"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, March 4, 2019

Disappearance in the Desert: The Walker/Martens Mystery

"New York Daily News," February 17, 1952, via Newspapers.com


Some time ago, I wrote about a 1924 case involving two Royal Air Force pilots who landed their plane in the middle of an Iraqi desert...and mysteriously disappeared. A somewhat similar case, forgotten today, but arguably even more baffling, occurred in Arizona in 1951.

Klaus Martens and June Marajane Walker made an attractive-looking couple. The handsome 28-year-old Martens was a combat intelligence veteran of WWII. After the war, he obtained a well-paying job as a salesman for the Orrin W. Fox Company in Pasadena, a firm which specialized in selling diesel equipment. He was a highly intelligent, well-educated man with suave manners and Continental charm. He was a member of the Junior Chamber of Commerce and California National Guard, and moved in the Golden State's best social circles.

Pretty 26-year-old June was a resident student nurse at Pasadena Hospital. In July 1951, the pair had been dating for three months. Martens' feelings towards June are unrecorded, but it's clear that Miss Walker, at least, was deeply smitten. A friend quoted her as saying that Martens had yet to speak to her of marriage, "and I have no right to expect that he will, but if I ever do get married, it will be to a man like Klaus Martens." It would not be surprising that Martens never hinted of wedlock, considering that he was still legally married to Nina Hess, the daughter of a prominent Los Angeles attorney, although he and his wife were in the process of divorce.

On Sunday, July 15, Martens, a commercially licensed pilot who had logged about 400 air hours, rented a two-plane Cessna 140 from the AMVETS Flight School. He planned to go to Blythe for a business meeting, a flight of about 200 miles. Accompanying him was June Walker. It would be the first time the pair had taken a flight together. For whatever reason, Martens did not file a flight plan before they took off from East Los Angeles Airport.  The weather was good, and the flight expected to be uneventful.

When their plane failed to arrive at its destination, a search was launched of their assumed route, without any sign of the couple or their plane. No clue was found to the mystery until August 1, when a ranger from the Arizona Fish and Game Department came across the Cessna 140. It was in the middle of the desert, about 50 miles southeast of Yuma, Arizona, a waterless wasteland where the summer temperatures often went over 120 degrees. The plane was over 100 miles southeast of the couple's destination. This area, a Army practice bombing range, had not been included in the search.

Site where the plane was found.  "Yuma Sun," July 31, 1952


The plane was in good working order, and gas remained in the tank. A note in Martens' writing was found inside reading, "5:45 a.m. Monday. Started walking. Heding[sic] due west on foot." No explanation was given for why he had landed where he did. An arrow had been drawn on the ground pointing to the west, in the direction of the Mexican desert. Two sets of footprints went from the plane for a distance of about three miles. Then they abruptly stopped.

The search for the missing pair was transferred to this area, but everyone, at this point, assumed they were recovering bodies, not attempting a rescue. No one without food or water could possibly survive in the broiling desert for more than a day or two. But here the puzzle deepened. The couple was nowhere to be found. The most intensive search effort the Arizona border country had ever seen produced exactly nothing.

"New York Daily News," February 17, 1952


The more authorities looked into the dual disappearance, the more questions they had. Why did Martens land where he did? The town of Wellton was just a ten-minute flight away from where the plane was found. The path of the couple's footprints showed that they walked across a plainly-marked road leading to Wellton. Why did they ignore this clear route to help and safety, instead choosing to go off into the uninhabited desert? The main east-west highway crossing Arizona was only 30 miles from where the plane landed, something Klaus must have seen from the air. Why was that obvious landing site rejected by him as well? Considering that Klaus had a map and compass, (which he had inexplicably left behind in the plane,) how did the couple get so far off their intended flight path? Considering the plane's radio was in perfect working order, why did Martens not send any messages?

Why did searchers not find any clothing or other objects dropped along their trail?  According to experienced desert trackers, no one lost in the wasteland failed to shed clothing along the way.  Why were there no signs of activity around the plane?  It was estimated that they had landed about mid-afternoon, but there was no sign of the pair taking shelter from the broiling midday sun in the shade of the airplane.

Most importantly, where were they?

The inability to make any sense of the mystery brought forth any number of theories. One Arizona criminologist pointed out that the area where the couple disappeared was a notorious haunt for outlaws and drug smugglers from Mexico. He proposed that smugglers or spies came across the duo and murdered them to avoid being detected by American authorities. Others, such as the missing girl's mother, maintained that Martens and Walker were still alive and living in either Mexico or Martens' native land of Germany.  (Martens' father --who sired him out of wedlock--still lived in Germany.)

However, going against the theory of a romantic elopement was that, according to Klaus' mother, he wanted his wife back. Shortly before he disappeared, he begged Nina for a reconciliation, an offer his wife had seriously considered. (Klaus had actually first asked Nina to accompany him on the ill-starred flight to Blythe, but she declined. Only then did he ask June to come with him.) Perhaps, some suggested, the couple had gone into hiding because they were doing intelligence work for the U.S. government?  Or--said others--was Martens actually a Communist agent?

This last theory was perhaps not as outlandish as you might think.  Klaus' father, a Prussian baron, had been a prominent Nazi, who, after the war, threw in his lot with the East German Communists.  (The old boy clearly knew how to pick 'em.)  According to a close friend of Klaus, father and son were still in communication.  In fact, according to this friend, a few days before Klaus disappeared, he received a letter from his father that made him "very happy."  It might be a great pity that we do not know the contents of this message.

In 1955, reports that were considered to be from reliable sources told of seeing a couple matching the missing pair's description in Mexico.  They were described as keeping to themselves, having little to do with other Americans.  No one could ever say how much--or how little--validity to give these alleged sightings.

Adding to the general air of strangeness were some peculiar comments attributed to the Yuma sheriff, Jim Washum. He pointed out the many odd things about the couple's disappearance, making it clear that nothing about the case made any sense to him. He even contacted the Los Angeles county sheriff's office asking them to investigate the backgrounds of the missing duo, saying "I think someone's making a goat out of me." He told reporters that he didn't think the couple had died in the desert. "They may be out there, but I have my own ideas," he added enigmatically. He also claimed that Klaus and June's footprints heading westward had ended near what seemed to be wheel marks of a plane, as if they had been picked up by another craft.

Later, the sheriff denied having said any of these things. Was he speaking the truth, meaning that reporters put false words into his mouth? Or did someone order Washum to disavow his startling words? Who knows?

Periodic searches were made of the desert for at least three years after the couple's disappearance, but, to date, no trace of them has been found. That enigmatic note which explained nothing, and those mysteriously truncated footprints proved to be the last anyone would ever hear from June Walker or Klaus Martens.

There was one curious footnote to this riddle. In November 1952, Roscoe Hess, Klaus' father-in-law, was appointed trustee for some property belonging to Martens. When the Probate Judge asked why a petition to declare Martens legally dead had not been filed, Hess replied, "Suspicious circumstances surrounding the case have made this inadvisable."

[Note:  In July 1959, it was reported that Hess finally began proceedings to have Martens declared deceased.  I do not know when, or if, June Walker's family ever submitted a similar petition.]

3 comments:

  1. I reckon this is my favorite Monday post of yours. LOVE IT.

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  2. This is a good one, all right. If Martens's object was to escape somehow (picked up by another aeroplane, as implied by the sheriff), why did he leave a note explaining where he and June were going? And surely there were other ways of disappearing, especially for a man or couple of whom nothing illicit was suspected. All very strange, and heartbreaking for the families involved.

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  3. Could they have been picked up by a car on the road to Wellton, with someone else making the remainder of the footprints to give the impression that Martens and Walker had continued on into the desert?

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