Missing Women, Humboldt Mystery
Humboldt County, in picturesque northern California, is the home of the majestic Coastal Redwood forests with about 110 miles of breathtaking coastline along Pacific Coast Highway 101.
Approximately 250 miles north of San Francisco, Humboldt is approximately 2.3 million acres of combined dense forests and public land with a population of only 134,623 people according to the 2010 census.
Formed in 1853, rural Humboldt County has a rich pioneer history and once solely inhabited by the Wiyot Indian tribe dating back to around 900 BCE. It borders the scarcely populated and heavily forested Trinity County with the rugged Klamath Mountains running north into Oregon.
Traveling through, one can quickly be taken back in time to a life of living off the land and part of the allure for many seeking a simpler way of life.
Dotted with hundreds of beautifully ornate historic Victorian homes, Eureka is Humboldt’s largest town. Also known as “Best Small Art Town in America”, an estimated 8,000 artists call it home along with students attending College of the Redwoods main campus. The well-known smaller college town of Arcata is about a 7.5-mile drive north past the magnificent Arcata Bay.
Neighboring Trinity County is 3,179 square miles of rugged terrain and the Klamath Mountains occupying most of the county and a popular area for backpacking, camping, and fishing.
Trinity is a place of splendid and inspiring scenery where there are no traffic lights, parking meters and local drugstore in the historic California Gold Rush town of Weaverville has been filling prescriptions since 1852.
Humboldt’s dark past
Known as “Bigfoot Country” where hundreds of sightings have occurred and people from around the world tell stories of the large, hairy, human-like creature lurking in remote regions of the northern California forests, stories of murder and missing persons have also been told for decades.
Long gone are the days’ hippies hitchhiked from across the country promoting love and peace in Humboldt County. Urban refugees and long-time residents can tell you the innocence of Humboldt is now gone, replaced by increasing violence, unexplained disappearances, and missing person fliers.
Emerald Triangle and Murder Mountain
Known as a Stoner’s paradise since the 1960’s, small business owners, students, artists, people seeking inner peace and those wanting to live off the grid, have been drawn to the beauty of Humboldt County.
Emerald Triangle, consisting of the Humboldt, Trinity, and Mendocino counties, is a mountainous and heavily forested area where marijuana growers cultivate California’s number one cash crop. In fact, much of the estimated 104 billion nationwide sales of marijuana is grown there.
This is where Humboldt County and the surrounding area become downright dangerous, even deadly. Old-timers say Humboldt is no longer the home of the peaceful hippies and quiet homestead marijuana growers. Instead, Humboldt has become home for those wanting to make a fast buck trimming pot plants, bringing drifters and even the Bulgarian cartel to town. “It is a modern day green rush,” says Detective Chandler Baird the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office.
While many are moving in, others are moving out. A once colorful mural on the side of the Co-op building located on E Street in Eureka is now fading along with the feeling of safety within the community. Known for strange disappearances, northern California has even been identified as the trolling ground of serial killers dating back decades, tourists are often warned not to venture too far out on their own. The beautiful, yet ominous fog covered forest has kept many secrets over the years.
Murder Mountain is one of those not so secret . . . secrets, approximately 84 miles south of Eureka, in southern Humboldt County. During the early 1980’s, the area got its name, in part, after serial killer couple James and Suzan Carson confessed to killing and dismembering a co-worker on a marijuana farm. The couple was charged with three homicides but remain suspects in as many as 10 more. Numerous disappearances and unsolved homicides have haunted the area.
Murder Mountain in Alderpoint, has a population of 186 residents but concern grows throughout Humboldt as homicides and disappearances appear to be expanding throughout the county.
In fact, a self-proclaimed vigilante group known as the “Alderpoint 8” have become community heroes after reportedly obtaining a confession from a person of interest and leading authorities to a gravesite of Garrett Rodriquez who had vanished in late December 2012 and creating a presence of order though some citizens feel the local group of men are using intimidation and committing crimes too.
Whether the threat is external or community members “on the inside” the threat to resident’s and visitor’s safety appears real. Either way, for every missing person and unsolved homicide, there is a family holding on to hope and waiting.
Numbers don't lie
According to the FBI National Crime Information Center (NCIC), there were 87,180 active missing person cases in the U.S. as of September 30, 2017. In addition, there were 8,589 active Unidentified persons entered into the national database, most deceased.
California leads the country in the number of missing person reports with 19,316 missing persons, compared to Texas that numbers 5,988, and Arizona with 2,281 active missing person reports.
Though California has captured national attention for the depravity of several serial killers throughout the decades, experts attribute the higher number of missing person reports is due, in part, to mandatory reporting requirements. California Penal Code 14205 states in part, all local police and sheriff’s departments shall accept any report, including telephonic reports of missing persons, including runaways, without delay and shall give priority to the handling of these reports over the handling of reports relating to crimes involving property.”
1993 Disappearance of Jennifer Wilmer
Many have gravitated to Northern California in pursuit of a new lifestyle in a climate where they can be the free spirits they are. Jennifer Wilmer, who went by the nickname Jade, was one of those bright free spirits who went searching for more in the redwoods of northern California, where she was last seen in 1993.
Born April 13, 1972, Jennifer grew up on the bustling east coast in Long Island, NY, and attended the privileged St. Mary’s High School in Manhasset. A hard-working student, Jennifer had earned a full scholarship to St. John’s University in N.Y.C. a private, Roman Catholic, research university located on Utopia Parkway in Queens. Dropping out after only one semester, Jennifer expressed to family and friends she wanted to pursue her own “utopia” and enroll for classes at the College of the Redwoods, in Eureka, California.
In 1992, a bright and beautiful 20-year old arrived in the seaside community of Arcata on a journey into the hippie counterculture.
Arcata is a town where the vibrant old souls of Haight Ashbury seemed to preserve the 60’s. The intersection of Haight and Ashbury streets is located in San Francisco about 200 miles south of the seaside town of Arcata. A place where the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, the Mamas & the Papas and the Fuggs help create a psychedelic subculture where youth and young adults throughout the country flocked. Following the likes of LSD guru Timothy Leary who coined the term, “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out”, that is exactly what some did, even decades later.
Upon arriving in Arcata, Jennifer told her family classes at College of the Redwoods were full for the semester, so she opted to find work as a local waitress and rented space in a house with several roommates located in Hawkins Bar in scenic Trinity County, approximately 50 miles east of Arcata on California State Route 299.
There are two opposing reports for the day Jennifer vanished on September 13, 1993. One person reported Jennifer was last seen leaving her Willow Creek residence to go to a travel agency to pick up a one-way return airline ticket to New York her mother Susan Wilmer had purchased for her. Her family was desperate for her return, but she never arrived at the travel agency to retrieve her ticket.
Another report indicates Jennifer had been seen hitchhiking in the vicinity of Hawkins Bar toward Willow Creek to inquire about a job opportunity at a local farm. The distance is approximately 9.5 miles northwest of her residence.
According to High Times journalist Elise McDonogh’s article, “Humboldt County: Murder Mayhem and Marijuana”, even as far back as the late 1970’s people looking for work as farm hands and marijuana trimmers were warned of the dangers of accepting rides from strangers and the strange disappearances around Murder Mountain. Of course, few could imagine such dark evil lurking in such picturesque surroundings.
The vanishing of Karen Mitchell
Twenty years ago, sixteen-year-old Karen Mitchell vanished on Nov. 25, 1997. Known as one of Eureka’s long-lasting unsolved mysteries, Karen was only five days away from her seventeenth birthday, a high school junior who vanished in broad daylight.
Karen moved from Southern California to live with her aunt and uncle, Bill and Annie Casper who were well-known in the community. Annie still owns “Annie’s Shoe Store” where Karen had visited her aunt before disappearing on Broadway, in downtown Eureka, on her way to the Coastal Family Development Center where she helped care for children.
When it was discovered Karen was missing, law enforcement and volunteers from the community conducted ground searches and went door to door. Police followed-up on thousands of leads but no information has ever lead to her whereabouts. Karen’s disappearance impacted the entire community and her family has never given up hope they will find out what happened to her that fateful day.
In a Eureka Times-Standard article in Dec. 2012, reporter Kaci Poor interviewed Dave Parris, then lead investigator of Karen’s case at Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office. “I will never forget her short hair, her beautiful eyes, and cheeks,” Parris said. “I remember the jewelry that she wore and the clothes she had on. I have never met Karen Mitchell – to this day, I have never met her—but when you go into her bedroom, read her college applications, talk to her family . . . you begin to know her.”
The day Karen vanished she had been filling out college applications and had planned to attend Humboldt State University. Described as a liberal and opinionated young lady, she loved politics, the environment, and children. Parris said, “You could tell she was going to be successful. She was going to be a person who would make a real difference.”
Parris, who is now retired, says he still thinks about Karen’s case. Over the years, Karen’s disappearance has spurred many theories but the detectives now on the case have not received any new leads that have helped any progress on the case.
Initially, thousands of tips poured in that now take up over 30 volumes, that stand over six-feet high.
Parris recalls a tip he received from a former police officer. The officer had told detectives he had to slam on his brakes to avoid hitting a light blue 1977 Ford Granada that had slowed down to talk to a young girl who closely resembled Karen the day of her disappearance.
Despite tracking down 1,200 vehicles scattered across the West Coast that matched the vehicle description, no solid leads were ever found.
In 1999, Wayne Allen Ford, a resident of a nearby trailer park, walked into the Eureka County Sheriff’s Office with a severed female breast in his pocket and proceeded to confess to authorities that he had murdered four women during 1997 and 1998. Detectives interviewed the 36-year old truck driver and veteran of the United States Marines, but he could not be tied to Karen’s disappearance. Ford was eventually charged with four counts of first-degree murder unrelated to Karen’s case, sentenced to the death penalty and currently serving time in San Quentin prison.
Another suspected serial killer and millionaire Robert Durst became the focus of authorities. A very private man, Durst is described as an enigma. Durst was known to love marijuana and his privacy, two things Trinidad and Eureka offer. Also known as the “Lost Coast”, a ghost-like Durst could live undetected. Though Durst had no financial worries of his own, he was known to hang out with transients, the down and out.
Reported in The Guardian "We Haven't Been Able To Rule Him Out", author of “A Deadly Secret” Matt Birkbeck writes in his book, that credit card receipts place Durst in Eureka the day Karen went missing and that Durst also resembles a police composite of a man who a witness claimed was seen trying to force a girl matching the description of Karen into a car. In addition, Durst was thought to frequent a homeless shelter where Karen may have volunteered and confirmed he was a customer at Annie's Shoe Store.
Accused of killing his wife Kathie Durst in 1982 he was never charged. He was then suspected in the murder of friend Susan Berman in 2000 in Los Angeles, then later acquitted of the dismemberment murder of drifter Morris Black in 2001.
While Durst was thought to be in the area of Eureka at the time of Karen’s disappearance, police were not able to tie him to the disappearance of the young, bright girl who had her entire life in front of her. In fact, only more questions have arisen in recent years and speculation several Humboldt County disappearances and murders may be connected. But to who?
The murder of Danielle Bertollini and disappearance of Sheila Franks
In 2013, beautiful 23-year old Danielle Bertollini moved to California from Bangor, Maine after the death of her infant son. She had hoped to start a new life in Fortuna approximately 17 miles south of Eureka.
Danielle talked to her mother Billie Jo Dick almost on a daily basis, so when she didn’t hear from her daughter, she filed a missing person report on Feb. 19, 2014. She immediately flew from Maine to California to search for her daughter, along with Deemi Search and Rescue where she was a volunteer. Danielle’s father Jon Bertollini who lives in Oregon also traveled to Fortuna to help search for his Danielle.
Danielle had last been seen getting into a car on the road leading to her house in the rural area known as Swains Flats, along Highway 36. A local, James Eugene Jones was questioned by police and admitted he had given Danielle a ride and was the last person to see her.
Police soon connected Jones to the disappearance of another Fortuna woman Sheila Franks a week prior to Danielle’s disappearance. The connection between the two cases then raised questions as to other missing person investigations into disappearances of many missing women in the area.
Sheila Franks was a divorced mother and had been living with Jones prior to her disappearance. Jones claims on Feb. 2, 2014, he and Sheila were both at his house and Sheila had gone for a walk and didn’t return. Jones, a 43-year old sawmill worker, was now the focus of both investigations.
However, according to a 2016 Crime Watch Daily report, another connection had been discovered. Shelia’s sister Melisa Walstrom indicated Jones also knew Karen Mitchell. Melisa went to school with Jones and has known him all her life.
After Sheila’s disappearance, Melisa went through a storage unit where Jones had placed Sheila’s personal belongings. “In the storage unit I found my sister’s purse that had money, credit cards, it had a birth certificate, everything that my sister had that was important to her, she wouldn’t up and disappear and not take the money at least,” said Walstrom.
Upon making the discovery of her sister’s belongings in storage, it removed all doubt that Jones had to be responsible for Sheila’s mysterious disappearance.
A friend of Sheila’s confirmed there was trouble in her relationship with Jones and there were signs Sheila had been beaten by Jones a week prior to going missing. “She was like, “Well, Jimmy and I got into a fight and he punched me, gave me a black eye,” added Walstrom.
Police were no closer to answers, until Mar. 9, 2015 when a skull was found in a local riverbed along the Eel River. On May 25, 2015, Billie Jo Dick was notified the skull had been identified was that of her daughter Danielle’s.
Jones has had criminal charges for drugs and a conviction for domestic violence but despite compelling connections between the two women’s disappearances, no arrest has been made. While police say Jones is not a suspect, he does remain a person of interest.
We are still left with questions. Are these disappearances connected? And, is there a serial killer still operating in the shadows of Murder Mountain?
One person believes the theory of a serial killer has merit.
Indiana PI probes the dark side, another disappearance
Thomas Lauth, an Indiana private investigator who has spent over 20-years investigating missing person cases, has delved into the dark side of Humboldt County on several occasions.
Nov. 14, 2008, another young Wisconsin woman vanished during broad daylight in Eureka. Five months before her disappearance, 23-year old, Christine Walters had been attending college at the University of Wisconsin in Deerfield, and the future seemed bright.
Christine, a vivacious young woman, wanted to explore the world. In July 2008, Christine planned a 3-week summer trip to Portland, Ore. She had intended to continue her college studies upon returning to Wis., but instead, Christine decided to abruptly move to Humboldt County with friends she had met during her trip.
In 2013, Times-Standard article "Without a Trace," Christine’s mother Anita Walters said, “I believe she was too trusting of the people she met in California. She didn’t know the people and didn’t understand the culture out there.” She added, “And I know there are a lot of young adults who go there to disappear and don’t want to be found. I honestly believe that is not the case for her. If she said that now, she would be totally brainwashed. She and I were very close.”
Initially, upon moving to Calif., Christine’s calls were upbeat. She had made many friends and connected with individuals who were part of Green Life Evolutions, a group that has since been described as a potential cult and since disbanded. At the time, Green Life had two locations, one in Eureka, another in Blue Lake, approximately 16 miles northeast of Eureka.
Christine’s phone calls home went from happy and upbeat to concerning. On October 28, 2008, Anita recalled a phone call where she asked her daughter to return home for a while. Christine told her mother she wasn’t ready to return because she was on a “journey” and needed to follow her “path.”
One-week prior to her daughter’s disappearance, on November 7, 2008, Christine had been part of an Ayahuasca tea ceremony, using a South American hallucinogen. There were approximately 20 individuals who participated in the cleansing ceremony, led by a Shaman named Tito Santana.