There are places in this world which seem to harbor ominous secrets and reverberate with the echoes of a dark history. Here unsolved mysteries, vanishings, and deaths haunt the landscape and hold evasive clues that continue to perplex and baffle. One such location is a stretch of rough wilderness and rugged mountains just outside of the city of Los Angeles, California, in the United States, which was ground zero for a series of bizarre, chilling vanishings of young children that have remained unsolved to this day and continue to stir discussion and debate.
Sprawled out within Los Angeles County, in southern California, are the San Gabriel Mountains and Sierra Pelona Mountains, and within this vast expanse of wilderness, not far from the urban jungle of nearby Los Angeles, lies the Angeles National Forest. At a total of 700,176 acres (1,094.0 sq mi; 2,833.5 km2) in area, the forest encompasses large portions of protected land that remain in remarkably pristine condition considering its proximity to such a densely populated mega polis as Los Angeles. It is a popular recreation destination for people from all over the region, and is well-known for its rugged, unspoiled wilderness. The Angeles National Forest is also known for a sinister string of vanishings that have for years lurked behind the veneer of this natural splendor.
In August of 1956, 11-year-old Brenda Howell was visiting the area from North Carolina to see her sister, and she made fast friends with a neighborhood boy, 13-year-old Donald Lee Baker. On the morning August 6, 1956, the two kids set out on their bicycles to go exploring in the San Gabriel Canyon area, near Glendora Mountain Road. They would never be seen or heard from again. When the two children did not return there was a massive search launched of the area by a joint force of police and Navy personnel, as well as hundreds of volunteers, who scoured the wilderness looking for any sign of them, but after days of searching they were only able to recover Brenda’s bicycle and Donald’s jacket, which were found near Morris Dam, around a quarter-mile away from where they had last been seen. Two months later Donald’s bicycle would also be found at Glendora Elementary School, where a student claimed to have found it in the forest not long after the two had vanished. No further evidence was ever found, and it was as if they had simply vanished into thin air.
The following year, in the spring of 1957, there would be another baffling disappearance in the area. On March 23, 1957, Eldon Bowman and his brother-in-law Gordon Wicks were taking a hike in the Arroyo Seco in Altadena, California, along with their young children, the oldest of who was 8-year-old Tommy Bowman. At some point during the hike, Tommy ran ahead and passed out of sight around a bend, but when the rest rounded the same bend just moments later the boy was nowhere to be seen. Indeed, he has not been seen since.
The family at first assumed that he must be nearby, as he had just been there and their home was only around a mile away, but calling out his name got no response and the authorities were soon notified. Search parties quickly converged upon the area and it was thought that Tommy could not have gotten far and would soon be located, but as the search stretched into a week and over, utilizing ground personnel, aircraft, and canine units, no sign of Tommy Bowman could be found. He was just gone, and it was as if he had stepped off the face of the earth, leaving police utterly baffled. The only possible clue in the case came 2 weeks after the inexplicable vanishing, when an eerie anonymous letter arrived at the Bowman family home claiming that the boy was still alive and in the company of an unidentified adult male, and yet another letter would say that he was living in Oklahoma, but it is unclear if these were genuine leads or not, and they ultimately led absolutely nowhere. Tommy Bowman has never been found.
The next child to vanish in the forest was 6-year-old Bruce Howard Kremen, who was on a camping trip with the YMCA along with a large group comprised of 80 other children and adults in the Buckhorn Flat in the Angeles National Forest. On July 12, 1960, Bruce was allegedly hiking with some other children and an adult supervisor around 300 yards from camp when he became tired and was sent back to rest at camp, which was still within site. When the boy had just about reached the camp, the supervisor turned to continue on with the other kids, but Bruce never did reach his destination. When it was realized that he was missing just minutes later, extensive searches were carried out by the group, who would then be joined by police and volunteers, but no sign of him was found. Authorities at the time believed that Bruce had gotten lost in the woods and met with some form of danger, as the terrain was was perilous with its frequent cliffs and chasms, but no one knew for sure and his body was never found.
These cases would remain complete enigmas, with no new leads or evidence turned up until March 6, 1970, when a man named Mack Ray Edwards, 51, walked into the Los Angeles Police Department’s Foothill Station and calmly confessed to sexually abusing and killing 6 children between the years of 1953 and 1970, with two of the names he mentioned being the missing Brenda Howell and Donald Baker. When startled police saw an end to these long cold cases, they asked Edwards to take them to where he had stashed the bodies, which he agreed to. However, when he directed them to the site, off Mount Baldy Road, there was no sign that any bodies had ever been there at all, and he would not be charged with the disappearances of Brenda and Donald.
Nevertheless, Edwards was found to have been a serial molester of children, and would eventually be convicted for three of the murders he was accused of, those of Gary Rochet, Donald Allen Todd, and Stella Darlene Nolan, and sentenced to death, but he was suspected of being responsible for other disappearances and deaths as well, including Brenda Howell, Donald Baker, Tommy Bowman, and Howard Kremen, among others. Indeed, during his trial and while in prison Edwards openly and persistently claimed that he was behind all of these, and often boasted that he had killed up to 18 children across Los Angeles County, where he operated heavy-equipment as a highway construction worker. Unfortunately there was no evidence to connect him to any of these, and he would kill himself in his cell on Death Row in San Quentin Prison by hanging himself with a power cord before he could ever be tried for any of them. Bizarrely, not long before his suicide, Edwards penned a letter recanting much of these confessions, instead blaming the deaths on a mysterious individual he called “Billy the Cripple,” but authorities dismissed this anti-confession as the rantings of a troubled mind.
Edwards’ death was not the end of the investigation for the many people, both with the police department and independent researchers, who firmly believe in light of the evidence that he was responsible for the mysterious vanishings of Howell, Baker, Bowman, and Kremer, and they continue to research it. Although these cases remain officially open, and are occasionally pursued with renewed interest, the bodies of Brenda Howell, Donald Baker, Tommy Bowman, and Howard Kremen have never been found, and their disappearances remain unsolved.
Were the strange vanishings at the Angeles National Forest the doing of Mack Ray Edwards? Was it someone else? Or did these kids just get lost and succumb to the elements and the many natural perils of the area? Was it something else entirely? What happened to these children? Whatever the case may be, it is very peculiar that they went missing so completely in such a short span of time. In some of these cases, such as those of Bowman and Kremer, the victims were out of sight for mere minutes, yet were unable to be located despite immediate intensive search efforts. If this was the work of Edwards, then he was very good at what he did to so decisively time his crimes and abduct these children practically in full view of witnesses. Perhaps in time we will have the answers to what became of these lost children, but until then they will continue to haunt the annals of strange, unresolved missing person cases, and the Angeles National Forest will keep its dark secrets close.