Shimmering heat waves radiated from the endless desert floor as Allura McGehay sped along the I-40 Freeway, ten miles east of Barstow, California. By midmorning, when she steered her green Dodge Dakota pickup onto the remote Nebo Street off-ramp, outside temperatures had already skyrocketed above the 100-degree mark.
The attractive young woman drove about a half mile north on the two-lane road, approaching a round, wide-sweeping arc that would take her once more in an easterly direction. She had routinely made the big right turn countless times in trips to the rustic village of Daggett, only four more miles from the curve.
Suddenly, directly in front of her, Allura caught sight of another car careening around the bend and speeding directly toward herâin her lane!
Driving in the vast Mojave Desert has always been dangerous. Grinding, high-speed collisions are often fatal. Getting stranded in the 25,000 square miles of emptiness could expose hapless victims to life-threatening temperatures reaching 120 degrees.
The region is heavily traveled by commuters from Southern California. Barstow, about ninety miles from Hollywood, is a dividing point with an important “Y” intersection. Gamblers and fun seekers heading for Las Vegas stay on Interstate 15, slanting slightly northeast. Other travelers bound for Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, and beyond veer directly east onto Interstate 40, which retraces much of old Route 66, the historic “Mother Road.” Songwriter Bobby Troup, paying tribute to the legendary two-lane artery in his popular 1946 song, “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66,” made mention of Barstow.
Allura had none of this on her mind as she turned off I-40, heading for the diminutive town of Daggett, which sits astride the original Route 66. A community of fewer than two hundred residents, plus another one thousand in the surrounding region, Daggett had seen better days. Its rusting and battered remnants sit silently baking in the desert, surrounded by miles of sand, sage, and creosote bush. First established in the late 1800s as a silver and borax mining center, Daggett had enjoyed a period of glory when the Santa Fe Railroad built tracks paralleling the Mother Road. Now skeletons of long-abandoned service stations mark former havens for travelers; fenced and boarded buildings stand empty, and weed-choked yards overflow with scabrous, dead vehicles. The unincorporated town still maintains a U.S. Post Office, staffed by one person. Allura had friends in one of the more pleasant sections of Daggett, and wanted to pay a visit on that sizzling Saturday morning, June 16, 2007.
The speeding car hurtling toward Allura's pickup didn't slow or swerve. She wrenched her steering wheel to the right, barely avoiding a disastrous head-on collision, and came to a heart-thudding halt. The jerk who forced her off the road never even bothered to stop.
Shaken and trembling, Allura struggled to catch her breath. Her pickup sat leaning to the right in the soft, sandy shoulder less than fifty yards from the portion of road marked as
66. After a few moments, when her pulse stopped pounding, she felt composed enough to continue on her way. With the engine still running, Allura pressed her foot on the accelerator, only to feel her rear tires spin in the sand. She gave it a little more gas, and gained nothing in forward momentum. Backing up proved equally futile. Two more attempts to escape only sank the wheels deeper into the desiccated earth.
Allura glanced around at the familiar terrain. Back toward Barstow, she could see a few buildings stretched across a military base in the far distance, separated from her by flat, scorched, boundless miles of sand and ubiquitous creosote bush. The opposite direction, toward Daggett, offered more of the same. In her forward view, Allura scanned an outcropping of tan-colored rolling hills stretching across the remote horizon. On a yonder slope, she could make out giant white letters decorating a hillside and spelling out
. They marked the site of a ghost town by that name.
Approximately twenty yards behind her vehicle, the desert was creased by a “wash,” a shallow, dry streambed for flash floods, no more than two feet deep and about twelve yards wide. A concrete bridge passed over it, completely indistinguishable due to the absence of side rails. Motorists don't even know they have driven over a bridge. The sandy ditch, which hadn't been wet in many months, was littered with sun-bleached detritus, including old tires, broken pieces of plywood, and plastic bottles. It could also be the home of rattlesnakes, coyotes, scorpions, and a myriad of other creatures Allura would prefer not to encounter.
Not yet panicked, but feeling a crawling sensation of concern, Allura weighed her options. First she flipped her cell phone open, only to see the message,
The intense, searing heat and scorching sun made the possibility of walking into Daggett a dangerous prospect, especially without any water to carry along. And a shapely young woman hiking alone in the desert could face other frightening or life-endangering perils.
Another possibility would be to hope that someone in the scant passing traffic might stop and offer assistance. But not every citizen of this region would be a Good Samaritan. Allura knew the chances of rape, or even worse, could not be ignored.
She glanced into her rearview mirror and felt her heart speed up again, trying to leap through her throat. A pickup truck slowed and came to a halt a few yards behind her. She could barely make out the features of the driver, a man with a shaved head, wearing a black pullover shirt.
As always, appearances can be deceiving. The pickup's driver, Christopher De Witt, a U.S. Marine dressed in civilian clothing, had nothing but the purest of motives, simply wanting to help. Allura felt the weight of the world lift when he smiled, gave her a friendly wave, stepped out of his vehicle, and walked up to her window.
“Look's like you're stuck,” he drawled. “Let's see if we can get you out of this pickle. When I give you the signal, ease down on the accelerator and I'll try pushing from behind. I can't do it with my truck, 'cause I would sink into this sand just like you did.”
Christopher centered himself at the rear of Allura's truck, facing backward with his hands in a position to lift the bed as much as he could. He yelled, “Go ahead.”
Allura gently pressed the floor pedal. The tires did nothing but send two rooster tails of sand and dust into the air on both sides of De Witt.
Within a few minutes, another Samaritan halted and offered to help. Robert LaFondâstocky, goateed, and shaved head, also wearing a black T-shirtâjoined Christopher in grunting, lifting, and pushing. Both men worked up a lather of perspiration with no positive results. They tried rocking the Dodge forward and backward, but it stubbornly remained in place like a recalcitrant mule. If anything, Allura's truck just embedded itself deeper in the sand.
“I think we need to pick up some rocks or sticks and put them in front of the rear tires,” Christopher suggested. Robert volunteered to see what he could find. A quick scan of the barren terrain showed a complete absence of any useful stones. He decided to extend his survey down into the gully, where rushing water of long ago might have uncovered rocks, boards, sticks, or anything that could be jammed under Allura's tires to help them gain traction.
The hot, blinding sun caused Robert to shade his eyes by using his hands as a visor. As he glanced about, he thought he saw the brilliant glint of something golden near the concrete wall of the low bridge. Taking a few steps closer, Robert felt a rush of horror grip his gut.
To the stunned young man, it appeared that a blackened human arm extended from the shadows under the bridge. The golden flash looked like it came from a wristwatch encircling the mummified wrist.
Clutched by a mixture of fear and dread, he couldn't force his legs to move any closer to the dreadful apparition. Spinning around, Robert raced back up to tell Christopher what he thought he had discovered.
As a combat veteran, having served in Iraq, De Witt had seen his share of dead bodies. The experience had not numbed his sensitivity, but looking at a corpse didn't send him reeling, as it would most people. Christopher ambled down the gentle slope, approached the spot described by Robert, and knew that they had indeed discovered the remains of a human being.
The body had obviously been exposed to desert heat for quite some time. Christopher couldn't even be certain about the deceased person's sex, but he thought it probably a woman due to the long blond hair and what looked like a tank top and bra wadded under the armpits.
She lay facedown in a tight fetal position with the legs cramped under the torso in a compressed kneeling posture. Flimsy shorts, once white but now darkly smudged, partially covered the posterior. The left arm extended out from under the bridge shadow, and a gold-colored wristwatch gleamed brightly in the sun. It contrasted sharply against the blackened skin. What was left of the fleshless face was turned toward the watch. The right arm, bent in a relaxed position, reclined on the dirt above the disheveled hair.
Decomposition had blackened every inch of the remaining flesh, while all fluids from her body had drained into the sand, darkening it beneath her.
Christopher trudged back up the rise and confirmed to Robert and Allura that they had found a dead person. LaFond had no interest in having another look, but Allura couldn't resist the terrible temptation to see for herself. Rather than descend into the gully, she walked back to the bridge, leaned over the edge far enough to spot the watch-bearing arm, and felt repulsion wash through her entire body. She made it back to her vehicle before giving in to nausea and throwing up.
Christopher popped his cell phone open. Unlike Allura's, his connected immediately. He called 911 to report the grisly discovery.
San Bernardino County Sheriff's deputy Doug Alexander pulled up to the scene a few minutes after eleven o' clock. The sun, approaching its midday zenith on that Saturday, June 16, 2007, seemed to sap out all of the oxygen from the air supply. As Alexander climbed out of his patrol car, Robert LaFond trotted over to describe what they had found. In his subsequent report, Alexander wrote,
I asked him to explain to me what was going on and he pointed to a green Dodge Dakota pickup truck which was stuck in the dirt shoulder on the east side of Nebo Street.
LaFond dutifully spieled out the events about seeing the body under the bridge and De Witt's verification that it was a human corpse.
The deputy took notes, thanked Robert LaFond, and spoke to Christopher Dewitt. His story complemented LaFond's. Alexander asked the men to show him the body. In typical cop speak language, he noted,
I left my marked sheriff's unit in the roadway with my emergency lights on, and walked to the east side of the roadway and over a small mound of dirt in a wash where I looked down and observed what I recognized as a deceased or dead body which appeared to be female.
Alexander immediately notified his watch commander, Corporal Marie Spain. She left the station in Barstow, accompanied by Deputy Gary Hart. Upon arrival at the bridge, Hart secured the entire perimeter with yellow crime scene tape. Spain notified the Homicide Division.