Dubbed the "Death Valley Germans" by the media, a family of 4 German tourists went missing in Death Valley National Park on the California-Nevada border on July 23, 2996. An intense search and rescue operation took place in the months following their disappearance, but it was called off when no trace of the family was found.
In 2009, the remains of the adult members of the family, who had been presumed dead, were found by hikers. The bodies of the children have never been found.
The hiker who found the bodies, Tom Mahood, was hiking to search for evidence of the fate of the tourists. He speculated that while vacationing in the area, the family attempted to take a shortcut to Yosemite National Park through a valley, one that was far more difficult to traverse than it looked, and they ended up making a string of reasonable, but dangerous, decisions that lead to their death.
The family arrived in the United States in early July. The group consisted of 34-year-old architect Egbert Rimkus, his 11-year-old son Georg Weber, his 27-year-old girlfriend Cornelia Meyer, and her 4-year-old son Max. They were from Dresden, Germany.
They traveled to Death Valley on July 22 and purchased a booklet from the Visitor's Center, and spent their first night camping out in a canyon. The next day, they continued to various visitor sites, and Cornelia had signed the names of all 4 family members on a visitor's log, which helped track their whereabouts, later.
The family had arranged to travel back to Germany on July 27, but never arrived at the airport. Egbert's ex-wife became concerned when he and her son didn't return from their vacation, and began to look into what may have happened to them. On July 31, the travel agency that had arranged the family's vacation contacted the car rental agency, she received chilling news: the car had never been returned. The family was officially reported missing.
Though reported missing in late July, there is not much information about what was done after the initial report. The story picks back up on October 21, 1996, when Death Valley National Park Ranger Dave Brenner, aboard a military helicopter searching for drug manufacturing labs from his aerial view, saw something strange. He spotted a vehicle in the wash of Anvil Canyon. This was very strange for a variety of reasons.
The first and foremost reason being that there was no actual road down Anvil Canyon. There used to be, but in October of 1994, Anvil Canyon was designated as part of an official wilderness area, and vehicle use was no longer permitted. And stranger yet, Brenner knew that some people still drove in the area, but it could really only be traveled by a competent four wheel drive vehicle, though still illegal. However, the car he spotted was just a standard passenger van, which really couldn't be expected to have gotten that far in the canyon... but there is sat.
Brenner's helicopter landed and he inspected, finding it was a 1996 Plymouth Voyager with California plates, and covered with enough dust that he assumed it had been there for quite a while. Th van was stuck, locked, with no sign of the owner. He took down the license plate and reported it back to headquarters.
The plates were checked, and it was quickly traced back to a rental car that was reported stolen on September 10, 1996. A group of German tourists had rented it, but when it was due back on July 26, they never showed. The agency had to wait 30 days to report it stolen, and once those 30 days were up, it was reported.
However, when the police checked the names of the car renters, an INTERPOL alert came up on them. They had been reported missing in Germany back in July. They found that the family had arrived on July 8 and were due to return on July 27th, but they never got on that flight. In fact, there was not evidence they ever left the country.
The police tracked the family's move from their U.S. vacation. Their first week, they stayed in Southern California, doing basic tourist activities. They traveled the California coast, and then went to Las Vegas. Egbert had faxed his ex-wife, asking for additional funds to be sent to them on July 21, but they were never sent. On July 22, they checked out of their Vegas hotel for Death Valley.
It was becoming evident that something must have happened to the family in Death Valley. On October 22, a Death Valley National Park (DVNP) investigator named Eric Inman performed an initial search. Some food wrappers were found near the van, but no footprints other than Brenner's from the day before. Once a sheriff arrived, Inman was able to open the van's doors and examine what was inside of it. Some of the contents helped to determine their last moves, like souvenirs, while others confirmed what everyone already knew: they didn't mean to not return. Inside of the van, luggage and clothing were found, along with their bank cards, film, and a tent.
The van was finally removed from the place it sat in for months on October 23. The police checked visitor logs to try to track their final moves.
The first search began on October 23 at 10 AM. The China Lake Mountain Rescue Group, nine trackers from the Indian Wells Valley Search and Rescue Group and 8 mounted units from the Kern County Sheriff's Mounted Search and Rescue team gathered to begin the search for the missing family. The only clue found was a Bud Ice beer bottle, which matched the ones from the car, about 1.7 miles away from the van.
The second day of the search looked in a more expansive area, but nothing was found. On day 3, the search expanded even further, but to no avail. Day 4, October 26th, was the last day. They searched everywhere they felt the family could have feasibly went, but besides the beer bottle on the first day, no clues were found. The searched was called off.
The search was performed by some of the most competent searchers in the region and it covered a truly massive area. However, they were at a disadvantage having started months after they originally went missing. Even had they found something, there was almost no way that they would have found them alive.
In the years following, some rescue teams and some other private groups have gone out to search, but to no avail. Emmett Harder, who was extremely familiar with the area, conducted several searches as well. He was granted access by police to review photos, and was able to recognize one of their sunset photos as Hanaupah Canyon, and was thus able to place them there on the night of July 22.
Also included in the investigation was a review of the environmental conditions at the time. On July 22, the high temperature was 123 F, with highs of 124 of July 23 and July 24. The lows were in the 90s. Though this didn't help to find the family, it did help put some context around their disappearance, and presumed death. If they were lost in those temperatures with no water or shelter, it was only a matter of time before they would succumb to it.
A THEORY, AND A DISCOVERY
It is at this point that I have realized that the vast majority of information I've found from this article is firsthand from Tom Mahood, the man who would eventually find the bodies of Egbert and Cornelia. Meaning, this next section will be super interesting because it literally shows how his theory resulted in the location of the bodies. Tom had spent a lot of time getting up to speed on the case, and ultimately, decided he wanted to find out what happened to them.
He explains that he believes people can wind up in peril, in a world of hurt, without actually making any terrible decisions... just a string of not great, but reasonable, decisions. He says that some may believe that traveling in such heat in a passenger van is inherently foolish, but explains that Death Valley has a very high attraction for European visitors, and many people do what they did without incident, so he does not consider the entire essence of the trip unreasonable.
In concocting his theory, he looked at the big picture: Their rental was due back in LA on the 26th, they were going back to Germany on the 27th, and they were likely low on funds, given the request for more money to his ex-wife. If he assumed their ultimate goal was to get to Yosemite, he could understand the next decisions they would make.
They knew the temperatures would be reaching 124, and thus they couldn't camp in the main valley, but if they were running out of money, they couldn't rent a room, either. Thus, they may have decided to camp up a side canyon, which was supported by Harder's though that they stayed in Hanaupah Canyon. To have made it there meant they had successfully navigated many miles of dirt road, perhaps lowering their guard to the dangers. Their confidence high, their funds low, they likely felt they had just enough time to make it to Yosemite before having to head back home.
The next morning, he assumes they left early to beat the heat. They left a note in the visitor's log, another reasonable choice. They continue driving, but would begin to hit some challenging roads. Because they had put so much time into arriving there, they would have felt pressure to continue on, even if it became a bit hazardous. And, as they approached Mengel Pass, they would have noticed their car could not continue on such terrain. They would have to turn back.
Obviously, this is all just theory from someone who spent a lot of time learning about the case, but it all checks out. He noted that it would take at least 2 hours to go back in the direction they came, on terrible portions of road they'd already traversed. They were racing against the clock to make it to Yosemite and back to get on their plane. And so, when they saw in their pamphlet that there was a shorter route through Anvil Canyon, they took it. Though some had believed their turn was a mistake, Tom believes it was intentional, as the intersection is very obvious. The first few miles were easy driving, confirming their choice to change route. For a while.
But soon, Tom said, he would have discovered he wasn't really driving on road. He was driving in sand, needing to keep up speed as to not lose momentum. If he stopped, he might have a hard time going again. So he drove. But after 2 miles of travel, it appeared they misjudged a fork in the road and ended up on the right side of a tributary. Tom says he believes they realized this and tried to cut back, but got stuck. And that's where their car would stay.
"At this point they entered into a survival situation, but may not have fully appreciated that fact," Tom says. At their elevation, temperatures were about 104. At this point, they likely panicked about getting the car out so they could return it in time, instead of fearing for their lives.
The one piece of evidence found suggested that Egbert likely walked 1.7 miles down the canyon and drank a beer while searching for help. The area he sat had a good vantage point, and thus was a good place to figure out their course of action. They were stranded and needed help to make it back home in time. So what could they do? They looked at their maps. Ballarat was miles away, and they had no idea if anyone was there. Furnace Creek, where they checked in, was way too far north. Badwater Road had some traffic, but the heat would be lethal.
Tom explains that the Germans were new to the desert and unfamiliar with the U.S. in its entirety. So when he saw on the maps the China Lake Naval Weapons Center only about 8 or 9 miles away, he may assume that, like military installations in Europe, they would be fenced in and patrolled by armed personnel who could help them. From the resting spot he sat and had a beer in, he could see what looked like a traversable path.
Tom says, "of course, we who have seen US desert miliitary installations know that there are seldom fences and few, if any, patrols." But how would someone from Germany know that? (Or urban Ohio? Because I did not know this.)
Tom assumes that he headed back to the van with his plan, stayed the night in the van, as evidenced by some holes dug with fecal matter in them, and the next morning, they would lock the van and head toward the Naval Weapons Center in search of rescue. Sadly, they were only about 4 miles away from Stone Cabin, which had shelter and water, but no immediate means of extraction for the car. Likely, the pressures they felt to meet their travel plans felt more important than their survival at that point, not understanding the hazards ahead, and they decided to move for extraction as opposed to safety.
Coupled with the fact that everything in the direction of the Stone House and within Anvil Canyon had been searched, and the direction of the Naval Weapons Center had not been (because why would they have turned south?), Tom was confident that traveling that direction would lead him to the bodies.
Tom decided to search with another hiker, Les Walker. On their first trip to their planned campsite, they realized just how rough the terrain was, and how little water was available. Les found a few things, including pages from a day planner and a wine bottle, as Tom began to get frustrated at his not finding anything, but he continued to search his quadrant. Until:
"Tom, we have some bones here," he heard over the radio. When Tom got to Les's area, he had found a wallet with ID cards belonging to Cornelia Meyer. There was nothing pointing to Egbert or the kids. Tom mentioned that, to have gotten to the area they were in, they would have had to hike 8 or 9 miles through extremely rough terrain in their street shoes in the July heat. They were tough. They wanted to survive.
Les and Tom took the ID cards to prove to police that they had found something without messing with the remains.
Next followed police interviews, new searches and DNA tests, all of which can be read about on Tom's website. But ultimately, though DNA was only able to be recovered from Egbert, authorities were fairly certain the bones belonged to both Egbert and Cornelia. To this day, the remains of the 2 children have not been found.
This case always baffled me, but reading about the ultimate retrieval of the remains made this case all the more insane. Skilled search and rescuers searched far and wide and weren't able to find anything. Tom Mahood, however, didn't just think "what is the most reasonable thing to do" and search in the direction that took him, he thought, "what would I think is the most reasonable thing to do given the pressures they were under?" He factored in their desire to see Yosemite, their need to return on time, and the fact that they may have been strapped for cash. He thought about how easy it is to not realize how much danger you are in out of confidence, and even thought about how a European might interpret a military base on a map.
When you're thinking from the position of yourself, a person with knowledge of the area and knowledge of the country, it seems insane to have driven so far off course, and then to walk in the completely opposite direction of shelter and water, what they needed. But when you're thinking from the position of someone new to the area with little knowledge of the country, who has no idea what type of danger they are in and believes the most pressing issue is to get the car returned on time, what is "reasonable" shifts. Overall: they wanted to see Yosemite on a budget, and they simply did not realize how dangerous of a situation they had landed in.
I cannot imagine their last day. Hiking though the blazing heat and horrid terrain with 2 children, low on water and potentially beginning to realize and appreciate the extreme danger they were in. Knowing they and their children might die. Realizing had they just walked the other direction they'd be alive. The weight of their string of reasonable decisions slowly becoming more and more unreasonable. Dying of heat and dehydration where they wouldn't be found for another 13 years. It is horrifying.
Tom Mahood is a really cool guy, and to not only be skilled at actual search and rescue, but to be skilled at understanding humans in a way that mentally leads you to their thought process, which then physically leads you to their remains, is so amazing. The reference below is the hub of his entire story, broken up into various parts.
24 years ago today, a family likely set out to find help to extract their car, not knowing what they really needed was help surviving the conditions of Death Valley. This is a story that so clearly shows that our confidence can get the best of us, and that terrible decisions don't need to be made in order to end up in a terrible spot... a string of uninformed ones, from not being able to see the whole picture, can land you in a world of hurt.
I'm glad they were found, and I hope their story serves as a reminder and warning for people to look at the big picture when making decisions. Your life may depend on it.