person is Willie Lee Johnson, a 26-year-old African-American man who disappeared from Akron, Ohio on January 20, 1978. He went out that night to the Tropicana Lounge on north Howard Street (which now appears to be derelict) and never returned. His car was later found abandoned with his things inside.

Unfortunately that’s basically all I know about Willie’s disappearance. I can’t find anything about him in the newspaper archives, and having a name like “Willie Johnson” does not help matters. But I’m sure he still has family who miss him and wonder what became of him.

I hope everyone is staying safe and healthy and washing their hands.

Stumbled across some info on Telethia Good’s disappearance

So I was reading David Simon’s Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets aka “the book that inspired the TV show The Wire” and discovered Telethia Good is mentioned in it, although not by name.

David Simon shadowed the Baltimore Police Department’s homicide unit for a year, from January to December in 1988, and wrote about the cases they solved, and didn’t solve. One of the most prominent homicides was that of Latonya Kim Wallace, an eleven-year-old girl who was sexually assaulted, stabbed and strangled.

The prime suspect is identified in the book only as “The Fish Man” (because he was a fishmonger). He knew Latonya Wallace and had a history of sexual assault and was just generally creepy, and there was some physical evidence that indicated he might have been involved. Obviously they didn’t have the kind of DNA testing thirty years ago that they have now, though.

The cops looked to see if they could connect the Fish Man to any other cases and at this point the book says that a nine-year-old girl who lived on Montpelier Street disappeared in 1979 and was never found, and she was “a dead ringer” for Latonya Wallace. The cops learn that the Fish Man’s business partner at that time lived on Montpelier Street and the Fish Man visited him there often. When they show the suspect a photo of the missing girl, he initially says he recognizes it, then backtracks and says he doesn’t.

In spite of the police’s best efforts, the Fish Man never confessed to Latonya’s murder, never mind Telethia’s case, and they couldn’t find enough evidence to prosecute him. According to the afterword in the book, he’s dead now.

I immediately checked on Charley to find a girl who matched the particulars of the missing child case in the book. Telethia disappeared in 1978, not 1979, and she was seven, not nine, but she did live on Montpelier Street and she does look quite a lot like Latonya Wallace.

I suppose I’ll add this info to her casefile. Shame I don’t know the Fish Man’s name. Now that he’s dead there’s no harm in releasing that info, I should think.

MP of the week: Beverly Ward

This week’s featured missing person is Beverly Ann Ward, a 13-year-old girl who vanished from her bedroom in Junction City, Kansas in the middle of the night on Independence Day, 1978. She was gone by the early morning hours, and is presumed to have been abducted by an intruder who climbed in through the window.

Awesome two-part series on Gary Mathias and his four missing friends

Two years ago I blogged about the 1978 disappearance of Gary Dale Mathis and the mysterious deaths of his four friends, who went missing with him from Oroville in Yuba County, California. The comments on that entry are, I think, well worth a read.

I’m happy to announce that the Sacramento Bee has done a really good two-parter on the case.

Part one is titled: Out in the Cold: Four mentally disabled men died in woods. But what happened to the fifth? Part two is Were 4 mentally disabled men set up to die in the California woods?

The articles provide a lot more background information than I had had previously, regarding the disabilities all the men dealt with, and Mathias’s criminal history.

Most people with psychotic disorders like schizophrenia are not dangerous to anyone but themselves, but Mathias was a violent man with a history of attacks on both men and women. This probably had more to do with his drug abuse problem than his mental illness. It’s not clear to me whether Mathis was ever violent when he WASN’T under the influence of some illicit drug or other. But both mental illness and violence ran in his family.

The articles posit the theory, put forth by the families of the dead men and by others, that Mathias was in some way responsible for the situation that lead to their deaths. Certainly that’s possible.

Honestly, I don’t think anyone is ever going to find out what happened, and I don’t see any reason to believe Mathias is still alive. But it is an intriguing mystery.

MP of the week: Sandra Fisher

This week’s featured missing person (which I didn’t get around to changing yesterday, sorry) is Sandra Flynn Fisher, who was last seen at the Russell County Fair in Russell Springs, Kentucky on August 3, 1978. She was 31 at the time, and if still alive she’d be in her seventies today. She left behind at least one child.

Recommended Reading III

So I found this two-and-a-half-year-old blog about the 1978 disappearance of Christopher William Vigil, a nine-year-old whom I assumed had simply gotten lost while hiking with his family in the Poudre Canyon in Colorado.

Having looked at this blog, however, Chris’s case is starting to look more and more like an abduction. I have dutifully updated his casefile with info from the blog, but invite readers to have a look at the source, which has more details.

Black History Month: Denise El-Mansura

In honor of Black History Month I’m profiling one African-American MP every day on this blog for the month of February. Today’s case is Denise El-Mansura, a fifteen-year-old girl who disappeared from New Orleans, Louisiana on January 10, 1978.

This is unfortunately one of those cases I don’t have much information on. Even more unfortunately, as far as I know the only other database Denise is listed on is the Louisiana Repository for Unidentified & Missing People. She’s not on NamUs or the NCMEC.

Back in May, Denise’s sister got in touch with me via Twitter. In a Tweeted message to Denise, she wrote, “We miss and love you!! Deedy come home please Nessa, Bruce, Stephen, Akhe Sue (RIP) Khadija and your Mom Danielle”

Denise’s sister also stated the family had lost all their photos of her when Hurricane Katrina trashed the city. The picture in her casefile is apparently the only one left.

If Denise El-Mansura is still alive, she’d be 55 now.

Flashback Friday: Steven Kirchhoff

This week’s Flashback Friday case is Steven Dick Kirchhoff, who disappeared from Waterloo, Iowa on January 24, 1978. He was 22 years old. Foul play is strongly suspected in his case: Kirchhoff was a known drug dealer, he was allegedly carrying $8k in cash on the day of his disappearance, and a neighbor heard bumping noises and someone crying out “Oh God, don’t do this to me!”

He may have been killed by Richard Forsyth, who himself disappeared from Waterloo in October 1979. It’s possible that Forsyth met with foul play also, or he may have hopped the border into Canada.

Flashback Friday: The Houghland Family

I promise I will TRY very hard to get my “weekly features” obligations actually met this weekend. (Any suggestions for Sunday?) This week’s Flashback Friday case is actually three cases: Norma Louise Houghland, a 27-year-old mother, and her two sons, 8-year-old Richard Allen Houghland and 6-year-old Thomas James Houghland. They vanished from Sacramento, California on July 15, 1978, but because Norma was divorced and her ex-husband, the boys’ father, lived out of state, no one realized they were missing for a week.

Given the condition of the family’s apartment — uncashed welfare check left behind, nothing missing, dishes in the sink — it seems unlikely they left on their own. Given the fact that Norma’s car has never been found, I think the most probable explanation for this triple disappearance is an automobile accident. Norma and the boys may be in a ravine or at the bottom of a cliff somewhere, or more likely in a lake or river.

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.