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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Next to Weiher’s body in the trailer was a watch that didn’t belong to any of the five men.
- 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.
This week’s FF case is Essie Margarette “Marge” Hiett, who disappeared from Oroville, California on February 13, 1978. A bartender and waitress, she finished up her shift in the wee hours of the morning and started driving home, but never made it. Her car was found wrecked in a ditch, with her belongings scattered, and no sign of her.
Essie’s case actually got some attention two years ago when Marvin Owens was charged with the murder of his still-missing wife Deborah Diane Owens. Because Deborah also disappeared in 1978, from the same area as Essie, and they had mutual friends, the cops looked into the idea that Marvin had killed Essie too. They decided no. He eventually pleaded out in Deborah’s case and got four years.
As for Essie, the police have another person of interest in her disappearance now — someone whom Marvin Owens knew also. I wonder if they believe someone forced her off the road and abducted her, or if their theory is that first she crashed and then afterwards someone took advantage of the situation.
This week’s Flashback Friday case is Loralee Sue Lhotka — another one of those cases where I have precious little information and doubts about what I do have.
NamUs gives Loralee’s date of disappearance as January 1, 1975, but they also say she disappeared en route to a doctor’s appointment. Nobody makes medical appointments on New Year’s Day, although hospitals and perhaps a few urgent care clinics would be open. I think it’s more likely that the actual date of disappearance isn’t known and whoever entered the case into NamUs put down January 1 to encompass the entire year of 1975. I put in the Charley Project casefile that she disappeared on some unknown date that year. She would have been 19 or 20 at the time; she was born in June.
NamUs also gives Loralee’s race as “unsure.” The Washington State Missing Persons database entry for her lists her as white. She looks like she could have some Native American blood, but it’s very hard to judge by the photograph. For what it’s worth, the name Lhotka is of Czech origin. It is said that Loralee may use the last name Spamola, a VERY rare surname that’s almost unknown in the United States.
As for what caused her disappearance… I would have to guess foul play. Loralee may have decided to hitchhike to her doctor’s appointment and it’s possible she picked the wrong ride. Her wallet turned up in the Wenatchee National Forest in 1978. I wish I knew where exactly; the forest covers 2,700+ square miles over three counties.