Interest continues in 20-year Death Valley mystery

This July marks 113 years since the world’s record 134-degree high temperature was recorded at Furnace Creek in Death Valley National Park, nearly 30 years since the Badwater 135 ultra endurance race became an annual event, and 20 years since a small group of tourists from Germany mysteriously disappeared in the desert outback.

Editor’s Note: This is the second of a two-part article. The first ran in Wednesday’s edition.

On Oct. 26, 1996, unable to find any indication after three months that the missing Germans had perished nearby and apparently believing that the four were alive and in hiding, the Inyo County Sheriff’s Office and National Park Service called off the search and went home. But a few desert old-timers did not give up so easily.

Theories about the missing Germans abounded and were hotly debated. As one of them put it, “The vacuum of solid information was slowly filled with wild speculation.”

Egbert Rimkus was known to be interested in the paranormal, and cutting-edge technology. Had he seen something he wasn’t meant to see in the remote regions of Death Valley? Had he wandered into China Lake Naval Weapons Station and been arrested? Had the couple and their children been murdered by members of the Manson family still rumored to inhabit the backcountry? All of these theories and more were advanced and for the most part discarded by officials.

Volunteers whose backgrounds ranged from university professor to homemaker went yearly into the desert backcountry around Anvil Canyon looking for clues—something, anything that might lead them to an answer. Some of them in their sixties and seventies, the searchers often camped on the hard desert floor braving the winds and sun.

“We will continue to try and solve this mystery,” wrote Emmett Harder, author of “These Canyons Are Full of Ghosts,” in 1998. “For the sake of the survivors and for the sake of others we hope won’t make the same mistakes.” And continue they did, for another 11 years.

Harder and his wife Ruth, publishers of the Desert Breeze magazine, knew Death Valley well, having prospected and operated a small gold mine within the park and traveled its back roads for decades.

“You have to go out there and look,” Ruth told her husband. “What if those were our kids? Those families need to know what happened.”

In time, Harder’s friends began to call it “another wild goose chase” when he set out on his treks in search of the Germans, but he persisted. He made contact with the families in Germany, interviewed Inyo County Sheriff’s Office and National Park Service personnel, but every lead petered out in the open desert.

Thirteen years the families waited, still hoping that the children would turn up some day, fully grown, free at last from whatever scheme Egbert Rimkus had devised.

The Meyer family had gone through the legal procedure of declaring their daughter and grandson dead, but without any physical proof, questions inevitably lingered. Ursula Rimkus, Egbert’s mother and Georg’s grandmother, unwilling to give up hope, had simply gone on waiting.

It wasn’t until 2009, when Tom Mahood, a search and rescue worker with Los Angeles County, began puzzling over the Germans that any real answers were found. Mahood had been reading about the case since 1996. It was one of the things, he said later, that inspired him to train for and join a Search and Rescue team.

In the fall of 2009, after meeting with the Harders and a professor named Dick Hasselman who’d also led several amateur searches, and studying the Inyo County Sheriff’s Office files, Mahood came up with a simple theory.

While officials maintained that Rimkus and Meyer would have not have gone south into Wingate Wash and so refused to search there, Mahood concluded that it was what they must have done.

Emmett Harder had made a swipe in that direction a few years earlier, but Mahood wanted to push even further out, toward the boundary of the China Lake Naval Weapons Station, noted on the NPS map.

To a couple of Europeans, unaccustomed to the grand scale of the desert, unable to grasp the proportionate distances on the map, Mahood theorized that the idea of a military base may have conjured up images of soldiers who could help them.

So Mahood mounted his own small, unofficial search party and on his first time out with search partner Les Walker, made a near beeline to a debris field of scattered human bones. In the midst of these lay Conny Meyer’s day planner, tattered and sun-bleached but intact enough to be identifiable.

The discovery put an end once and for all to the questions and the hope that the missing Germans had been living a secret life somewhere in America. It established instead that they had died a quiet death in its remote outback. But while DNA extracted from the bones positively identified Rimkus and Meyer, no identification has ever been confirmed of the children.

Some small bones were found near the site, according to unconfirmed reports, but these never yielded enough DNA to positively connect them with the children. Twenty years later, the investigation remains open and the Inyo County Sheriff’s Office refuses to discuss it.

In 1849, a young, single man named William Lewis Manly found himself traveling with two families in wagons when they became lost upon the salt pan of what was then an unnamed desert valley. The children, he wrote later, “were crying for water but there was not a drop to give them …The mothers were nearly crazy, for they expected the children would choke with thirst and die in their arms, and would rather perish themselves than suffer the agony of seeing their little ones gasp slowly and die.”

But Manly was able to find them water and, under the shade of their wagons in the temperate month of January, the families managed to survive. Those children lived and yet it was their parents who, having climbed out of the Badwater basin into the Panamints, looked back and said “Good-bye, valley of death,” forever branding the unyielding landscape for future travelers.

Conny Meyer and Egbert Rimkus’s bones were found some eight miles from their van, according to Mahood. They had hiked over extremely rough and desolate terrain leaving only two empty water containers in their wake. They had gone as far as they could go.

Mahood speculates that they had hoped to see a manned military installation. But when they arrived at the top of that mountain, there were only more mountains. Away to the west, the park does eventually give way to the naval base, which covers a mostly unpatrolled area of over a million acres of desert.

The vast, devastatingly lonely and beautiful landscape of Death Valley was the last thing Egbert Rimkus and Conny Meyer would see before they laid down upon the hot earth and breathed their last.

In that fateful summer of 1996, Marshall Ulrich arrived at Whitney Portal from Badwater in 33 hours. In one of his early race years, Ulrich remembered “running down the road and the sun goes down in front of me and rises again in back of me 50 miles later, like time had evaporated. It was effortless.” The race isn’t always that way, but he continues to return to Badwater year after year.

The thing about Death Valley, says Ulrich, is its dark sky. “It’s total black, it’s total silence, a solitude that is unmatched.”

In the 20 years since the German tourists disappeared, little has changed in the national park. In the outside world, GPS technology is now so common that the average person carries it nonchalantly in a pocket, but cell phones rarely work in Death Valley. What’s worse is that when they do work, they can lead travelers astray so that they make deadly mistakes in the backcountry.

Death Valley National Park covers over 5,000 square miles of desert and, park volunteer EMT Mike Wehrmeyer points out, 99 percent of that is wilderness. “Really,” said Wehmeyer, for travelers unfamiliar with the desert outback and visitors in summer, “if the pavement stops, so should you.”

Meanwhile, the Badwater runners, perhaps as intimately familiar with the desert as anyone can be, go on pushing the limits of endurance in their race across the valley floor every July. This year Marshall Ulrich competed for the 21st time, setting yet another record. He has circumnavigated the park, run solo and unassisted across Badwater basin, and won the 135 marathon four times.

“I would rather be ashes than dust!” Ulrich wrote in his endurance memoir “Running On Empty.” “I would rather my sparks should burn out in a blaze than they should be stifled by dry rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than asleep and permanent as a planet. The proper function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.”

Robin Flinchum is a freelance writer and editor living in Tecopa, California. Her book, “Red Light Women of Death Valley,” was published last year.

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