Tucked up right along the coast in the northern corner of the U.S. state of California is the sparsely populated Humboldt County, known for its rugged mountainous terrain, the breathtaking scenery of its generous coastline, and for its vast expanses of unspoiled dense forests, including large swaths of old growth Coast Redwood forests. There is no doubt that this is a place of great natural beauty, and even many of the towns here are known for their ornate and historic Victorian architecture. All of this has long combined to make Humboldt County a haven for backpackers, hikers, campers, fishermen, artists, new-agers, and hippies, as well as people just looking to get away from society and the hectic life of civilization to live off the grid. However, there has also long been a darker side to all of the natural splendor, pulsing under the peaceful visage, and Humboldt has unfortunately also become known for its strange unsolved vanishings, with one spate of such disappearances beginning in the 1990s.
One of the many free spirits who flocked to this scenic area of pristine nature and the promise of a peaceful, carefree life was 20-year-old Jennifer Wilmer, who in 1992 decided to leave her life behind in New York City and go to college at the College of the Redwoods, in Eureka, California. Wilmer ended up in the sleepy coastal town of Arcata, which was a magnet for those looking to embrace the hippie lifestyle, as was she, but at the time it turned out that the college’s courses were full for the semester. Far from being deterred, Wilmer simply got a part-time job as a waitress and rented out a house with some other people at Hawkins Bar, in neighboring Trinity County.
On September 13, 1993, Wilmer allegedly went off to retrieve a ticket from a local travel agency in order to make a visit to family in New York. She never arrived and the ticket was never claimed. When the woman did not return home that evening, police launched an investigation and found that there were witnesses who claimed to have seen the missing woman out hitchhiking in the vicinity of Willow Creek, just 9.5 miles from where she lived, and this was the last anyone would see of her then or since. Making things even murkier is that there were conflicting reports that say Wilmer was not out to go to a travel agency, but rather that she was on her way to a farm in order to inquire about possible work. Although it is unknown just what she was doing on that day, one thing we do know is that she simply stepped off the face of the earth and has not been seen since.
A more well-known and indeed more mysterious vanishing occurred the very following year, in November of 1997, and concerns 16-year-old Southern California native Karen Mitchell, who had moved to Eureka to live with her aunt and uncle, Bill and Annie Casper, and to hopefully later attend Humboldt State University. On November 25, 1997, Mitchell left her aunt and uncle’s shoe store and was heading towards a community center where she volunteered helping children. She was walking along in the middle of the day in broad daylight along a crowded street in downtown Eureka when she just seems to have disappeared into thin air.
An intensive search was immediately launched, with police scouring the town going door to door and interviewing anyone they could find who had been out on the street that day, but oddly no one seemed to have any idea of what had become of her and no clues could be found. It was all completely baffling as this was a 16-year-old girl who was the niece of a very well-respected couple in the community and she had simply vanished right there in broad daylight on Broadway, with no one able to provide a single piece of useful information as to what had become of her despite the fact that numerous people had seen her out that day. It seemed unlikely that she had run away, as she had been looking forward to going to college, indeed she had been filling out applications for Humboldt State that very day, and by all accounts she was a happy, well-adjusted young woman, making authorities fear the worst.
In the coming weeks leads would begin to pour in, but these would lead nowhere. One of the most promising potential clues came from a former police officer, who said that he had seen a young girl matching Mitchell’s appearance talking to some people in a light blue 1977 Ford Granada. The witness said that it was as clear as day in his memory because he had almost rear-ended the vehicle when it had suddenly slowed down to talk to the girl. He claimed that as soon as he heard about the disappearance that incident had immediately sprung to mind. However, even after meticulously investigating 1,200 vehicles of the same make and model all up and down the West Coast they were unable to find any evidence that any of them had had anything to do with the vanishing.
Fearing that the missing woman had met with foul play or had become prey for a serial killer, police would find a few suspects in later years. One was a 36-year-old truck driver named Wayne Allen Ford, who in 1999 turned himself in to police and claimed to have killed four women from 1997 to 1997. Although he was eventually convicted of four murders, there was never anything found to link him to Mitchell’s disappearance and he was never charged.
Another possible suspect was an eccentric millionaire named Robert Durst, who also just happened to be a suspected serial killer and had been accused of killing his wife in 1982, as well as eventually being accused and acquitted of killing his friend Susan Berman in Los Angeles in 2000 and a homeless man named Morris Black in 2001. Interestingly, he was found to have been in Eureka at the time of the disappearance and had even frequented the shoe store owned by Mitchell’s aunt and uncle, but there was nothing to ever link him to the disappearance and he was never charged. To this day the mysterious vanishing of Karen Mitchell has not only remained unsolved, but there have been absolutely no new leads and no new information for years, leaving the case as cold as they come.
Perhaps even stranger than Karen Mitchell’s disappearance is that of 23-year old Christine Walters in November of 2008, who had abruptly moved to Humboldt County after meeting some people on a trip through the area from her native Wisconsin. It was a strange and sudden move for the bright young woman, as she had had every intention of returning to her college in Wisconsin to finish her degree, and making it all even odder still was her involvement with a cult-like group called Green Life Evolutions, to which many of her new friends had belonged. Her increasingly concerned parents on several occasions tried to convince Christine to come back home, but she was set on her new life’s direction and totally into the New Age life, leading them to think she had been somehow brainwashed by the group.
In the days leading up to her strange disappearance there was a series of several bizarre events. On November 7, 2008, Walters and around 20 of her group engaged in a ritual tea ceremony and vision quest, with the tea in this case being Ayahuasca, which is a traditional Amazon brew laced with a powerful South American hallucinogenic drug. The zonked out Walters then allegedly stayed with friends for a few days before stumbling back on her way home on the 11th. She would next appear the following day, when a couple she didn’t know found her sleeping on their front porch, minus all of her clothes and with scratches all over her, as if she had been wandering through brush and thorns. When Walters was taken to the hospital and questioned about what had happened to her she would say nothing except that she believed she was being stalked by “demons.”
So far, so weird, and when she was released from the hospital she immediately checked into a hotel and called her parents and rambled and ranted about people being out to get her. She seemed to be extremely on edge and paranoid, and breathlessly requested that her parents fax her a copy of her driver’s license and social security card so that she could get into her bank account, which her parents did on November 14th. Then, at around 1 PM, Walters suddenly left the hotel in broad daylight wearing nothing but pajamas and slippers and stumbled off, arriving at a copy center at around 3:30 PM, mumbling something about losing her wallet. She would be described as looking tired, haggard, and disheveled, constantly looking around and demanding in a panic to know where the Department of Motor Vehicles was, and the clerk pointed her in the right direction.
Although it was the middle of the day and the DMV was less than one mile away, Walters never made it there, and indeed she has never been seen again. An extensive investigation into the disappearance has turned up no leads, no witnesses who saw anything suspicious, and there has been not a single clue as to what became of Walters. She seems to have simply ceased to exist. One private investigator from Indiana working the case named Thomas Lauth has said of the strange disappearance:
This has been one of the most baffling cases I have seen in my twenty-years of investigating missing person cases throughout this country. With the mysterious disappearances of so many women in Humboldt County, we can never rule out there may be a serial killer operating in the Humboldt County area, but we are always hopeful someone who knows something will come forward and provide these families some peace that only answers will bring.
All of these mysterious disappearances we have looked at so far are part of what have come to be called the “Humboldt Missing 5,” a series of five mysterious vanishings that happened right in the same area over the course of a couple of decades, and unfortunately it has not always ended well. In 2013, 23-year-old Danielle Bertolini decided to start a new life in the wake of the tragic death of her child and moved from Bangor, Maine out to Humboldt County. In early 2014, Bertolini suddenly vanished without a trace, and it came to light that she had hitched a ride near the town of Fortuna with a 43-year-old local sawmill worker named James Eugene Jones, who was the last to have seen her and who claimed to have dropped her off near her home, adamant that he had nothing to do with her being missing.
Oddly, it came to light that Jones had been dating and living with yet another woman who had disappeared just a week earlier, 37-year-old divorced mother of two Sheila Franks. According to Jones, one evening Sheila had suddenly gone outside to go for a walk and had kept on walking right off the face of the earth. Considering Jones was the last to have seen both of the women police were understandably suspicious, but they could find no evidence at all that he had actually done anything wrong, besides rumors that he had been abusive towards Franks.
Police couldn’t hold him, although they kept him as a person of interest. Making the whole thing even more bizarre is that Sheila’s sister Melissa claimed that Jones had actually been an acquaintance of one of the other missing people we have already looked at, Karen Mitchell. She was even more suspicious when she found a bunch of her sister’s belongings placed in storage by Jones, of which she would say:
In the storage unit I found my sister’s purse that had money, credit cards, it had a birth certificate, marriage certificate, everything that my sister had that was important to her, she wouldn’t up and disappear and not take money at least. She wouldn’t have left her boys. She wouldn’t have just disappeared. Not willingly.
Putting a rather grim punctuation on all of this is that on March 9, 2015, a skull was discovered along the Eel River that turned out to be that of the missing Bertolini. Yet even then there was absolutely nothing to link Jones to the death and he has never been arrested or charged with any of it, despite Melissa’s insistence that he is guilty for at least two of the vanishings of the Humboldt 5. Police have not found any evidence that they are even connected at all, and it all remains a baffling unsolved mystery, with frequent pleas for any information on these disappearances from law enforcement and family.
There is little to go on in these cases, just the occasional tantalizing lead that goes nowhere and suspect that cannot be reliably connected. Indeed even these vanishings and deaths cannot really be connected, leaving us to wonder just what is going on, although theories have swirled. Perhaps it is a serial killer in operation in the region, or that these poor women just fell in with the wrong crowd. It could also possibly have something to do with the region’s historical prominence in the illegal marijuana game, with many heavily guarded farms lurking out in these wilds. More outlandish theories point to UFOs or even Bigfoot, which are both frequently sighted in the area, but in the end no one knows. These young women have simply vanished, and until we learn more we are doomed to wonder why and how.