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Holes in the Desert: A Mojave Crime Compendium

Still of 1995 crime film "Casino," directed by Martin Scorsese.
Still image from 1995 crime film "Casino," directed by Martin Scorsese.

The Mojave Project is an experimental transmedia documentary by Kim Stringfellow exploring the physical, geological and cultural landscape of the Mojave Desert. The Mojave Project reconsiders and establishes multiple ways in which to interpret this unique and complex landscape, through association and connection of seemingly unrelated sites, themes, and subjects thus creating a speculative and immersive experience for its audience.

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 the I-40, the I-15 and the Nevada state line, it was here that the familiar lore of the Wild West played out 21st century style. Nighttime train robberies occurred on a regular basis. Notably, far bleaker criminal acts have transpired along the MNP's transient periphery or within other publicly administered lands of the Mojave Desert.

I first read about the Union Pacific train robberies in the MNP through a 1998 article by Phil Garlington of Rancho Costa Nada fame. Garlington had laid out the 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 would fall prey to looters within the remote center of the preserve.

A static freight train near the Kelso Depot in the Mojave National Preserve. | Photo: Kim Stringfellow.
A static freight train near the Kelso Depot in the Mojave National Preserve. | Photo: Kim Stringfellow.   

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 MNP 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 had estimated that it was losing over a million dollars a month from MNP lootings.

A train laden with commercial goods beginning its ascent up the Cima Grade. | Photo: Kim Stringfellow.
A train laden with commercial goods beginning its ascent up the Cima Grade. | Photo: Kim Stringfellow.

A rather amusing related incident shared in a 2008 Los Angeles Times article noted that "75 flat-screen TVs worth more than $225,000" had been spotted during a 2005 aerial search of the area after MNP law enforcement rangers had run into two men sitting in an empty rental moving truck near a rail 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? With heightened security over the past years since this incident was reported, Union Pacific has managed to crack down and curtail these types of robberies.


Although the majority of visitors passing through the MNP do so without incident, others have sought this "nowhere between two somewheres"1 as an isolated, out-of-the-way destination to conduct a variety of illicit activities including methamphetamine production, wildlife poaching, theft, vandalism, illegal dumping, OHV trespass or the unlawful collection of animals, plants and cultural artifacts.

In years past, MNP 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 among 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. Following a search of their vehicle by the rangers, the men produced keys for the padlocks of park holdings that they had legal access to. The ensuing investigation yielded "ten 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.2

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.

Over 500,000 vehicles travel through the MNP annually. Many come here specifically to recreate, but others simply use its paved thoroughfares -- the Kelbaker and Kelso-Cima roads -- as a convenient, uncongested shortcut route to Vegas from points further north or south. Speeding over the 55 mph speed limit, which is still higher than most national parks, results in one of the more commonly cited infractions by law enforcement. Close proximity of the two major interstates and an 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, the LeFaves -- 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 LeFave and his accomplice were caught red-handed on one of their toxic waste runs, the LeFaves were arrested and eventually sentenced, with the father, Gene, receiving four years in prison plus $40,000 in fines. This fiasco cost taxpayers $170,000 to clean up the dumpsites.3

Other criminal activities occurring here involve the unlawful collection of plants and animals -- cited in as far as cash value as the second most lucrative illegal activity occurring within public lands after illicit drug production and smuggling activities. A federal investigation called "Operation Sweet Success" led by the U.S. Department of the Interior was launched in the late 1990s 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.4 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 over-zealous solitary hobbyists to organized commercial wholesalers that traffic specimens locally for profit or internationally to smuggler rings that trade live and dead animals parts at 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."5 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.6

These illicit enterprises are not unique 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."7 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 (DVNP). Although the ranger somehow 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 due to retributive threats posed by the biker gang.

Ruins of Barker Ranch, Charles Manson's former hiding place. | Photo: el-toro/Flickr/Creative Commons License.

Death Valley will be forever linked to the Manson Family who occupied both Barker and Myers ranches located in the Panamint Range, now part of DVNP, over a two-year period during the late 1960s. The Family first moved out to these isolated ranch properties in 1968, initially Myers and then Barker Ranch, after Catherine Gillies, one of the Manson "girls" and also a granddaughter of Myers, suggested it as a secluded and fairly inaccessible place for the group to hide out. It has been proposed by various authors that Arlene Barker 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 here after the Tate-LaBianca murders took place in August 1969 -- until their tenure was ended during a routine two-day police raid in October 1969 for suspected auto theft and arson after a NPS 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 feet 2 inches Manson was found stuffed and cowering in a bathroom cabinet. Although arrested that same day, Manson's captors were unaware that they had an infamous psychopathic cult leader in their custody -- who had recently persuaded his followers to commit multiple murders on his behalf. Thirty years later detectives would return to Barker Ranch in 2008 to investigate a tip implying 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 stonewalls 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 girlfriend and the man's son 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 CHP helicopter to crash land during the first day of the ordeal.

Illegal marijuana growing operations sited on publicly managed desert lands comprise much of the most recent illegal drug production related offenses. Pot growers prefer to use government land not only for its perceived isolation, but "because... asset-forfeiture laws which allow the seizure of private property associated with the growing operations"8 are avoided by siting them within public land or park boundaries and living elsewhere.

Recent multi-agency busts such as "Operation Mountain Sweep" targeted and successfully destroyed a number of illegal grows in public lands across seven western states in 2012, including one located in DVNP. The toll on the environment resulting from these operations is costly -- both financially and impactfully -- to flora and fauna, especially in lieu of the current drought since marijuana cultivation requires profuse amounts of water, pesticides and fertilizers to thrive and produce. Growers additionally "contaminate and alter watersheds, clear-cut native vegetation, discard garbage and non-biodegradable materials at deserted sites, create wildfire hazards, and divert natural water courses."9 The cost to police, clean up and remediate these sites end up costing taxpayers of millions of dollars annually.

Of course, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) law enforcement deal with their share of crime in areas they oversee including but not limited to "mineral resource theft; wilderness area violations; hazardous materials dumping; archaeological and paleontological resource theft and vandalism; cultivation, manufacture, smuggling, and use of illegal drugs; timber, forest product, and native plant theft; off-highway vehicle use; alcohol related crimes; and wildland arson." Like their NPS counterparts, BLM's Barstow officials agree that the more elaborate meth lab setups utilizing abandoned structures are less of a threat due to the more portable production techniques used today. BLM rangers patrolling the higher elevations of the Mojave Desert are more likely to stumble upon an illegal marijuana cultivation operation, like one recently discovered in a mountainous desert canyon off California State Routes 14 and 178 east of Ridgecrest where 1,000 pot plants were confiscated and destroyed.10

An illegal trash dump in the Mojave Desert. | Photo: Courtesy BLM.
An illegal trash dump in the Mojave Desert. | Photo: Courtesy BLM.
BLM officials cleaning up an illegal tire dump on public lands. | Photo: Courtesy BLM.
BLM officials cleaning up an illegal tire dump on public lands. | Photo: Courtesy BLM.

One of the more mundane but increasingly costly issues facing the BLM is the identification and clean-up 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. So far in 2015, the BLM's California Desert District's Hazardous Materials Program has removed over 55 tons of trash throughout the Mojave Desert costing 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, 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.

"A lot of holes in the desert, and a lot of problems are buried in those holes. But 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 to forty-five minutes worth of digging. And who knows who's gonna come along in that time? Pretty soon, you gotta dig a few more holes. You could be there all fuckin' night."

-- Nicky Santoro, played by Joe Pesci in "Casino" (1995)
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. Reflecting on this sentiment, I decided to see whether or not this imagined culture of violence actually exists here in the desert. I began by contacting 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.

During a phone conversation, I asked Lupear how many homicide victims are actually found in the Mojave. Somewhat surprisingly, he replied, "On average we only find one or two per year," commenting further that recreationists are most likely to find a murder victim in the open desert. He additionally mentioned 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. Consider that much of the Mojave Desert is within three miles of some type of thoroughfare, it is easy to imagine how one could go about such a repugnant task if deemed necessary.11 The reason is obvious -- the deceased are dead weight so the quickest to dispose of a "package" is to transport the body to a somewhat secluded spot via a vehicle. On occasion, 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 dumped, bagged, buried, burned or disposed of in some combination thereof.

Location of the McStay family burial site just northeast of Victorville, CA.
Location of the McStay family burial site just northeast of Victorville, CA.
CNN news coverage of murder crime scene investigation at Quarry Road site in November 2013.
CNN news coverage of murder crime scene investigation at Quarry Road site in November 2013.
CNN news coverage of the McStay family murders. Left to right: Summer, Joseph Jr., Gianni and Joseph McStay.
CNN news coverage of the McStay family murders. Left to right: Summer, Joseph Jr., Gianni and Joseph McStay.
Chase Merritt, shown in a hole he presumably dug, is currently awaiting trial for the McStay family slayings.
Chase Merritt, shown in a hole he presumably dug, is currently awaiting trial for the McStay family slayings.
The McStay family memorial site located northwest of Victorville, CA. Traffic on the I-15 can be seen in the distance. | Photo: Kim Stringfellow.
The McStay family memorial site located northwest of Victorville, CA. Traffic on the I-15 can be seen in the distance. | Photo: Kim Stringfellow.

On November 13, 2013, partially unearthed human remains were discovered by a recreating dirtbike rider just off Quarry Road in an OHV recreation area just northeast of Victorville, CA. This grim discovery, a mere stone's throw from the heavily traveled Interstate-15, was later confirmed to be the missing McStay family of four. 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 the slain family had been hastily buried. It seems that Chase Merritt, the former business partner of Joseph McStay who is accused and currently awaiting trial for this heinous and callous murder, has ties with the town of Apple Valley, the next town over from the crime scene. This case, along with others confirm that the Mojave Desert's high-speed vehicular corridors bordering the MNP and other publicly managed areas have indeed served as a convenient, out-of-the-way place to get rid of an unwanted body.

The I-15 Cima Road offramp where the torso of Jodi Brewer was discovered in 2003. | Photo: Kim Stringfellow.
The I-15 Cima Road offramp where the torso of Jodi Brewer was discovered in 2003. | Photo: Kim Stringfellow.

Over the past 15 years, several grisly discoveries have been found along or near the I-15 or the I-40 between Barstow and the Nevada state line including 19-year-old Jodi Brewer, a sex worker who had 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 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 victim were found in 2010 off Zzyzx Road, west of the I-15 near Baker, CA. That same year the severed head of an unknown Hispanic teenage girl thought to be between 14 and 19 years old was found concealed in a backpack left on Lenwood Road, west of the I-15 in Barstow, CA.

A digital reconstruction of the "Nipton Jane Doe" discovered in an abandoned mineshaft on Clark Mountain in 1976 near Nipton, CA. | Image: CarlK90245/Wikipedia/Creative Commons License.

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, CA, 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 and the time of her death was estimated to have been four to six days earlier. The National Unidentified Persons Data System (NamUs) case file number 47426 noted that she had "reddish-brown hair [and] was found clad only in a blue and white bathing suit."

Studying the full-color digital reconstruction of her and other unfortunate victims like her, I was struck by how the images borrow the compositional conventions of a Renaissance portrait -- in that the murder victim is pictured with a symbolic landscape behind them like so many portraits of noblemen and woman of this period. In the Nipton representation, an endless expanse of creosote reaching into the far distance is the imagined place where this "Jane Doe" purportedly met her fate. What resounds most is that loved ones or even acquaintances have not bothered to identify this Jane Doe, or others like her, a sad fact that left me in a state of despondency and emptiness.

Not all unidentified victims have met violent ends. Human remains in various stages of decomposition have been found over the years in other 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 quite often, as do those of unwary recreationists or a down-on-their-luck undocumented transnational that has succumbed to either daytime's relentless heat or the near-freezing chill of the nighttime desert. It should be noted that of the four unidentified human remains discovered in San Bernardino County in 2010 all were found in outlying areas of the Mojave 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 his ordeal. Officials stated that the group's motive revolved around their obsessed notion 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.

"Senseless violence, the world calls it, but the Mojave knows otherwise. The Mojave knows, has always known, that the violence is not senseless, the disturbing acts that unfold on its sandy stage in fact make perfect sense. For that is the very nature of the place, to convey meaning, to show events in living color on a giant screen in bas-relief, to make it seem as if everything is happening for the first time, even if for some, it is the last, or simply the latest in an endless spiral of repetitive, nowhere acts."

-- Deanne Stillman, "Twentynine Palms" (2008)
Los Angeles-based author Deanne Stillman has received numerous accolades and awards for her meticulous location-based nonfiction exposés detailing 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 a backdrop. More often than not it is revealed through her careful research 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. In one of her books she enumerates, "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, CA, was depicted by Stillman as someone both sensitive of the desert animals that visited him daily, who enjoyed building and launching rockets but was equally highly capable of murder -- 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 elude and 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 after the shed he was holed up in burst into flames. The explosion resulted when a road flare ignited a tear gas canister that had been tossed into Kueck's holdout by law enforcement -- a controversial extraction tactic later criticized in the media. Sorenson's widow who was staying with family and friends nearby was said to have commented afterwards, "I wanted to see [Kueck] burn in hell, but I guess Lake Los Angeles will have to do."12 A statement I could somehow imagine mumbled in one of Waits' song verses.

Stillman's second book, "Twentynine Palms," which took her 10 years to research and write 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 plus the ensuing aftermath of this grisly event. Coincidentally, the crime took place on the same day that Sorenson was shot down by Kueck -- 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, had brutally raped the both women and stabbed them each 33 times "because it was the killer's favorite number."13

Stillman's impassioned on-site research aided by her close relationship with the victim's families -- especially Mandy's mother, Debie McMaster, who worked as a bartender in a popular Twentynine Palms bar frequented by local marines -- ultimately resulted in a portrait of those who dwell in America's margins. Following their inevitable arrival in the Mojave Desert, Stillman recounts the girls' collision with Valentine Underwood, a Marine with a history of sexual assaults on women before he joined the Corps and while in it, including 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 in half, with some locals concerned that the portrayal would have a negative impact, driving business away from a region, which 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 Amazon book reviews, newspaper editorials and articles. 14 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 proven. And more importantly, 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 a search of over 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 on several occasions "he knew where to hide a body." It appears that he did just that.


1 Nystrom, Eric Charles. "Chapter 7: Visitor Services." "Administrative History of Mojave National Preserve," United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Mojave National Preserve, Mar. 2003. Web.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 It is now illegal to harvest biznaga in Mexico because the several of the species of cacti used for this purpose are now threatened.

5 Hansen, Kevin. "Crimes Against the Wild: Poaching in California." Mountain Lion Foundation, Jul. 1994. 8.

6 Ibid. 8.

7 Darlington, David. "The Mojave." 121.

8 Patrovsky, Edward. "Tales From a Ranger: Death Valley Manhunt." The Desert Report, 18 Sept. 2014.

9 U.S. Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, "Exploring the Problem of Domestic Marijuana Cultivation," Statement for the Record of Kim Thorsen Deputy Assistant Secretary, Law Enforcement, Security and Emergency Management Department of the Interior. Web.

10 BLM law enforcement official. Personal interview. 21 Sept. 2015.

11 Darlington. 35.

12 Burdick, Dan. "SCANNER AUDIO -- LASD -- Barricaded Suspect Shootout (8:05)." Online video clip. "YouTube." YouTube, 8 Aug. 2003. Web.

13 Gorman, Tom. "Ruffled Palms." Los Angeles Times, 21 Dec. 1997.

14Timberg, Scott, "Seeing the Light, Remembering the Dark," Los Angeles Times, 4 Feb 4 2007.

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