George Lorius, an executive with a coal and ice company in East St. Louis, Illinois, was relatively wealthy, at least from the perspective of the Great Depression. On May 20, 1935, George, his wife Laura, and their good friends Albert and Tillie Heberer checked into the Vaughn Hotel in Vaughn, New Mexico. The next morning, they had breakfast in the hotel’s café, checked out, and simply vanished.
Sharing America’s story is what we do at Jim Hinckley’s America. In today’s post I will be sharing a Route 66 story that has haunted me since learning about this mysterious disappearance during the research phase of the book Murder and Mayhem on the Main Street of America: Tales From Bloody 66.
George, Laura, Albert and Tillie often traveled together on weekend jaunts and vacations. In late spring 1935, the inseparable friends began planning an epic adventure. Their destination was sunny San Diego. But there was a planned detour to see the new Boulder Dam on the Colorado River north of Kingman, Arizona.
George, known for an attention to detail, mapped the trip carefully. And he had his prized 1929 Nash sedan with twin ignition serviced and inspecteed for the trip. He even outfitted it with new tires, four on the ground and the spare.
The couples headed west on Route 66. At stops in Miami, Oklahoma and Tucumcari, New Mexico they sent picture post cards home to family. Then they made the ill-fated detour to Vaughn in the hope of finding a friend that had moved from St. Louis several years prior.
On May 21, they checked out of the Vaughn Hotel in Vaughn. According to an FBI interview, George told the hotel clerk that they were heading west to Santa Fe and then to Gallup. They were never seen again.
The Search Begins
After a planned phone call from Santa Fe was never made, concerned family in East St. Louis reported them missing. With two weeks almost the entire state police department was involved with the investigation. Then the FBI joined the search, and according to some sources, eventually created a file that was nearly six feet high.
New Mexico governor Clyde Tingley, worried about news stories’ potential negative impact on tourism, posted a $1,000 reward for information. He also authorized the unprecedented use of National Guard troops to assist law enforcement agencies in the search.
Nearly two weeks after their disappearance, when some of the couple’s luggage was found in a smoldering pile east of the Nob Hill area of Albuquerque, more than a hundred residents volunteered to scour the area along Route 66 as far east as Tijeras Canyon. A week later more luggage and identifiable personal belongings was found dumped along a highway near El Paso, Texas. This sparked an intense search along the Mexican border. Then Lorius’s badly damaged Nash was found abandoned on a street in Dallas, Texas.
The Albuquerque FBI Field Office assigned Albert Raymond Gere to the case. Examination of the car gave no indication of a struggle or violence, but Gere did find receipts and a notebook with odometer readings in Lorius’s handwriting. The last entry and receipt was from a service station in Socorro, New Mexico, dated May 23.
Agents investigated every service station from Vaughn to Santa Rosa, along Route 66 into Albuquerque and south to Socorro. Only one station, the last recorded stop in Socorro, provided positive identification. Vague clues gave hints of the course that Lorius had followed after leaving Vaughn. Postcards mailed to family indicated that they had followed Route 66 north from Santa Rosa, and through Santa Fe to Albuquerque.
“Came through this place in a.m. No trouble of any kind.” This was the note jotted on one of the cards with a picture of Starvation Peak near Las Vegas, New Mexico. It was postmarked May 22 in Albuquerque. But why had George Lorius not called family from Santa Fe as planned?
More than a month after their disappearance, traveler’s checks belonging to George Lorius with forged signatures turned up in Vaughn. Over the course of coming weeks throughout New Mexico and in Texas more checks were discovered.
Acting on a hunch, Gere expanded the investigation along the direct highway from Vaughn to Socorro and then west along Route 66 to the Arizona state line. The last confirmed lead came from a gas station owner in Quemado, a town on the west side of the state, who identified the missing travelers from a photograph. Then the trail went cold.
The Mystery Deepens
During the investigation, and in the years that followed, thousands of leads were checked. Responding to a news story about the disappearance, Josephine Ward, a clerk at the Sturges Hotel in Albuquerque, contacted the FBI. She claimed that the couples had arrived at the hotel late on the afternoon of May 23, inquired about rooms, rates, and availability, and then thanked her and said that they had decided to drive on to Gallup.
There were also claims of sightings in Madrid, Grants, Gallup, and Carrizozo, New Mexico. Still, by July 4, with nothing new to report, the disappearances faded from newspapers. The few articles published in the following months often contained erroneous and conflicting information that hindered the search. and by the end of the year only family and Agent Gere were still looking for answers.
Upon his retirement, in an interview published in the Socorro Chieftain on July 31, 1947, Gere said that his biggest regret was his inability to solve the Lorius and Heberer disappearances. He suggested that amateur sleuths look along US 60 around Quemado. He said that the case “has consumed 30 FBI volumes, seven years of my time as an agent, and countless pages of newspaper and magazine type. There have been hundreds of theories about what happened and where it happened to George and Laura Lorius, and Albert and Tillie Heberer, but I am convinced they were murdered and their bodies hidden within 25 miles west of Quemado, along US 60.”
There is a disturbing backstory to the disappearance of George Lorius, his wife, and their friends. Between 1934 and 1939, there were several nearly identical cases involving the disappearance of couples traveling along Route 66 in New Mexico and Arizona.
Years later, one more tantalizing clue about the couples disappearance was uncovered. Walter Duke, an Albuquerque real estate agent and distant relative of Lorius who spent his life investigating the case, held to the belief that the couples met their fate in Vaughn. He said that in 1963, an anonymous woman sent him a letter claiming that she had worked as a waitress at the café in the Vaughn Hotel in May of 1935. She also said that she was present when the victims were taken into the basement of the café and murdered. In 2010, the Albuquerque Journal published a two-part feature on the case and the families’ ongoing search for answers.
The Lorius-Heberer disappearances remain unsolved to this day. Their remains have never been found or identified. Their fate is unknown.
What do you think happened to them? Let me know your thoughts and theories in the comments below. And don’t forget to subscribe to my blog for more American stories. Thanks for reading and for sharing!